Empathy Bootcamp: Small Gestures Can Have a Big Impact

March 15, 2019 @ 5:43 pm
By Janet Young, Communications Writer

An evidence-based continuing education workshop offers do’s and dont’s for supporting others in a crisis.

When my friend Clara was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I dutifully signed on to the roster of pals who would drive her to chemo appointments, do her laundry, or buy her groceries. These chores were necessary, but I can’t say that I enjoyed them (except for the time we watched Sylvia, the Sylvia Plath biopic, during a chemo session).

What I did enjoy was helping Clara fix up the patio behind her small apartment. I had spied this unused space through a window while running Clara’s laundry through the dryer. Clara and I both love gardening and the outdoors. Clara would be on medical leave from her job all summer. I knew she might get bored and restless cooped up inside, so I suggested that we furnish the patio as a summer retreat. With another friend, we giddily tore through Home Depot, scooping up a metal table and chairs, a bench, an umbrella, clay pots, and colorful plants.

On the patio, Clara had extra living space, a beautiful place to read or rest, and pretty new plants to care for. She later hand-painted the pots and added strings of lights and a wind chime. A couple of months into her treatment she even served dinner al fresco to a group of friends. The patio didn’t address or ameliorate her cancer. But it created an enjoyable experience that ran alongside, and provided a respite from, the frightening and debilitating one.

I thought of Clara again while attending a half-day workshop here at the Columbia School of Social Work on March 1st. Sociologist Kelsey Crowe was the facilitator of what she calls an “empathy bootcamp,” designed to help you get over the feeling of not knowing what to say when learning that a friend or relation is in pain due to loss, illness, divorce, or another traumatic life event.

In responding to Clara, I had been more of an upbeat do-er, so was immediately relieved to hear Dr. Crowe say that supporting a friend, colleague, or client in crisis need not be a grim affair. In fact, offering to do something you enjoy makes you more likely to follow through, and thus do something useful, for the person in need, she said.

Had my instincts toward Clara been right?

Dr. Crowe is the founder of the Help Each Other Out project and co-author of There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. Her workshop, sponsored by the School of Social Work’s Center for Complicated Grief, was attended by social workers, psychologists, administrators, and students from across the campus.

Dr. Crowe works to dispel the awkwardness and paralysis that professionals and laypeople alike can feel when someone we love goes through a difficult patch. Often we want to reach out, but we worry that our overture will fall short. Or we agonize so long over the right words and actions that we end up saying and doing nothing. We may feel obligated to “fix” someone’s suffering, even when that’s impossible. Or we do what we think is expected, even if we don’t enjoy it. As a result, we may exude passive-aggression or do a shoddy, perfunctory job.

We may also try to do too much. “We believe we are not loved for our presence,” Dr. Crowe explained. Therefore, we embrace industriousness, which “gives us a sense of efficacy.” She explained that we shouldn’t try so hard, because a simple gesture, or merely showing up and listening, is comfort enough.

To prove this point, she had us create a “Gesture Wall” of cards on which we recalled words and actions that made us feel supported during a difficult time. We saw that the most comforting gestures were modest ones: a neighbor who shoveled snow, a co-worker who took us out for lunch. As Dr. Crowe said, “How many of these gestures—no offense to anyone in the room—required a degree in psychology?” In such situations, she added, “Your kindness is your credential.”

In another exercise, participants selected from an “Empathy Menu” of roles we could choose to support a friend or colleague, such as Chef, Chauffeur, and Listener. To my surprise, Gardener was also on the list.

Choose the roles you enjoy, Dr. Crowe advised. If you don’t like to cook, don’t add another mediocre casserole to someone’s refrigerator. Offering something you love to do (even something frivolous, like clothes shopping or a night at a comedy show) can create an authentic moment of joy or respite for someone going through a rough time.

“You don’t have to be somebody’s hero,” she told us.  “If you care, your care belongs.”

I never tried to be a hero to Clara, and knowing what I learned at the bootcamp, I think I made a good choice for us both.

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The Center for Complicated Grief rests on a foundation of more than a decade of work aimed at helping people with complicated grief (CG) reclaim their lives. Under the leadership of Dr. M. Katherine Shear, the Center has developed and tested methods for recognizing, understanding, and treating CG, a painful and debilitating condition that affects the lives of millions of people in the United States alone. The centerpiece of their work is complicated grief treatment (CGT), a targeted psychotherapy proven efficacious in three National Institute of Mental Health-funded randomized controlled trials.

Related external link:

Kelsey Crowe’s Talk at Google (video, Sept. 11, 2017)