Empathy and Compassion Are Daily Practices with Kristen Donelly [Podcast]
Dr. Nathan Regier, your host, is joined today by Kristen Donnelly (MSW, M.DIV, Ph.D.) who is an empathy educator, speaker, and researcher with two decades of experience in helping people understand the beauty in difference and the power in inclusivity. In today’s episode, she shares her research on empathy and her dedication to helping people achieve a better understanding of themselves and others.
- It’s not universal to associate empathy with emotions, but it is universal to associate empathy with understanding.
- Empathy is a mindset that reframes how we think about ourselves and others.
- It’s not only that we are allowed to be human. We have to be human. Empathy reminds us that we are full messy, imperfect, and wonderful human beings
VOICEOVER: Are you tired of the negativity and drama? Are you trying to make a difference, only to be drained by people problems? The world needs more compassion, not just more civility and empathy. We need in-the-trenches compassion that struggles alongside people instead of against them. We need a radically different way to engage for breakthrough results. And now, here is your host, Dr. Nate Regier.
NATE REGIER: One of my biggest beefs is when people confuse empathy and compassion, or settle for a simple and limiting definition of these multifaceted and messy concepts. If you’ve been following me for long, you know that I’m pretty passionate about passion, and I’ve been writing more lately about how it’s different from empathy. So, when I met Kristen Donnelly, I was really excited. I finally found someone who specializes in empathy, but not the oversimplified kind. Before we’d even met officially, I wrote a blog post inspired by her TEDx talk titled, How Embracing Tolerance Has Failed Us.
Dr. Donnelly knows her stuff. She has a master’s in social work, a master’s of divinity, and a PhD in sociology, and is a member of the Forbes Business Council. She’s an international empathy educator and researcher, with two decades of experience in helping people understand the beauty and difference and the power of inclusivity. Kristen is one of The Good Doctors of Abbey Research, which I can’t wait to find out more about. She is the CEO of their parent company and an unapologetic nerd for stories of change. Kristen lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, where they are surrounded by piles of books and several video game consoles. Kristen, welcome to On Compassion.
KRISTEN DONELLY: Nate, thank you so much for having me. This is such a joy.
NATE REGIER: Well, I’m really looking forward to our conversation. And like I told you earlier, some of your perspectives have really challenged me and really invited me to get outside my comfort zone. So, really looking to forward to this. There’s so many things I’m curious about, even in that intro alone. And I didn’t even barely scratch the surface about all the other stuff going on that you’re doing. But let’s start with your title. As one of The Good Doctors of Abbey Research. Tell us about this role in your company.
KRISTEN DONELLY: I’d love to. So, Abbey Research is a division of the multi-divisional, multinational company that my brother and I co-own, that we took over from our dad. And everything’s called Abbey because the very first company he bought was called Abbey. And it was already called that. So, everything we’ve started since has just been Abbey-something, whatever it does.
So, I started Abbey Research in 2016 with the kind of question of, how do I best contribute to the company? So, to back up a little bit, my family has a mission statement. And we’ve had it for a long time. And the family and the business kind of go together in this. And the mission statement is to impact lives and create wealth. And the question is, within the family business, how does every person do that within their own skillset? And I, the flagship business is a manufacturing company that manufactures dyes and colorants for pharmaceutical and industrial applications. And I have lots of degrees in how to understand people, as you said. So, running a chemical company was not necessarily within my skillset or wheelhouse. But I knew I wanted to be involved in kind of all this stuff.
So, throughout my PhD, I was talking to some really wise folks who were just really honest with me about the state of higher ed. And really, really frank of you’re going to hate it. Like, you’re going to love teaching, but you’re going to hate all the other stuff. It’s not actually where your gifting is. What if you opened a research kind of on your own shingle? What if you did that? And it as is the case in so many times, somebody asks you a what-if question and it spins you into a whole new reality. So, what if you don’t apply for tenure track positions? What if you don’t do this thing that you thought you were going to do? What if you do move back to America and dream of something different?
So, from those kind of questions, I started Abbey Research. My best friend and now partner, Dr. Erin Hinson, joined me full-time in 2017 when she had finished her PhD. And since then, we’ve been focusing on helping people human better. If we understand human as a verb, which it really kind of is, in a lot of ways. So, helping folks understand. And we’ve done a bunch of different things, but during the pandemic, the first phase of it during lockdown. We looked around and we said, you know what people really don’t have? Any skillset in understanding each other. Because they don’t have any skillset in understanding themselves. And we’re all just operating on this massive network of assumptions about both ourselves and others.So, we started digging into what that is. And we thought maybe it was emotional intelligence for a little while. We’re like, “Okay, well, we’ll talk about emotional intelligence.” We’re like, right, there’s something else, something beyond emotional intelligence, something deeper and richer than what do we think it is. So, after a lot of reflection and research, we realize that what we are advocating for is empathy. Because across the definitions of all of the dictionaries and research and everything else, it is not universal to associate empathy with emotions. It is universal to associate empathy with understanding.
So, we started digging into what that is. And we thought maybe it was emotional intelligence for a little while. We’re like, “Okay, well, we’ll talk about emotional intelligence.” We’re like, right, there’s something else, something beyond emotional intelligence, something deeper and richer than what do we think it is. So, after a lot of reflection and research, we realize that what we are advocating for is empathy. Because across the definitions of all of the dictionaries and research and everything else, it is not universal to associate empathy with emotions. It is universal to associate empathy with understanding.
NATE REGIER: Okay, wait. Say that again. Say that again. That is a really powerful statement. Will you repeat that?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Yeah, it is not universal to associate empathy with emotions.
NATE REGIER: In your research, what you discovered?
KRISTEN DONELLY: In our research. And it is universal to associate empathy with understanding. Now, a lot of those places say understand someone else’s emotions. So, when we started breaking some things down, and then I took my training as a social worker and we took just some good old-fashioned human logic, and said, is there any way to actually understand what someone else feels? Feelings are so messy and esoteric. And we use the same word for different things within our bodies. And we don’t really know, is it possible to actually understand? And the more we talk about it, the more we realize that true all-encompassing understanding is never possible. It’s not. Our human brains are finite. They’re limited. There’s only so much we can do here.
So, what if we focus our work down to helping people practice empathy? Practice understanding of themselves and others with the framework that it’s a journey and a mindset, and it leads to fuller humaning? But it’s not, at some point, you’re going to wake up in the morning and get a certificate and it says, “I am 100% empathetic individual.” It’s this constant going, which I know is part of what you talk about with compassion.
So, the work that we do, then, all centers around how do we help people understand themselves and others better, so that we can have a fuller human experience? In corporations, when we do workshops and keynotes for them, sometimes, it gets most specific, like how do we help them understand each other so they have less turnover? How do we help people get along better so they have higher retention? How do we help people get along better so your products are more innovative?
And then for daily everyday stuff, we have a YouTube and a podcast and an Instagram. And I go on Clubhouse a lot. And then I have these kind of conversations. And we talk a lot about, how can you understand yourself and others better in your minute-by-minute day-to-day life, through both analysis of popular culture? We talk about TV a lot? What can you learn about empathy from TV? And we also talk about lived culture. What can you learn about empathy through thinking through the tragedy at Astroworld, for instance? What can we learn about other people by being intentionally looking around? So, that’s a long complicated answer to a super simple question, but that’s who we are.
NATE REGIER: Thank you for that. And I love the focus on day-to-day interactions. And I’m a big fan of that. These concepts, like empathy, compassion, these are daily practiced skills. These aren’t just something that we think about or feel about or esoterically study in a research laboratory. I’m so glad that you took your education practical, because that’s something that I really care about. I have a doctorate in clinical psychology, and honestly, I did not want to go into the research and publishing route, not because I didn’t like it but because I wanted to be bringing practical solutions to people every day. And thank you for being that translator and that applicator for us.
KRISTEN DONELLY: Mine’s in sociology, like you said. And I studied how… and my partner’s is an anthrop. And so, really, we had anthropology. And what we ask throughout both of our PhDs was how do people do life together, in just different ways? Hers was in a prison context and mine was in a church context. But they were still the questions. And in a certain way, clinical psych is how do you do life with yourself. And so, these are practical disciplines. All of us are encouraged to not do practical applications. So, we all got to be a little bit brave sometimes.
NATE REGIER: Well, you’ve already stated a couple of things you discovered about what empathy is and what it isn’t and how people normally think about it. Let’s get specific. I think having working definitions are really important so we can know what we’re dealing with here. How do you define empathy?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Empathy is the consistent mindset that allows you to choose understanding before assumptions of both yourself and others.
NATE REGIER: All right, let’s hear that again, because that’s a big definition. And I’m sure, for the listeners, this is really important. Will you say that again?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Yes, it is a-
NATE REGIER: You don’t have to get it word-for-word.
KRISTEN DONELLY: Good, because we’re workshopping the word-for-word definition. But what I do know is it has to be consistent, and it is a decision to engage with understanding rather than assumptions of both yourself and others.
NATE REGIER: I love that. So, there’s three parts you’re saying here. It’s a mindset or a decision, you’re choosing to understand instead of assumptions, and you’re doing this with yourself and other people. It’s not just with others, not just with yourself.
KRISTEN DONELLY: It has to be both.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. Would you be willing to break each one of those parts down and tell us a little bit about that?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Sure.
NATE REGIER: And here’s why I’m asking, because I’m a huge fan of mindset. So, every time I hear the word “mindset,” I’m in. So, let’s talk about the first part, which is a decision or a mindset. How is empathy a mindset?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Oh, gosh. This is my cynical response, is, well, Nate, how is it not? But that’s not fair or kind. I just get very cynical sometimes.
NATE REGIER: Well, here’s why I’m asking. Here’s why I’m asking.
KRISTEN DONELLY: You’re totally fair. You’re totally fair. I was just like, I don’t know how to articulate it because I just see the world through it. So, I’m getting there. How is it a mindset? In making the decision, again, I’m going to come back to that word, but essentially, it’s like, if we talk about mindset in some ways, honestly, part of mindset is how you see the world, right?
NATE REGIER: Right.
KRISTEN DONELLY: It’s not just how you see yourself or how you engage with decisions. It’s a reframe of what’s happening to you. That’s really what mindset work is, in so many ways. So, when I’m doing mindset work, I have to reframe when my dad says something to me that I’ve heard one way my entire life. My mindset work is to be, well, maybe, it doesn’t mean the thing I’ve always thought it meant. So, the way that we connect empathy to that is that… So, I’ll keep using my dad. My dad says something to me that I hear as the nine-year-old girl and he said to me as this 38-year-old COO. But I react as the nine-year-old girl. And I have to sit there and be like, he’s a human person. He’s not coming to me as a dad because we’re here in business hours. And he’s frustrated by this decision I made as a COO, not as his daughter.
So, if I take a step back and think, “Okay,” then how do I respond? I don’t respond immediately. I don’t respond knee jerk. I don’t respond whatever. I respond with informed context. So, to me, that’s why empathy is a mindset, is because it has to become the question of, is this really what it looks like on the surface? Am I missing something here? What am I assuming? That posture of curiosity has to be part of your mindset. I also say this because I think we all know, with mindset, you can easily turn it on and off. If you’re not careful with it, it won’t happen.
NATE REGIER: This is where I really want to check in with you about this, because it’s the way you’ve described this scenario with your dad, perfect one, is you said, wait a second, step back. If I look at it like this, if I understand it like this, it can change. So, it’s a reframe. So, a decision or a mindset implies this is not necessarily something we are just born with or some people have and some people don’t. By calling it a mindset or a decision, you’re suggesting this is something that can be cultivated and learned and practiced.
KRISTEN DONELLY: Absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons that we came to this mindset word, because in our work in corporations, we heard a lot of people say, “Well, I’m not as good with that touchy, feely stuff.” And we’re like, “Okay, but that’s not empathy.” And you’re right, everybody encounters emotions differently. Everybody encounters kind of how they go about it differently. But we can all learn how to understand ourselves and each other better if we want to. We can all practice this. It’s a muscle, just like anything else, in a lot of ways.
But yeah, totally, I would say that just some people are born on the natural aptitude for some things, but they still have to practice to be really good at it. Empathy is the same way. Some of us may have a very natural aptitude to be self-reflexive and gracious to others. But even those people have to practice it, especially for people whose difference appears to be egregious.
NATE REGIER: So, it’s something we can learn and practice, it’s a mindset, it’s a reframe that changes how we relate. What is it that we’re doing? The second part of your definition is understand instead of assume. Talk to me about that. That’s sounds like a pretty important distinction or change.
KRISTEN DONELLY: Some of this goes back to biology and kind of how we all have a fight or flight index, instinct. And we tend to be wired, to be afraid of difference. And that’s natural. Different can be scary. It can mean that you don’t know how to navigate the situation. It could mean that you are in physical or emotional danger, some real reasons to get a little bit wary of difference. The issue is that we, as humans, have not realized that the fight-or-flight that kept us safe from the wooly mammoth, we are still having as the, like they took my mug in the break room. We’re applying physiology.
NATE REGIER: Like, you’re actually not an imminent human danger of dying here today.
KRISTEN DONELLY: But God, we act it all the time, right?
NATE REGIER: Yeah.
KRISTEN DONELLY: So much of our social interactions are disproportionate responses. So, all of that being said, part of our biological… Let me start over again. Part of how society has reacted to that biological instinct to fight or flight, and that difference is bad, is that we have constructed safe communities around ourselves. And we live with people who make sense to us and who are like us. And when we encounter others, they could be different. And to make the encountering others easier on us, we summarize people. We call these stereotypes. And people become a label or an idea or a thing, and they stop being a human. And we dehumanize people accidentally all the time.
NATE REGIER: Is this what people often call othering?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Yes, absolutely. But I think it’s even more insidious than that. I think that we forget that other people are humans all the time. And some of this is like the social media of it all. So, you’re on your phone. It’s really easy to forget that the person whose Facebook you’re looking at is a person, who’s multidimensional, and is complicated, and has all of the same garbage that you have. And you understand the human brain better than I do. I just know how it functions in society. And so, I kind of see how this… I wonder.
One of the questions we ask a lot is, one of the downsides of living on our phones and on screens so much, that we assume everybody is 2D, just like their images. And we go to that safety. So, if I meet you on the street, what are the things that you’re going to assume about me? You’re probably going to assume that I’m intelligent because I’m wearing glasses. And that’s one of the things that we assume about people. You’re probably going to assume that I have some sort of money because I’m going to be dressed in a way that communicates that I have means of some fashion. I’m fat, so you might assume… A lot of people do that. I don’t care about my health. I always have 12 bags with me. I live in tote bags. So, you may be like, “Man, that girl does not know how to put things down.”
So, all of these are assumptions. Some of them may be right. I am educated. I do have means. I do actually care about my body, though. It’s just larger than society wants it to be. So, if we can see me as a full person and not just the smart fat girl, then if we can apply that to everybody, again, we say it’s discipline, because this is really fucking hard. You’re going against, not only your own biology, potentially, but you’re going against your social programming.
NATE REGIER: And then let’s take it to another level. What you said about stereotypes is we summarize to make it convenient and easy and construct these safe communities. But when we look around at what’s going on in our society now, it’s becoming really dangerous to even think outside the box. You can get canceled. You can get kicked out of your political party. You can have really serious social consequences for just trying to be open-minded and just trying to understand someone, as if that’s not the popular thing to do. I’m curious what you’re seeing out there.
KRISTEN DONELLY: And it’s not. And we get the question about cancel culture a lot. We do. “So, what do I do? Well, I can’t ask these questions, I’m going to get canceled.” And that’s valid. And so, our response is usually something along the lines of what does getting canceled actually mean? Getting canceled feels scary. And it hits that fight or flight. So, kind of step back and be like, what does it actually mean? What does it actually mean? What is the actual worst-case scenario here?
So, some of this is that you have to have the data to make the decision. So, maybe, getting canceled really does matter. And so, navigating that situation requires a little bit more finesse. Maybe, it doesn’t at all. So, just send that tweet. Who cares? So, you have to unpack some stuff. And we need to have more data than we have.
The other thing I will say is that one of the reasons it feels so scary right now is that we’re really bad at saying we’re wrong. And even within this construct of empathy and compassion and trying to be better humans and all this other stuff we’re talking about, we still automatically assume as people that we should be perfect at it immediately, and we should know everything. And there’s so many shoulds in that.
You’re going to screw up. So, set that mindset real fast. Part of practicing this stuff means that you’re going to fall, means that it’s going to be a bad day, means you’re going to lash out, means you are not going to be as informed about something as you thought, and you’re going to get your verbal ass handed to you. This is going to happen. It does not mean you are a bad person. It does not mean you weren’t trying very hard. It does not mean that you are evil. It means you are a human person who has a lot to learn and seen. That’s all it means. We assign so much emotional weight to all of those pieces, though, that I do think it makes it very difficult to enter into this mindset.
NATE REGIER: So, it’s a mindset, it’s a choice. Kristen Donnelley is helping us deconstruct empathy. And this definition includes three important things. That we can make a choice to reframe what’s happening to us, we can choose that mindset. It’s about understanding instead of assumptions. Instead of oversimplifying, instead of summarizing people, we truly take the time to understand. And then the third part is about with ourselves and others. Most of the examples you’ve shared is in relation to someone else. What about applying this to ourselves?
KRISTEN DONELLY: And this is where I make the PSA that everyone should be in therapy in it for at least once in their lives, especially in the United States and, honestly, worldwide, every country, every culture, I’ve been in. We are not, through parental and familial education, taught how to be aware of our own self very often. And so, we all need a little bit of training in that. We all need a little bit of practice. And that’s what social workers and psychologists and therapists are trained to do, to help you listen to yourself better. It’s really what it comes down to. And they’ll teach you the questions to ask yourself, as you kind of go.
So, if you are bad at being self-reflective, good news. It just means you’re human. But you can grow. Anything you’re bad at, you can get better at. So, here’s a very personal example. Last week, I filmed a talk that I have the honor of giving to TEDxRutgersCamden. And it was supposed to be in person. And then my partner had other ideas. And so, we were, in a very short period of time, asked to produce our own videos that they’re going to premiere on YouTube. Nate, this is where I tell you that doing anything technological absolutely makes me break out in hives. And I don’t love having to do any of my own tech. It really stresses me out. I have an incredible tech person. She is in Toronto. And I have an incredible speaking coach and director. And she’s in New York. And I’m in Philadelphia.
And somehow, with long distance help, I filmed a TED talk last week. I had complete and utter meltdowns almost every day we were filming. I was defeated. I was angry. I lashed out at Erin a lot, who was here on site to help me do it. And I kept saying things that I didn’t even believe. And they would come out of my mouth, like I would say, “I don’t even know why we’re bothering. Only five people are going to watch this.” And I’m looking at my last TED talks and they have 1,000 views. I’m looking at evidence. And I still can’t stop myself from saying no one’s going to care about this. This is ridiculous. Why are we wasting this time?
And so, when we got all of the emotions out and kind of all of it done and everything. We’re sitting on my couch on Friday. And Erin just said, “We need to talk about who you were this week. And you’ve got to figure out why you were who you were this week.” And I realized I’m in the beginning of that processing, honestly, because this is a deep, deep thing, evidently, for me to respond that strongly. So, I don’t want to say that I’m doing it quickly. But some of it definitely scratches up against my idea of my own perfection. It wasn’t the quality I wanted it to be. And I had no control over that. And so, I just wanted to shut it down and not do it at all. If I couldn’t do it exactly how I wanted it to be done, exactly perfectly, exactly up to my standard, it wasn’t worth doing it all. Well, that’s a lie. That’s something I was taught in elementary school. It’s not actually true.
And so, I had to spend a good couple hours on Friday and on Saturday and on Sunday. And you and I are talking on Tuesday, I’m still thinking about it, of why the hell did I respond that way? Why, when somebody hit this button that seems innocuous, did I go off of Mount Vesuvius? What was wrong?
Some of this is in my marriage. My husband will say something or make a joke, and I’ll respond some way. And I’m meek, now that I practice this a lot. He’ll say something. And it just makes me… it’s like nails on a chalkboard. And I want to throw them across the room. And after almost nine years of marriage, I can now stop and go, “That’s me. Not him.” That’s a me-problem, not a him-problem. I am hearing this, he is not saying this.
And some of that comes from a lot of communication with him, where I say, “When you said that, this is what I heard. I need to clarify with you it’s not what you meant. Because if it is what you meant, then we have to have a bigger conversation. But my brain gremlins are telling me you meant this.” And he’s like, “No, your gremlins are lying. This is what I meant. I’ll be careful not to say that again.”
But who? I’m 38. I’ve been in therapy since I was 11. I have three degrees in understanding people, two of which required me to go therapy while I was getting them. I have a lot of practice at this for a living. I talk about myself and how to understand yourself and others. And last week was still a brick wall that scared the shit out of my partner.
NATE REGIER: Well, thank you for sharing that. And that’s such a great personal story about how it includes us, and we have to do our own work, too, and it can be just as hard, or even harder, probably, to practice that understanding with ourselves and come to that level of understanding. So, big plug for get help, get support, talk to people. Engage professionals, if you need to. So, what are some things we can do… I’d love to leave my audience with some practical tips. What are some things we can do to improve empathy with ourselves and others?
KRISTEN DONELLY: This is such a delightful question. And I love answering it because it’s always more simple than people think it is. My biggest tip is to look at the world around you, either in your own household or the planet. Make it as wide or as narrow as you want it to look. And pick one topic you don’t understand. Pick one thing and Google it. Find a documentary. Find a podcast. Find a book. And start-
NATE REGIER: Awesome.
KRISTEN DONELLY: … who you are today knows more than the you were yesterday. So, as you Google and just start, remember that, as you learn and grow, who you were is not a bad person, who you were was doing their best. The good news is that you can keep doing better. You can keep learning more. We live at an unbelievably privileged time of information. It’s shocking.
The story we tell a lot at Abbey Research is that, at the beginning of 2021, there was terrorist attacks on the Asian spas in Atlanta. And my partner and I, Erin and I, both realized we did not know a whole lot about the Asian-American experience. There was other elements of that. I understood a lot about purity culture and that was a piece of that particular attack, but we didn’t know a whole lot about Asian-Americans beyond knowing that we really loved the cuisines of the various communities.
So, we emailed a friend of ours who is married to a Cambodian refugee and is very tapped into the Cambodian refugee community in a particular part of the country. And she’s, “Well, I’m sure you’ve seen the PBS Asian American documentary.” We were like… Pause, not even heard of this. What are you talking about? She was, “Oh, my God. It’s incredible.” It’s six hours. It’s free on PBS.com for the next 10 years. And it’s a summary of how every major community came to America and kind of the beginning of their culture start there. Cool.
NATE REGIER: Awesome.
KRISTEN DONELLY: So, over six hours, Erin and I sat there and learned about things with the Chinese Exclusion Act that we had never been taught about. We learned about Angel Island that we had never been taught about. And we started there. And part of our work is to cultivate resource lists to wherever you want to start. I probably have a resource list for you to give you some curated opportunities to know where you should go next.
But as you journey, remember that no one knows everything. You are not supposed to, actually. I firmly believe that we are meant to live with others and in community. And one of the ways that is proven to us is that none of us can do everything by ourselves. So, we have to do this as a team. We have to do this as a family, as a tribe, as a pick a word. Pick the word that makes the most sense to you. You’ve got to do it in one. And so, pick the thing you’re curious about. You may never be an expert about it, but at least you now have some words to ask better questions. At least, now you understand it a little bit better. And you just keep going.
NATE REGIER: Great, great thing. I’ve heard that before about one of the most important things of empathy is stretch yourself, challenge yourself, make the choice to go into your discomfort zone and learn, because if we just stay with the same curated feeds that we’ve had every time, we won’t learn anything new. So, compassion is my thing. This topic or this podcast is called On Compassion. And I’m curious how you see the connection between compassion and empathy. How do they relate, for you?
KRISTEN DONELLY: That’s a great question. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it. And you’re really pushing my understandings of compassion as well, because I don’t know if I have a really great understanding of it. Before meeting you and before encountering your work, my answer was that a huge part of compassion is in the practice of empathy, as you are compassionate to yourself and compassionate to others, as you realize that we’re all imperfect, messy, complicated things. But I think it’s richer than that. And I haven’t puzzled that out, yet.
NATE REGIER: Well, you’re stretching me because, in our definition of compassion, we have nine skills. And one of them is empathy. And in that context, empathy is about appreciating and connecting with someone’s experience. And that’s usually emotional. Like, if you said to me, you shared with me that your dog died and it was a really close member of your family. And I said, “Oh, my gosh, I remember what that was like when I lost a pet. That must be so hard.” However, you’re also stretching me to consider about the curiosity of empathy as a cognitive thing. It’s about understanding and really learning about another person’s experience, which we talk about as resourcefulness. So, I’m really seeing that cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, they’re different. I think-
KRISTEN DONELLY: And I think… Sorry, go ahead.
NATE REGIER: No, that’s fine. What were you going to say?
KRISTEN DONELLY: I was going to say I’ve been talking to some clinical psychologists. And there are many levels of empathy, evidently. You get into really deep academic studies of empathy. And we’re engaging with some of those ideas and kind of figuring it out. The reason we teach it now is we think it’s the most accessible.
NATE REGIER: Sure.
KRISTEN DONELLY: It’s the easiest to kind of grapple onto. But I think your dog dying is actually a great example of one of the reasons that we’re afraid talk about “I know how you feel,” because Erin and I both lost our grandmothers within about six months of each other. And we had wildly different relationships with our grandmothers, wildly different. So, if I looked at Erin and she said her grandmother died after mine. If I had said to her, “I know just how you feel,” it would’ve been a lie. I had no idea how Erin felt, because my relationship with my besta was not her relationship with her grandmother.
So, it’s a double-edged sword. I think there are some real ways that, “I remember what it was like when my dog died. I’m so sorry. Can I help you? What can I do? What do you need?” Leaning into, which is different than, I know how you feel.
NATE REGIER: That’s such a scary dangerous thing to say “I know how you feel.”
KRISTEN DONELLY: And people are taught to say it. And it’s a terrible thing to say.
NATE REGIER: Yeah, terrible thing to say. And when we’re helping people cultivate empathy, we often say, what do you know? What can you learn about that situation that could have parallel to your situation? So, learn about the parallels. Learn about the things you have in common. But that’s a head thing that people are saying.
KRISTEN DONELLY: That’s a head thing. And don’t assume that you feel the same way about them.
NATE REGIER: Awesome stuff. Wow, we’ve talked about a really rich definition of empathy. We’ve talked about a strategy. It’s a really important strategy to start cultivating empathy. And then also some permissions. I really appreciate some of your permissions to be human along the way. And I’m curious about where your heart and your mind and your passion are these days. Is there anything that you just want the world to know about what’s going on with you?
KRISTEN DONELLY: Everything I’ve already said, what I want the world to know is that it’s not only that they’re allowed to be human. It’s that we have to be human. And what the last two years on this planet, I think, has taught us is to strip back performance and to be messy with each other. And that’s the way forward. I spend my days reading about and watching and learning and listening about the messiness of the world and all the ways humans are horrible to each other. God, we’re terrible. We’re horrible to the planet. We’re horrible to animals. We’re horrible to each other. We’re horrible to ourselves. We’re horrible.
And then, in the middle of it, I find ways in which we’re being beautiful and giving and generous and powerful and magical. And we are always all those things all at once. And that’s the true holy magic of being human. So, not only should you be human. You have to be human. You are welcome to be human.
NATE REGIER: What a wonderful invitation and gift. And listeners, check out the TED talks. The one that they wrote about really, really hit home for me and really appreciate your view on issues of tolerance, inclusion, how we’re looking at things like this. And empathy is such a critical part of bridging those divides and bringing people together. If people want to learn more about your work and whereabouts, how to get involved with you? Where should they go?
KRISTEN DONELLY: We would love for you to head to our website, which is argooddoctors.com, all one word. If you are a YouTube person, we are there. You can find us at Abbey Research. And you spell Abbey with an “e.” And those are the two best places to get ahold of us.
NATE REGIER: We will put those in the show notes. So, if you can get ahold of Kristen and her team, wonderful. Thank you so much for being here. There was about 15 tangents I would’ve loved to go on, if we had about six hours. So, we’re going to have to think about another conversation. But for today, thank you so much.
KRISTEN DONELLY: It was an honor. And I’d be happy to have those conversations anytime. I love talking with you.
NATE REGIER: Here are my three key takeaways from a challenging, informative, deep dive into empathy with Kristen Donnelly. Number one, it’s not universal to associate empathy with emotions, but it is universal to associate empathy with understanding. So, Kristen’s understanding and summary of the research is that the practice of empathy requires cultivating skills for better understanding ourselves and others. And it’s not just based on emotions. A second key takeaway is that empathy is a mindset that reframes how we think about ourselves and others. It’s a decision, which means anyone can make it and anyone can learn it. Finally, it’s not only that we are allowed to be human. We have to be human. Empathy reminds us that we are full messy, imperfect, and wonderful human beings. This kind of empathy helps us avoid what Kristen called summarizing people, which is about stereotyping and dehumanizing.
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Thank you both! I enjoyed both of your views and research. I work for a company that has a Tribal Development Program for Native Americans. Talk about needing “Empathetic Leadership”. Not only do we struggle with empathy issues in our daily lives, add the goal of training a historically oppressed people to our day-to-day duties. It feels near impossible at times. BUT, with more empathy & understanding we can have a chance! Understanding or attempting to understand is so important to believe the trainers have the best intentions (where trust issues have been generational & deep). I met Nate at a Native American conference years ago. I am thankful to have read, watched & continue to follow him. I honestly believe Empathetic Leadership is crucial for the success of Tribes.
Anita, thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt response. You are doing important and difficult work. Keep the faith!
Oh my gosh, Anita! Thank you so much! I’m so glad this was helpful. We believe it is as well.