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Shame And Vulnerability — An Exclusive Interview With Empathy Educator Dr. Kristen Donnelly

Written by: Tricia Brouk, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Working with thought leaders on shaping their speaker platform is an incredible privilege. In this exclusive interview with Empathy Educator Dr. Kristen Donnelly of Abbey Research, she shares her thoughts on shame and vulnerability, gets into why we struggle with the hard questions, and how “doing” empathy is a group effort.

What has brought you to this moment in time?

The answer is both simple and complicated, so bear with me if you will. The simple answer is that I was raised to serve everyone around me as often as possible. Our family mission statement is to ‘impact lives and create wealth,’ and we’ve always taken that to mean holistic wealth; economic, spiritual, emotional, psychological, relational, etc. Therefore, every major decision I’ve made — where to go to school, what degrees to pursue, what jobs to interview for —has been in the spirit of service to others.

I don’t think it’s any secret that 2020 demanded some internal investigation for most of us about our calling, purpose, and priorities, and I was no different. For me and my company, that meant leaning into the dream I’d always had to be a speaker and serve large audiences through my words and ideas. As a team, we decided to pursue a specific path that would increase my service capacity — and it has!

The complicated piece of this answer is my own self and what I had to do to get ready to serve in that capacity. Just because you dream something doesn’t mean you believe you deserve it — or at least it didn’t work for me. Leaning on trusted coaches, colleagues, and family members, I began to deconstruct all the lies I believed about myself and the world. I still believe a fair few, but I know they’re lies now, and that makes all the difference.

I’ve always known that where I am right now is where I want to be, and I made consistent professional decisions to be here. However, the secret sauce is deciding to trust myself and those around me that the big dream is the one I’m on this planet to fulfill.

As an empathy educator, who do you want to serve and why?

When you look around the world, many folks know this whole ‘being human’ thing is hard and that maybe we don’t all have it figured out. There’s something itchy in their souls — they know they can be better, deeper, fuller humans in some way, but they don’t know quite how. That’s where The Good Doctors of Abbey Research come in. We believe that the only true way to be human is to do it together, in mutual service of each other, as we work to make this place better than it was when we got here.

I love the questions that make other people uncomfortable - “Why can’t we say ‘spirit animal’ anymore?” “What is colorism, and why is it a problem?” “Why are pronouns such a big deal?” I love them because someone asking them is ready, even if for just a frustrating moment, to change and grow. I can’t teach folks that it’s important to care about other people, but I can help them figure out how to care about other people in fresh ways.

How are your workshops and YouTube episodes supporting a global community?

By creating environments where we normalize changing our minds and unlearning things about how the world works, our participants and viewers are freed to learn without shame. We have conversations about colonization and its aftermath, intersectionality and its necessity, popular culture, and it's a way of teaching us about people we’ll never meet.

We’ve discovered that one of the biggest barriers to change for quite a few folks is that they feel they should have known better already. They’re embarrassed, ashamed, and overwhelmed. By starting the conversation from the place of “the person who walked in here was doing the best they could, but let’s talk about how to be a bit better moving forward,” we gift our participants/viewers with the knowledge that they’re not alone in not quite knowing how to human. We’re all working it out together, and feeling ashamed of who you were three years ago or three minutes ago isn’t productive. See what was wrong, fix it, and move on.

What’s your big goal?

In the last several years, Dr. Brene Brown has explained vulnerability and its importance to millions and millions of people around the world. It’s allowed so many to understand the power of radical honesty with self and others, and I’m so grateful for her work. I want to build on it and help people understand the true power of empathy. Empathy needs to be a disciplined posture of how we move about the world because empathy isn’t a simple word that appears on greeting cards or Instagram memes. Empathy is committing to understand others and react to their pain or experiences like theirs and not comparisons to our own. We don’t commit to agreeing with them or approving their choices, and we simply commit to seeking understanding. It’s hard work and requires a lot of self-reflection and emotional intelligence, not to mention a heaping dose of curiosity and a working relationship with vulnerability. However, I believe it’s mandatory to bring this deeper version of humans we all crave, and I want to do everything I can to help us get there.

Kristen Donnelly (MSW, M.Div, Ph.D.) is a TEDx Speaker, empathy educator, speaker, and researcher with two decades of experience helping people understand the beauty in difference and the power of inclusivity. She is one of The Good Doctors of Abbey Research, where she and Dr. Erin Hinson seek to foster empathy and creativity to empower inclusive communities through cultural analysis and training. Their podcast, The culturecast, is on iTunes. Kristen is also co-owner and COO of their parent company and an unapologetic nerd for stories of joy, hope, and change. Kristen lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, surrounded by piles of books and several video game consoles.

For more info, follow Tricia on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and visit my website! Read more from Tricia!


Tricia Brouk, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Tricia Brouk is an internationally award-winning director. She has worked in theater, film, and television for three decades. Tricia founded The Big Talk Academy, where she certifies speakers in the art of public speaking. She was the executive producer of Speakers Who Dare and TEDxLincolnSquare, and now The Big Talk Live. She is currently being featured in a new documentary called Big Stages, which highlights the transformation of her speakers. Tricia’s commitment and devotion to inclusion are priorities as all of her shows, events, and communities are diverse. She curates and hosts the Speaker Salon in NYC, The Big Talk, an award-winning podcast on iTunes and YouTube. The Influential Voice: Saying What You Mean for Lasting Legacy was a 1 New Release on Amazon in December 2020. She was awarded Top Director of 2019 by the International Association of Top Professionals and Top Ten Speaker Coaches in Yahoo Finance in 2021. Her documentaries have received critical acclaim— winning Best Documentary Short at The Olympus Film Festival and Los Angeles Movie Awards. Tricia has spoken at Forbes, Pride Global, New York Public Library, I Heart My Life Live and The National Organization for Rare Disorders.



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