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Interview with Kelsey Crowe from Help Each Other Out on Empathy Etiquette

PeopleWeArePsychedAboutCityI remember clicking over to the Help Each Other Out website and welling up.  The hand stitched telephone with the shout for help on the site and then learning more about the mission left me pretty clear, I had to meet this person. Regular people offering small moments of grace to other regular people at times of crisis when most people freak out and move “stage left” moves me to my core.  Fast forward a few years later and Kelsey has become a personal inspiration, supporter of Psyched in San Francisco and friend.  I am always comping at the bit to find more ways to collaborate with this sage teacher and so we begin with this interview.  I hope you enjoy Help Each Other Out’s mission as much as I do. – Traci Ruble

Traci Ruble: Kelsey, I remember the first time I received an email about Help Each other Out, just the name of your team made me cry.  I long to be helped out in high stress times and so many of the psychotherapy clients I work with do too.  What is Help Each other Out and how did it get started?

Kelsey Crowe: I have a short video story about my project’s origin story, but basically, I was horrible at communicating with friends, colleagues, or even neighbors in crisis. It could be loss, illness, divorce, you name it; any hard time that would make me so afraid to say or do the wrong thing I would either shy away, or blurt out something highly regrettable. My own experience with hardship meant I knew empathy mattered, but I still didn’t know what it looked like. I have a PhD from Berkeley and started my research into what works and what doesn’t work for supporting people in all kinds of difficult times, and wrote a book on Empathy Basics with coauthor and illustrator Emily McDowell to be published by HarperOne in 2016. The content of that book and my collaboration with top empathy scholars in the fields of medicine and business is the groundwork for our Empathy Bootcamps that we do for clients like UCSF, Stanford University, private companies, and nonprofits dealing with cancer and loss. It also gave me the confidence to just share people’s stories of support in hard times without me as a filter and to create public platforms to share what works in public art exhibits.

TR: What has been the public reaction to some of the programs you are producing?

KC: The public reaction to our Empathy Bootcamp workshop and public art exhibits has been extraordinary. Workshop participants describe it as “life changing” and “life 101” and truly foundational. Participants get quite emotional and with each workshop there is a palpable sigh of relief. Our workshop doesn’t tell people how to do or be more, and our public art exhibits don’t tell people to be more kind. Instead, they focus on how to engage as who you already are, which is imperfect, but always, uniquely qualified at something that will bring joy to someone else. What’s more, the workshop teaches skills that are practical (we even provide wallet sized fold-outs for easy reference) and are implemented right away, in many situations that can range from simply asking a colleague about their day to resolving a conflict with a family member. I believe our “light touch” approach that is brief and artistic offers profound messages in a simple way. At its core, our work is built on a counterintuitive premise: the more authentically we engage, even in heavy matters like death, the “lighter” our lives feel. And we enact that belief through workshops and public art campaigns that aren’t just about skill building, but movement building.

TR: One of my favorite terms you have taught me is this concept of “empathy etiquette”.  Can you explain what “empathy etiquette” is?

KC: Societies across the globe have etiquette, a host of social norms that help control our impulses for the sake of fostering social harmony. Etiquette helps restrain our impulses to engage in what we’re offensively curious or boastful about. You wouldn’t ask a first-time dinner hostess, for example, how much she paid for her house, and you wouldn’t tell someone you just met at a party what your salary and vested earnings are. The same goes for conversations we have with people who are hurting. We all have impulses, like trying to immediately fix someone’s problem, that are best restrained. Simply naming those impulses and providing word tricks to get around them and engage more productively is really beneficial to the person who is vulnerable, because they feel taken care of. And equally important, to the person giving the support, because in its highest form, empathy etiquette offers simple ground rules that make us less self-conscious and more focused on relating.

TR: You are bringing some of the tenants of HEO into organizations.  Can you explain how your work is helping work teams and which organizations are good candidates to leverage your skill?

KC: We want to bring our work to more companies- especially ones that value an empathetic work culture. Facebook, Salesforce, Zappos, Genentech, and Costco, for example, all have a reputation for humane leadership with their employees – and as the recent and high-profile New York Times piece about Amazon and tech work culture revealed, helping colleagues and managers connect to each other in times of personal crisis has a huge impact on the bottom line. There really are small moves that get big marks, and it’s so worthwhile to learn those! We also want to offer our 2 hour workshop to wellness and yoga studios and clinics, because empathy and mental well-being is a critical feature of holistic health.

TR: What is next for HEO and how can we all support your efforts?

KC: HEO wants to expand its ability to provide workshops with more trainers who like the HEO playbook, and who want to help us solicit partnerships with wellness studies and companies and nonprofit institutions. We also love doing public art exhibits and have in the pipeline exhibits for Colorado, Mississippi, New York City, and Washington D.C. We rely on volunteers who believe in promoting being there, and anyone can reach out to us to see how they can participate in doing an exhibit in their neighborhood over this next year. It’s really a powerful way to engage in the local community. Or sign up for our monthly(ish) newsletter and learn more about upcoming events, public art exhibits, and get empathy tips.

Kelsey at the On Being There Exhibit in Bernal Heights

Kelsey Crowe is the founder of Help Each Other Out.  Organizations looking to bring empathy boot camps to their places of work or people interested in volunteering or want to learn more can find out more here.

Traci Ruble

Traci Ruble

Traci is a therapist and the CEO of PSYCHED & Managing Director of Sidewalk Talk. Her therapy work is centered around working with couples and individuals working on their relationships. Her many years in corporate life make her a good match for executives and leaders.

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