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Michelle Graff of Cultivating Human Resiliency: “Everyone has something to teach you”

When you are not sure what you need to do, focus on what you can do that someone else needs. When the pandemic first began, I had a month worth of live events cancelled. Like a lot of people, I was frozen by the uncertainty of what was happening. My first plan of action was to […]

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When you are not sure what you need to do, focus on what you can do that someone else needs.

When the pandemic first began, I had a month worth of live events cancelled. Like a lot of people, I was frozen by the uncertainty of what was happening. My first plan of action was to “just wait it out.”

I have two sisters who jumped right into sewing masks for healthcare providers. It inspired me to do something. I wanted to help but I never learned to sew. So, I decided to do what I know. I offered a free online course on compassion fatigue as a thank you to helping professionals on the front line. To my surprise I filled 100 spots in about 12 hours. Not only was I contributing something that was needed, but it shifted the course of action for my business. It opened my eyes to ways to continue to provide my services and expand my reach.


As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Graff, founder of Cultivating Human Resiliency and the author of The Compassion Fatigued Organization. After more than twenty years in social services, she now focuses on helping the helping professional.

As a resiliency cultivator, she provides training and consultation to both public and private human service agencies. Over the past twenty-two years, Michelle has developed and presented hundreds of trainings on everything from trauma and the brain to interpersonal and leadership skills. Her experience working with human service professionals and organizations has provided an insider’s perspective on the impact of secondary trauma. Compassion fatigue has become her most requested topic.

Michelle lives and works in Kansas City, where she enjoys learning, creating, and spending time with family and friends.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/166fbfec47c7b6081714a8909c53ae37


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up near Buffalo, New York, the youngest of five children. I was also the baby cousin on both sides of the family. Being the youngest, in one sense, meant being surrounded by love and support. But it also meant being born into a family where everyone already had their place and purpose long before I came into existence. This often left me to have to figure things out on my own. Learning how and where I fit in became imperative at an early age.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

One of my favorite books has always been A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I have read it at least five times. I loved the characters and could easily identify with the young protagonist in the story. It is a story about struggle but also about hope and growth.

This question has made me realize that the main theme of the book is resiliency which is also the focus of the work I do.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

There are so many to choose from. Whenever I do something embarrassing, I tell myself, “someday that will be a funny story you can use in a training.” I think these stories have helped me to make what I am teaching more relatable. Maybe that is the overall lesson. Being human, flaws and all, is more important than being an expert.

To give a recent example, at the beginning of the pandemic I had to convert an in-person workshop to an online event. I spent a lot of time and energy making sure the technology went smoothly. I wanted it to look professional, not like I was broadcasting from my dining room. About twenty minutes in, my cat walked across the screen. I was struggling to maintain my composure as I nonchalantly tried to swipe the cat off the table. Then I noticed that people were engaging in the chat, asking what my cat’s name was and sharing their pets. I remembered what I had learned so long ago. People need connection more than they need professional and polished. I was able to turn the experience into a teachable moment. After all, I wholeheartedly believe that struggles, failures, and mistakes are how we learn and grow.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I want people to recognize that compassion is renewable, even when it might feel as if it is depleted.

I want readers to understand that compassion fatigue is a protective response. Starting with self-awareness and regulation, helping professionals can begin to change their responses and their interactions. I would also like to see helping organizations recognize that they too can experience symptoms of compassion fatigue so they can begin cultivating a more compassionate culture.

When helping professionals and helping organizations recognize how to reset and cultivate resiliency and compassion, it begins a positive chain reaction. I believe this can have a profound impact on the communities they serve.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

All the stories in the book are from real helping professionals, though some have been compiled or paraphrased to protect anonymity. I think the most interesting thing for me was how many times I heard similar stories from many different people. For example, many professionals shared with me that they do not feel they can talk about their work experiences with family and friends, either because of confidentiality or just because they do not want to bring the bad stuff home. I know I can relate to this. I am not sure others realize how isolating that can be for a helping professional, to not be able to turn to their normal sources of support.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I have always had a passion for cultivating resiliency in people; to help someone that is struggling see the opportunity for healing and growth. I have learned that growth and healing begin with genuine connection. In my 21 years working for a social service agency, I also began to recognize that helping professionals are not so different from the people they serve. They, too, need to cultivate their own resiliency to be able to compassionately serve others. So, I shifted my focus to helping the helping professional and their organizations. This led to starting my own business almost five years ago.

In my work, I provide professional training on a variety of topics pertaining to resiliency. I also blog about resiliency on my website. So, I knew I wanted to write a book based on that topic. Then, a few years ago I started to get request after request from different organizations to provide training on compassion fatigue. Hearing the stories of those trainees made it clear what the focus of my book needed to be.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I once had a former police officer in one of my trainings. Afterwards he shared that he had never realized until attending my training that he had been experiencing compassion fatigue. He thought if he had attended my training earlier, he could have dealt with it better and might not have chosen to leave.

I think in social service and health care, there is some familiarity with compassion fatigue. But there are many other professions that experience secondary trauma and compassion fatigue is rarely talked about. Imagine the impact of allowing so many to not only talk about the compassion fatigue they are experiencing but to learn how to combat it.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think we all would benefit from an increased understanding of how experiencing secondary trauma impacts the helping profession. In this way we can offer a more compassionate response when they are struggling. Although my book is written for the helping professional in the context of the work they do, it is also about human responses that anyone could relate to.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe leadership is about setting an example that others are willing to follow. In my book, I write about work culture. A good leader models the values, behaviors, and interpersonal responses that they hope to see demonstrated in the work culture.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Everyone has something to teach you.

When I started my career fresh out of college, I was eager to apply my knowledge. Although I recognized I had a lot more to learn, I thought I had to learn it all from “experts.” I made a bad habit of summing people up by what I thought they could teach me. Looking back, I see a lot of missed opportunities. Now I realize that in every relationship, good or bad, there is something you can learn.

2. Just show up.

I sometimes think of all the times I turned down an invitation because I did not think I would feel comfortable or I did not think my presence mattered. That was before I heard some good advice from a wise friend. If someone takes the time to invite you, they believe there is a reason for you to be there. “Show up!” That does not mean you should not set boundaries. It means respecting being present for others as meaningful use of our time. Both personally and professionally this advice has added value to my life.

3. Keep reading.

I love to read, everything from fiction to nonfiction to research articles. I make sure to set aside time each day just for reading. This was not always the case. When I finished my master’s degree, I was a little burned out on reading. As I got busier with my career, it became a low priority. I saw reading as something you do after the work is done. Now I see it as an essential part of my work. Reading expands both knowledge and perspective. It makes everything else I do possible.

4. Take walks.

For years, when I was working for someone else, I saw too many breaks as a distraction from the work that needed to be done. It took working for myself to realize that I am the most productive when I honor the ebb and flow of productivity. We define productivity as producing an output. But it is equally important to spend time learning and processing. When I am stuck trying to produce an outcome, I take a walk. This allows new information to settle into context and for my thoughts gain clarity. By the time I return, I know exactly what to do next.

5. When you are not sure what you need to do, focus on what you can do that someone else needs.

When the pandemic first began, I had a month worth of live events canceled. Like a lot of people, I was frozen by the uncertainty of what was happening. My first plan of action was to “just wait it out.”

I have two sisters who jumped right into sewing masks for healthcare providers. It inspired me to do something. I wanted to help but I never learned to sew. So, I decided to do what I know. I offered a free online course on compassion fatigue as a thank you to helping professionals on the front line. To my surprise, I filled 100 spots in about 12 hours. Not only was I contributing something that was needed, but it shifted the course of action for my business. It opened my eyes to ways to continue to provide my services and expand my reach.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Happiness isn’t having what you want but wanting what you have.” I saw this in a list of quotes when I was about twelve years old. It made an impression because I had never thought of life that way, but I also realized that it was probably true. I think this profoundly shaped my worldview.

When I was a young adult, struggling to make it financially, I learned to find joy in the simplest of things. I have fond memories of sitting on the stoop of my first apartment sipping tea and watching beautiful sunsets. It did not matter that the place had no air conditioning, and I was living on ramen noodles. I was enjoying my life for what I had.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Henry Louis Gates. We share a love of history and ancestry. I am a big fan of Finding Your Roots on PBS. I am touched by the way he compassionately relates to his guests. He often must reveal difficult chapters of their ancestor’s stories. But he has a gift for taking the worst examples of the human experience and transforming them into sources for hope and resilience. I think in the show, he does more than connect people to the past, he connects us all to each other in our shared humanity.

I would enjoy chatting with him about anything because I think he would have a beautiful perspective.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is resiliencyonline.com and they can also follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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