Q&A with Emily McDowell

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We bring you this special issue of the Reading Women newsletter! Today we have an interview with Emily McDowell, the founder of the Emily McDowell studio. Recently she wrote There Is No Good Card for This (HarperOne) with Dr. Kelsey Crowe. All of us struggle to know what to say when life is unfair and awful to someone we love. This book helps you understand and empathize with others in their times of need.

Emily has kindly given us an exclusive interview where she goes into more detail about writing and illustrating the book. We hope you love Emily, and the book, as much as we do!

Autumn + Kendra

Emily's Website | Buy the Book

For those who haven’t read your book, how would you describe it?

It’s a down-to-earth, relatable, illustrated guide that helps you learn how to confidently support anyone who’s going through a major illness, grief, loss, or other hard time.

What made you want to turn ideas into a book, and how did you end up partnering with Kelsey?

When Empathy Cards came out and were so well-received by people and the media, it became clear that they’d hit on a major problem in our culture: the problem of not knowing what to say or do in people’s times of need. The cards are a good jumping-off point because they help people start conversations, but the more stories we heard from our customers, the more convinced I was that we needed a book to help people feel more confident in showing up. I wanted to create an accessible, relatable guide, written in the style of the cards, and illustrated in order to make the heavy subject matter feel more engaging and entertaining. But I also wanted it to be comprehensive, research-driven, and full of real information – and I definitely wasn’t qualified to write that book on my own.
Kelsey and I were introduced by a mutual friend, and we had exactly the same vision for what the book could and should be. The extensive research she’s done in this area, and the curriculum she developed for her Empathy Bootcamp workshops, became the backbone of the project.
What are some of the things that might keep people from trying to help?
When we want to help but end up shying away, the reason almost always boils down to fear. The fear of doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing, or the fear of not having enough time or energy to commit to the task of being supportive.
Why is accepting our imperfections important to the process of helping others?
Your friends and family already love you for the imperfect person you are. They don’t want you to try and have all the answers – they just want you to be willing to bear witness to their suffering. 
When we accept that we all make mistakes, we release ourselves from the impossible standards that make us feel inadequate, and make us more likely to shy away from helping due to the fear of failure. 
Why are some of us bad listeners and how do we start to change that?
In our culture, “listening” is often more aptly described as “waiting for your turn to talk.” Which makes sense – in most situations, being able to offer solutions and perspective, ask questions, and engage in debate means you’re an effective, intelligent human being. Talking lets us show other people how smart we are. As a result, many of us focus on developing those skills, and listening becomes all about taking in information that we can then respond to.
In supportive (or empathic) listening, the goal is very different. Being a good empathic listener has nothing to do with your ability to solve the person’s problem or engage in a debate. Your role as listener is to simply be there, to hear and witness, and that’s not something a lot of us are used to – especially because it often involves periods of silence.
To improve your empathic listening skills, keep in mind that problem-solving, questioning, or debating aren’t helpful. The suffering person isn’t looking for a different, bright-side perspective, or to be convinced of anything. So suppress your instinct to talk, and instead, find out how they’re feeling, listen to the answer, and be willing to sit with them in silence, even if it feels awkward.
What’s something new I learned while writing this?
I learned a ton while working on this book, particularly in the area of how I listen. I’ve definitely been guilty of being what we refer to as “the Sage,” which means trying to offer some sort of wisdom or guidance, even if it wasn’t asked for. I’ve felt a lot of pressure in the past to come up with brilliant and wise responses or advice to people in tough situations. In writing this book, I realized that this pressure was all coming from within, and was based on what I thought I “should” be offering—it had nothing to do with what the person actually wanted or needed from me.
Describe the process of how you went about illustrating the book.
We wrote the whole manuscript first, because so many illustrated elements were text-based. Then, we went through and determined which passages should be hand-lettered, and where we should insert illustrations. Then, I picked a specific color palette, to give the book visual cohesion, and just started from the beginning. Once all the illustrations were finished (451 of them!), the manuscript and illustrations were turned over to the book designer to do the layout.
Did I have a favorite chapter to write?
Good question! I have an affinity for section 3, Just Help Me Not Be A Disaster, because as an illustrator, it’s always more fun to skewer the “don’t do this” behaviors than to draw supportive gestures.
What do I struggle with most when supporting others in their time of need?
Because I’m a really busy person who tends to get wrapped up in my own stuff, I struggle most with consistency over the long term. One of the most important things about supporting others in a hard time is to not just show up right after something happens—a death, a diagnosis, etc.—but to keep showing up and checking in later, after everyone but the suffering person has gone back to “normal life.” This can be a particularly lonely time.