We live in a world where it feels like relationships are perpetually fraying at the edges, loneliness has become an epidemic, we feel more disconnected than ever before, and society, as a whole, is increasingly dominated by othering and dehumanization. And, it’s causing so much pain. Question is, what can we do about this? And, where do we even begin? A great starting point is a powerful tool called empathy. It’s like the giant lever that holds within it the capacity to bridge divides, heal relationships, relieve isolation and loneliness, foster openness, and open the door to true human connection.
My guest today, Michael Tennant, has made it his life’s work to cultivate and spread empathy. Michael is the Founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab, a purpose-driven company focused on creating experiences that teach empathy. He’s also the creator of the empathy card game Actually Curious and author of the book The Power of Empathy: A Thirty-Day Path to Personal Growth and Social Change. In our conversation, Michael shares his deeply personal journey to understanding empathy and provides practical steps we can all take to grow in empathy.
I’ve found that empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of others—is an incredibly powerful yet often neglected skill. When we approach the world with open minds and open hearts, seemingly insurmountable barriers start to crumble. Imagining life through another person’s eyes, even for just a moment, can turn “others” into fellow human beings. And, as Michael reveals, it’s not just innate, it’s an entirely trainable skill.
Michael’s own pathway to empathy began with profound personal tragedy. After losing two beloved brothers in close succession, he found himself relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms from his past. But with the help of mindfulness, therapy, and a devoted support system, Michael moved through his darkest times by building empathy for himself, first, and then others. Sharing the transformative power of empathy became his calling. While it takes commitment and courage, the rewards are immense. Not only does empathy enrich our personal relationships, it also creates more inclusive and compassionate communities.
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Michael Tennant (00:00:00) – When I went deeper into this world of empathy, the biggest game changer is when. When I realized how much of what was holding me back was my relationship with myself by having a greater love for myself and made it easier to enforce boundaries. If we don’t have a strong relationship with ourselves, it’s sometimes hard to know where we need to enforce certain boundaries. And I’m not talking about, say, someone on a completely different political axis than me. I’m talking about in my home, you know, my parents. That’s actually the biggest testing ground oftentimes.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:36) – So we live in a world where it feels like relationships are just kind of perpetually fraying at the edges. Loneliness has become an epidemic. We feel more disconnected than ever before, and society as a whole is increasingly dominated by othering and dehumanization, and it is causing so much pain. Question is what can we do about this? And where do we even begin? Well, a great starting point is a powerful tool that we call empathy. It’s like the giant lever that holds within it the capacity to bridge divides, heal relationships, relieve isolation and loneliness, foster openness, and open the door to true human connection.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:16) – My guest today, Michael Tennent, has made it his life’s work to cultivate and spread empathy. Michael is the founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab, a purpose driven company focused on creating experiences that teach empathy. He’s also the creator of the empathy card game Actually Curious, and the author of the book The Power of Empathy A 30 Day Path to Personal Growth and Social Change. And in our conversation, Michael shares his deeply personal journey to understanding empathy and provides practical steps that we can all take to grow in empathy. I found that empathy the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It’s this incredibly powerful yet often equally neglected skill. We often assume that you either have it or you don’t, when in fact it’s something that we can all learn and cultivate and deepen into when we approach the world with open minds and open hearts, seemingly insurmountable barriers, they start to crumble. Imagining life through another person’s eyes, even if just for a moment, can turn others into fellow human beings. And as Michael reveals, it’s not just innate, it is entirely trainable.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:24) – Michael’s own pathway to empathy began with profound personal tragedy. Actually, after losing two beloved brothers in close succession, he found himself reeling, understandably, of course, and then relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms from his past. But with the help of mindfulness and therapy and a devoted support system and a reclamation of a sense of empathy and self empathy, Michael moved through these truly dark times by building empathy first for himself and then towards others, and sharing the transformational power of empathy became his calling. While it takes commitment and courage, the rewards are truly immense. Not only does empathy enrich our personal relationships, it also creates more inclusive and compassionate communities, and we go into a lot of different ideas on exactly how this works and how you might be able to cultivate this within yourself and those around you. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life project. As we had this conversation. You are the founder CEO of Curiosity Lab, which is an organization that really deepens into producing services, experiences, gatherings focused around the notion of teaching empathy.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:45) – You even have a card game, actually curious, which went out there in the world that serves this purpose. And I want to dive into what empathy is, and a lot of the different ideas you have around teaching it. But before we even get there, one of my initial curiosities is just around the teach ability of this thing called empathy, because I’ve had conversations with people over the years about this, and I’ve come to be pretty comfortable with the notion that this is something that is teachable. But I’m sometimes surprised by the fact that I’m in conversation with folks who really don’t think it is. Talk to me about that a bit.
Michael Tennant (00:04:22) – I guess I always start with myself. When you first started venturing towards the question, I started to think about my own journey and how far I’ve come in terms of understanding my own emotions, understanding my habits, understanding even the times where my emotions override my more clear thought and having a better relationship with that. So oftentimes I always say like, I work as an empathy thought leader now, but don’t always, never, as I reflect backwards, think that I’ve always been.
Michael Tennant (00:04:57) – I haven’t always been as empathetic as I am today. Different ways. One of our premises, in terms of having resilience for our work, is to believe that everyone can go from a starting place to a deeper place of using empathy as a tool for their own well-being, but also for connecting with the people around them, people that are close to them, as well as people who there’s some distance that they want to close. Yeah. And I think I’ve also kind of surrendered a bit to an optimistic belief that by helping others who may have differing views and may may take this tool of empathy and interpret it differently than I am, which I think is where some of the cynicism comes from. Maybe just never seeing the ability to agree rather than to use empathy as as I have come to work with it within the power of empathy and within my consulting practice. But I do think that even, even that person can find a benefit for empathy, for taking care of themselves, for connecting to people closer to them.
Michael Tennant (00:06:09) – And then my hope is that from this place of deeper resources, deeper well-being, deeper compassion, then there’s greater chance to come closer together, even with that person that we’re very, very far apart from.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:22) – I think we would all love to see that happen. You know, for you, the exploration, the study of empathy, the teaching of empathy, the sharing of empathy has risen to the level of your profession at this point. But this is personal. This really is about your own path and some struggles that you’ve had. So take me there a little bit, because this wasn’t just something where it popped up one idea and said, the world needs empathy and let’s build the business around it and teach it. This is much more personal for you.
Michael Tennant (00:06:51) – Yeah. The way I define empathy is empathy is a tool that we use to understand our sixth sense of emotions, and how that awareness can be used to help us be more resilient and help us be more purposeful. When we experience strong emotions, purposeful and channeling it into our purpose, purposeful in just assuring that we don’t act in a way that we feel the need to regret later on, or to grow heavily, grow through.
Michael Tennant (00:07:24) – But my personal journey, I would say, definitely started with therapy, with finding the need to develop a mindfulness practice as I was trying to put substance use behind me. So a lot of the underpinnings that you learn about in my book, The Power of Empathy, you’ll see actually our attempts at making mindfulness simple and repeatable to practice in our day to day life. But when this all catalyzed for me was after a significant loss in my family, I lost my closest older brother, Chris. July 13th, 2019. And for that weekend, I returned to the toxic coping mechanisms that I’d clung to throughout my 20s and 30s. And I came to the conclusion, the realization, the awakening that if I if I continue to use those ways of coping, that I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here today. And I managed to find support in a loved one. A close friend who lived nearby who stayed awake with me. And when that weekend passed, you know, I went to the work week.
Michael Tennant (00:08:45) – I took bereavement leave, and I had the time to really, really turn inward and really start to discover what it would look like to anchor my healing around something. And that’s what would unfold over time into what? What is now called the five Phases of Empathy, which are outlined in the book The Power of Empathy.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:07) – You know, it’s interesting because the way you describe it, I think when most people hear the word empathy, the first thing they think is, well, empathy is something you have towards some other, whether it’s someone you know, whether it’s a stranger, whether it’s a community, but it’s this outward type of thing. But part of the way that you’re describing it right now is sort of suggesting that there’s another aspect of empathy, which is empathy towards self.
Michael Tennant (00:09:32) – Yeah. What I realized in the early parts of that grieving and working through my own healing processes, there were times where, you know, I was raw and less patient with others and various aspects of that would unfold because now we’re, you know, we’re in a family that all of us have experienced and are now working through healing in different ways.
Michael Tennant (00:09:57) – So we’re all raw in our own ways later on, I mentioned in the book, three months later would actually lose another older brother, my brother Darren. In that case, I would later actually lose my job as well. There’s just a lot of losing faith with trusting how the outer world would support me. So I needed to to learn and develop tools to go inward. But what I found was that I my family members, when I would go out on the road and start to share my story and share it alongside the conversation game, actually curious, which forces people to confront topics that they’re not used to bringing up in new relationships, let alone day to day in close, familiar conversations. What I found was I wasn’t alone. The difficulty I had confronting the difficult but always occurring emotions that might show up as the summer of 2020 and the pandemic and the racial reckoning would unfold. I started to connect that to how we have conversations when we’re in conflict, and reading more deeply about what happens to us emotionally, how our emotions might hijack our higher intentions in a difficult conversation, and lead us to a more protective place and a separating place.
Michael Tennant (00:11:25) – So yes, it’s about going inward, because the more prepared we are to stay with those difficult emotions is, the more prepared we are to do our part in staying in change and being a leader, working through a conflict, whether that be one that is very close to us, like in a in a romantic relationship where there’s something that we just stay away from that’s like a red zone. You stay away from that, but it’s just kind of growing as something bigger in that partnership, or whether it’s a negotiation or a cultural shift that we’re trying to navigate, like, say, in the workplace. And so that that inward and outward has that relationship because many of us aren’t equipped with that emotional awareness to say, oh, wow, my shame just came in and spoke up real loud. And now I’m actually not in this room anymore, physically am, but mentally and emotionally I’m not.
Jonathan Fields (00:12:23) – It’s like some things that we hear over and over are true. Like the notion of like, it’s really hard to share a certain experience or emotion or, or support others in a particular way when we have trouble treating ourselves in that same way or seeing ourselves in that same way.
Jonathan Fields (00:12:39) – You know, it’s hard to access love for other people when internally we hate ourselves, right? We can project it, we can perform it, but to actually feel it and then genuinely like, make that real is a difficult thing. It sounds like that’s what you’re describing.
Michael Tennant (00:12:56) – Yeah, I love the way you played that back, because I’m working through the 30 days and the power of empathy myself again, as best as I can with fresh eyes. And so I get to see like, okay, I think I did a pretty decent job at helping people walk through a process that helps them to separate from their ego a bit and look at it from a detached place, which is an abstract concept. It’s one that I only I’m only starting to feel a facility with, you know? But I think that through the 30 days, we kind of get you to a place where you have enough compassion. With yourself enough ability to notice and be with your most challenging emotions, that you can kind of see it from a distance a little bit.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:39) – Yeah. And for our listeners, what you’re describing is in the book, you actually walk people through essentially a 30 day process where each day there’s a different focus, a different prompt, a different exercise, and I want to drop into some of those particular days and tease them out a bit. I think there’s so much value in all of them, but I don’t want to skip over what you shared just a few moments ago, which is this notion of a five phase approach to empathy, and I never really thought about it that way. I think so many of us are familiar with things like the stages of grief or things like that, but in terms of almost setting up a similar framework for the development of empathy, it’s interesting and new to me. Share a bit more about the five different phases or stages.
Michael Tennant (00:14:21) – I remember in the summer of 2020 when I started visualizing outward from my own work of a scenario in which I might be able to lead a team in doing this work with the goal, with my own intrinsic goal, but also putting myself in their shoes and thinking about what some of their goals for empathy might be.
Michael Tennant (00:14:48) – And for me, I really want there to be a future where the role of Dei, the role of change management, the role of bridge building is not just a skill set of a handful of people, but rather a kind of building block of how we even teach our young people. So it really becomes a almost status quo rather than an exception or a burden on a handful of people who are raising their hands and volunteering. But in order to do that, you really need to come up with a model that is relatable and beneficial to everyone. Earlier, we got to speak about some of the elements that are in phase one. So phase one is called the language of feelings, and the goal there is to get us all on the same page with a shared lexicon on empathy. But most importantly, to get us practicing a type of empathy that we all have, but we’re not very aware of or trained to pay attention to, which is our somatic empathy or ability to notice our emotions in our bodies, which actually happens before we can make an intellectual or cognitive connection to it.
Michael Tennant (00:16:01) – And it’s a game changer. It becomes a mindfulness practice that you can do. We’re doing it right now subconsciously, like checking in with one another, checking in with ourselves as well. Right? But it amplifies our ability to do that, whether that is already a concept that is familiar to you or if it’s new in phase two, the importance of intention. It’s really about for me, my healing was so much about knowing my values, knowing my purpose in a way that was easy to call upon in challenging times in a statement form, and having that as a means through which I could process my most challenging emotions. It’s a practice that I had somewhat minus the somatic experience part, but I had that as a reflection and focusing practice for my own growth prior. But pairing that with the somatic awareness, I feel that warmth, that heat building in my chest and processing that against values and purpose. It’s also it’s also linear enough that that folks who who are a bit more linear minded can connect to that concept of somatic experience in a salient way.
Michael Tennant (00:17:21) – Phase three is channeling purpose, which is really about understanding our power of choice. It’s about understanding our power of choice around using mindfulness to not let our minds wander on things that are not useful for us, or stress inducing, or just ultimately outside of our control completely, and really strengthening our muscle at bringing our attention and our energy towards those things that we can control. But but, you know, you can’t just underscore the mind part, our inner narrative. And we spend a lot of time on exercises that kind of get us looking at how so much of our inability to channel our energy towards our purpose is within ourselves and within our own choice, rather than even the external spaces. So the first three phases are building this internal practice of bringing our emotions, layering them, bringing them more intentionally into how we speak, how we think, and how we act. So the last two is where after we’ve hopefully we’ve won you by taking. Care of you individually. You know, just these three phases alone should help maximize your ability to start to enforce boundaries, but also to start to audit what is really meaningful to you versus perhaps that automatic decision that we make sometimes because of cultural inertia, because of shame, because of emotions that we don’t want to tackle? Perhaps.
Michael Tennant (00:18:56) – Right. So if if we’re taking care of, especially in the workspace, the individuals, in a way that’s meaningful and nourishing for them and helping them have greater, stronger connections, then hopefully we’ve won permission to go to the outer phases where phase four, which is from empathy to impact, is about starting to look at our relationship with the groups that we share our energy with. Like I said, that actually starts with ourselves. Oftentimes when I went deeper into this work of empathy or healing or personal development, I think the biggest game changer is when I when I realized how much of what was holding me back was my relationship with myself. So but then by having a greater love for myself and made it easier to enforce boundaries with my family or with my job, these places that are so important to our safety, both material and psychological. If we don’t have a strong relationship with ourselves, it’s sometimes hard to know where we need to enforce certain boundaries.
Jonathan Fields (00:20:10) – It’s interesting also. I mean, just especially when you talk about boundaries, it’s almost like there’s this immediate thing to me that says, wait a minute, isn’t empathy about removing boundaries? But then you think, but self empathy is about understanding how to actually create healthy boundaries so that maybe you can then turn outward in a more resourced way and then find a stronger well for empathy to then engage beyond yourself.
Jonathan Fields (00:20:38) – Does that land?
Michael Tennant (00:20:39) – Yeah, that resonates so much. And when you went there, it made me think about the compassion. Because of all the work that I do on empathy within myself, I can now look at a outburst or a less empathetic response oftentimes is what’s underneath that the fear that’s underneath that, the lack of, I guess, just like safety to approach it from a more grounded place. Right. And I’m not talking about, say, someone on a completely different political axis than me. I’m talking about in my home. You know, my parents as well. That’s actually the biggest, I think, testing ground oftentimes.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:24) – And these days sometimes, like all of the big divides exist within the family, within the home. Now. So it’s like we’ve got it all, you know. So. Take me to the last one. The fifth. The fifth phase here.
Michael Tennant (00:21:39) – Yeah. Usually I get to break these up with exercises and games, so I’m, like, self-conscious when when I’m just explaining it all in a row.
Michael Tennant (00:21:47) – But the fifth phase is where we hopefully it starts to get easy, but that is not. There’s usually, I would say, almost like a tipping point of belief. So the fifth phase is called living with abundance, and it’s where you’ve been listening to the intelligence and the emotions in your body. You’ve been channeling that through your values and your purpose. You’ve gotten better at understanding your power of choice and expressing that. And now you’re directing your energy into the spaces and places where it’s needed most, and claiming it back from the places and spaces where it’s being depleted. Then you start to attract values aligned people, you know. I think the reason I pause is because I feel like I’ve hit phase five and fallen out of it so many times, and so much of it is again, back to that. That narrative within is recognizing and believing, oftentimes when it seems scary that by returning to those principles that that ease will eventually come, those allies will find you. That that big break, like the many various breaks that have happened to help this movement get to where it is today will happen.
Michael Tennant (00:23:12) – As long as you’re really returning to your integrity and taking care of yourself in that way.
Jonathan Fields (00:23:18) – I would imagine also and tell me if this is right, because you’re the one who’s out in the world teaching this and working with people and, you know, in real life you laid them out in sort of like a linear fashion, like, here’s one, two, three, four, five and you shared that last one. Sometimes you drop in, you drop out of it. But I have to imagine in a real world scenario, like once, once the five phases hit real life, it’s not linear. You know that we’re probably going to be dropping back and jagged between this and that and that and this. And there’s probably if you look at a long term trajectory, it’s like, oh, okay. I’m slowly able to keep moving a little bit more forward, a little bit more forward and sustain in some of those the outer limbs of that, like the five different phases for longer. But we’re human beings, you know, we’re interacting with things that bother us, that upset us.
Jonathan Fields (00:24:05) – Some days we wake up and we feel amazing and empowered and resource and other days we don’t. Yeah, I would imagine in real world, like there’s got to be a sense of forgiveness, forgiving of your own humanity when you’re working with this and saying like, some days I’m going to get it right and some days I’m not. And you know what? That’s okay because I’m going to stay on the path. And that’s really what matters more.
Michael Tennant (00:24:26) – Absolutely. So much of this work is about compassion and being able to look at ourselves without judgment in order to build that muscle, to be able to do that with strangers one day. And, you know, as you were bringing up that point, I just have to laugh. And I’m trying my best as a New Yorker who, you know, grew up getting definitely offended by someone cutting you off in the road or just really like taking your space. I’ve had to, like, really cultivate a spirit of levity and grace and a short attention span to irritations.
Michael Tennant (00:25:06) – And it’s always going to be work. I was in LA the other day and I almost, I almost sped up after someone, but I didn’t do it. And by the way.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:15) – You and I shared that like, you know, after 30 years in New York City, like recently out, and I’m ordering coffee in the morning and, you know, people are having a conversation with the barista, with the person taking their order. And I’m like, we don’t do this in New York. Like, what are you doing? There’s a lot of people behind you. Like, how rude is this? Don’t you know? And then I catch myself and I’m like, what is wrong with me? You know? Yeah, it is still so in me. It’s just sort of like you live your whole life that way, and it’s kind of hard to rewire it.
Michael Tennant (00:25:45) – Yeah. I think maybe that’s, that’s one of the things I needed to get some distance. I actually do feel like I can maintain that grace quite a bit in New York these days.
Michael Tennant (00:25:55) – But, you know, as I was on the road, I’ve been actually leading off most of my readings with day 30 of The Power of Empathy, which is start from zero. You know, I never intended to actually write a book necessarily that would fall in the realm of personal development and want people to really to understand exactly what you described, that yes, this is a path. And and there may be some days that will resonate more than others. Hopefully there’s going to be enough in there that really helps you strengthen your empathy skills and to get started on that journey. But the biggest thing. Her takeaway is that it’s going to be ongoing and there’s going to be new. Just, you know, just when I’ve thought, hey, oh, man, I’m meditating every morning for my, you know, my, my app says 400 days. And then I get into an argument with my dad around something small like a look. And it’s like, here I am, I’m back at zero, you know, what do I need to learn about that? And then what do I need to learn about that? But it’s more like, what can we my parts, what can the part that was irritated that still has a part to heal? What is it trying to say that perhaps today we’re capable with these tools of finding the answer to and giving, giving that love and compassion and safety that it’s looking for.
Michael Tennant (00:27:26) – So, you know, just really trying to get practiced with how we talk to ourselves, how we parent ourselves, how we coach ourselves from one stumble to growth. And ultimately, you know, that’s what day 30 zero mindset is, is, you know, we may we may turn to this book to work through grief and then turn to it again to work through professional growth or parenting, because at the end of the day, the emotions still show up. And oftentimes some of the biggest hurdles is that emotional block that we didn’t even know was there yet.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:08) – Yeah, that makes so much sense. One of the things I think we might not have touched on directly, we sort of talked around it. It’s really one of the many questions in this conversation. I do want to drop into some of the specific exercises that you shared during the 30 days, because I think they’re really rich. But for somebody who’s actually not convinced yet, for somebody who’s like, okay, I get it, I see the stages of empathy.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:31) – I think it’s probably teachable. You know, like there are exercises. But for somebody who’s not convinced why it actually would be important to invest energy in cultivating empathy, what’s the why here? Like, why is it so important that we invest in cultivating this capacity in us? You know, like we’ve talked a bit about how it affects us individually, but we live in a complex world. We have relationships, you know, professional, educational, personal, interpersonal. A lot of us are also really lonely. We don’t have relationships that we wish we had. When we look out in the world and we say, what is the job? What is the benefit of having a high capacity for empathy in the world on a day, a live, day to day practical level? Talk to me a bit more about that.
Michael Tennant (00:29:20) – There’s a question I get often, and these days I’m getting better at starting with going to the bottom line, the risk factor. You know, in today’s society, in our workforce, there are expectations around fair treatment, their sensitivities, and quite frankly, companies who aren’t equipping and aren’t assuring that they are empowering leadership, who are acting on their behalf with the skill sets to navigate this heightened sensitivity are actually leaving themselves exposed to financial risk, to legal risk, let alone cultural out.
Michael Tennant (00:30:02) – That’s more important to me is, hey, how are we connecting with one another? How are we fostering environments of trust that are allowing that the brilliance that we invest in hiring and bringing into our organizations stays there and feels like they belong so that they can actually innovate. They can actually bring that extra genius, if you will. You know, that special thing that happens when people feel safe and connected to one another in our best teams. But with remote work, with there’s just so many factors that at play right now that get in the way of getting to that optimal chemistry. Right. You know, when I talk to my banker friends who are helping us to pursue fundraising, you know, they always urge us to speak to the financial risk. I’m curious what you think, Jonathan, as a gentleman who’s sharing, sharing your platform here, you think it’s important in the world. Why do you think it’s important?
Jonathan Fields (00:31:07) – Yeah, I mean, for sure, I see it in the context of work.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:11) – I tend to think of it more on personal terms. People are so disconnected that the level of loneliness reported right now, the level of lack of companionship, of friendship, of belonging is so high right now, and it’s leading to genuine suffering. And that suffering is actually showing up not just in mental illness, but in physical illness as well, and compounds into each other and it is literally destroying. The ability for so many people to live good lives, and at the same time it’s isolating us. It’s taking two people or two communities and making it so that they only see themselves as others, and that all they see is difference rather than like, well, how are we alike? And not to erase or knowledge difference and especially difference that needs to be addressed. Inequality that needs to be addressed. Absolutely. But at the same time, in my mind, the way that we bridge the gap between all of this is to be able to even if, you know, for a hot minute in a partial way, we can feel another person’s heartbeat.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:16) – We can stand in another person’s shoes, we can see even a passing glimpse of their history, because maybe just then we can start to see them again, first as human beings rather than walking issues. Yeah. And in my mind that not only starts to open the door to breaking down our our sense of loneliness and disconnectedness, but also starting to heal chasms that I think we really, really need in society right now. You know, to me, I completely get the bottom line part of it and sort of like the organization on the enterprise level. And I love the fact that enterprises who say yes to this can pull really big levers to make a difference. But I look at this just on like an individual, like day to day walking around level like, how is this going to make people feel better? Yeah.
Michael Tennant (00:33:08) – You know, it’s refreshing. It’s re-energizing to hear your perspective, particularly after like digging in to like how to bring this value to a naysayer, which is oftentimes the shoes. As a person who’s become it’s now also my career.
Michael Tennant (00:33:29) – I often have to think that, you know, okay, how do we bring it to this leader who doesn’t thinks that, you know, it’s only going to affect soft skills. And you know, what I think is relevant about that, that kind of just even you hearing that aspect of what it looks like to walk a day, a day in my shoes is it’s the empathy that I have for the leaders that I often support who have a similar challenge. Often, especially in the years outside of 2021 and into 2022 and into a year of economic uncertainty, it becomes less of what we can do to help ourselves live happier, healthier. And it becomes, how do we justify it through the lens of capitalism?
Jonathan Fields (00:34:15) – Yeah, and I think there is an argument there like you just described. But I also get the sense that we’re talking about the same thing, because the upward pressure, the groundswell pressure that you started by speaking about in the context of organizations are now whether they want to address this or not, they have to.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:32) – And a big part of the reason is because the culture may not have changed at an organization, but people have. So many more people are showing up saying, no, no, no, no, this is actually non-negotiable for me. And if you guys don’t do something about this, I’m out. Rather than just saying it, they’re exiting. Yeah. So it’s almost like whether organizations want to or not, they can’t not address this anymore. And those individuals are showing up and demanding this. They’re the ones who are feeling it. They’re the ones who are feeling the loss and the isolation and the pain and the suffering. And they’re like, I need to solve for this. Not just out there in the world, in my personal relationships, but in the place where I’m spending eight, ten, 12 hours a day also. So I think we’re talking about the same thing, but almost like from two different angles.
Michael Tennant (00:35:18) – Yeah, there’s a certain level of connection to ourselves and to the things that matter to us most that a large percentage of our society got exposed to during the pandemic and with return to work with economic headwinds that way of being is is 100% in a want to say like backsliding.
Michael Tennant (00:35:43) – But it’s not the same, obviously. Right. It’s not exactly the same in terms of us having the capacity to connect to ourselves. So what we’ve learned during that time period about what feels good, what’s nourishing, what’s bringing us happiness, what’s depleting us, we have to bring that into practice in different ways in order to keep consistent with it. So there’s 100% that internal is always going to be there. And I think that I think one of the other ways that we 100% agree is that in terms of helping each other to connect better to themselves and to be able to find that compassion, to reach out to someone who may be lonely or even to close gaps within their relationship web, then we have more capacity for the outer. The challenge. Is that come up the our ambitions towards affecting society. It really starts with being full 100%.
Jonathan Fields (00:36:42) – It’s interesting. Use the word compassion also, and it would imagine some people have a little trouble distinguishing between empathy and compassion. I’ve always looked at empathy as one of two elements of compassion.
Jonathan Fields (00:36:56) – And this is my own notion. Like I have no idea if it’s valid or not, but when I look at compassion, to me it deconstructs to empathy. Plus altruism, the ability to feel another’s experience, plus the impulse to do something about it. I’m wondering how you distinguish those.
Michael Tennant (00:37:13) – The relationship between empathy and compassion, and the way that we construct in the five phases of empathy is by understanding emotions, by being willing to notice and label emotions, we can then sort of detach from the power of it. The intensity of it. So when we’re practicing that within ourselves, we may encounter a person, a situation, an occurrence that brings about a rise in emotions. But we now have the ability to look at it from a detached place. You know that compassion ends up being two way. It’s compassion for ourselves. Hey, is it worth it to get to a more elevated place? Is it worth it for my well-being, for my time, for my attention, but also to looking at potential scenarios that may be outside our initial narrative? Maybe something happened on the other side that was outside of their control.
Michael Tennant (00:38:18) – Maybe an experience that they’ve had in their past has led to the way that they’re reacting. So the relationship between empathy and compassion is often, hey, you know, we are not our emotions, they are not our emotions. This situation is not the emotions that are present here and not the totality of it. And by having that stronger relationship with the emotions that it allows us to bring compassion in times where where it may be difficult. The other element is the less emotionally resourced we are on any given day or moment is, the less equipped we’re going to be to offer compassion. So if I know I’m coming into a challenging situation and I haven’t slept or, you know, conversation with you, then there’s probably a higher likelihood that whatever, whatever you bring to the table, I’m not going to have more enough compassion for. So again, by understanding the emotions that are in me as a baseline, it allows me to prepare for compassion. So then the way that then applies, like in situations of conflict, is if I already know, well, hey, we disagree.
Michael Tennant (00:39:28) – We’ve come to the table five times and we’ve fought. Now I can even start to visualize this. Our last engagement and where things went awry. Maybe I can have compassion for myself. Okay, that’s what happened for me. I can have compassion for you. I’m understanding your point of view a little bit better and why this continues to cause. So just by strengthening the practice of empathy, it allows us to bring compassion and unexpected or expected moments, you know?
Jonathan Fields (00:40:00) – And it ties into one of the one of the exercises in the days of the 30 days, which is and you referenced this earlier, the notion of somatic experiencing because it’s okay. So you’ve got to actually gain the ability to notice what you’re feeling at any given time and almost label it. Talk to me a little bit about this particular one.
Michael Tennant (00:40:22) – You know, I talked about the different tools and support systems that I had brought into my life before it became a ongoing and regular practice. A muscle, a muscle memory, if you will.
Michael Tennant (00:40:38) – One of those communities is actually my men’s group, men’s emotional leadership group. It was largely stems out of an organization called everyman, in which I have also done their men’s Emotional Leadership Coaching training program. The reason I referenced this so heavily is one of the biggest principles that underpins their work is somatic experiencing. You know, like I said, that is the ability to notice emotions as they arise in your body and almost slow it down in a matrix like awareness to where you you notice the sensations. And through practice, you can start to map your emotional physiology. And you can start to actually know what decent certainty. When I feel this in my chest, that’s a marker of fear or it’s a marker of anger. So there are five core emotions joy, fear, anger, shame and sadness for them are a bit more challenging because all of our emotions are born out of our nervous systems. So even joy, the way I like to think about it is okay. Our nervous system is at rest. We’re recharging.
Michael Tennant (00:41:47) – We’re we’re building that capacity, that tank, that compassion or that preparedness for something more challenging than that perhaps physical danger, not just psychological danger. I think one of my superpowers that I was able to deploy in writing The Power of Empathy and in even devising the Five Phases of Empathy, is that my first life? My first career has been as a storyteller, and I’m often thinking about, how do I put myself in your shoes? How do I take a concept that’s challenging and make it memorable? How do make it very into your mind and that’s very much the process or thinking that went into us creating the actually curious conversation game and gamifying what it would look like to build trust and to get progressively into more challenging conversations through a game. And so we brought a similar approach to how do we how do we teach people to practice somatic experiencing. And, you know, mentioned being out on the road, playing actually curious and asking people to hear my story of loss and, and how that repetition, the repetition of telling my story actually made it easier and easier.
Michael Tennant (00:42:57) – And I was almost having little healing journeys every time I told that story and maybe shed a tear or something. But one of the things that I noticed that was a game changer for me was when I noticed sharing goosebumps and hair raised with someone across from me while we were answering a question. That was one. But the second thing that stood out for me was in a very, very early workshop that I was facilitating at the University of Arizona. It was like a stop on one of these epic road trips that I was on before the pandemic, and I was in a room of about 40 people. Each person grabbed a question from the actually curious Happy Hour edition. And those questions. The thesis of the Happy Hour edition is questions that help us explore the things that makes us happy. But for the first time, I’d kind of game tested it in such a broad space. And what I realized is it was like 6,570% hit rate in terms of smiles and joy and obvious like markers of joy, rather than more challenging experiences with the questions like questions about your relationship with your parents or something like that.
Michael Tennant (00:44:11) – And I started to realize that we don’t all react to the same questions the same. And if we could use these questions almost as a control and allow individuals and to do this in group work and to do this in individual work. But to use the questions is a stimulus that allows us to then check in, okay, what do I feel in my body when I think about and hear that question? Okay, now that I’ve noticed, I’ve noticed that tingling in my fingers or that twitch in my leg, what emotion might that be? Just by using that exercise of using the question as a stimulus and then focusing you on the body, then the labeling, it actually strengthens your ability to even do it in day to day conversation, or walking on the street or in the car. You know, one of us former New Yorkers is driving, and we choose not to go with that stimulus.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:05) – Yeah, I mean, I love just the the practice of regularly checking in and just sort of like noticing what am I feeling physically? Where am I feeling it and what is that actually, you know, like what is the emotion that’s associated with it.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:19) – And by repeating that over time. Almost starting to to be able to, you know, be able to just identify it much more rapidly. Like rather oh, I can translate myself, I can translate my body and I don’t have to do work to translate anymore. I just know this is really what’s going on, and it’s going to affect the way that I bring myself to and interaction. So let me fold that into the choices that I’m making and the things that I’m saying. It’s so powerful. You know, one of the other things that you talk about a little bit further down in the 30 days is the notion of modeling safety and support. And I thought this was really powerful as well. So take me into that a bit too.
Michael Tennant (00:46:00) – Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely a theme that comes up in the book several places. So I’m going to jump to a couple that come to my mind. Well, for starters, again, the game actually curious. And if you follow the rules, it’s really about you ask a question and then you listen without interrupting.
Michael Tennant (00:46:19) – And while you’re listening, if you you feel a rise in your body or what have you, that’s actually intelligence that you’re gathering about, about how you and your system are reacting to that question. But all the while, you’re respecting the other person’s ability to speak and not be judged even even if it’s bringing up challenging emotions. So we bring that exercise and we bring that practice of what does it look like to ask yourself a question and really allow yourself to go through the spectrum of thoughts and expression that may show up, and what it might then look like to turn that lens outward now that you’ve practiced. Okay, I’ve listened to myself with such compassion. Now I can I can turn my ego down a little bit to give you that space and allow you to practice that, especially if you haven’t you haven’t read the book yet. There’s an exercise that I love doing live in the book as well. And hope. I hope I’ve done an effective job at translating it into a self-guided direction. But it’s called the third body, the third Body exercise.
Michael Tennant (00:47:32) – And for me, this is one of the biggest stretches in our ability to create safe space for one another, because it literally asks of us that we attempt to not just put ourselves in each other’s shoes, but to fold it together and to think about our perspective. Think about the various perspectives that might be in the room, and to speak on behalf of the collective. How many times do we, as you know, I’m a recent father, so I get to say we do this on behalf of the family. I probably do that sometimes on behalf of me and my wife sometimes. And so, so that she so she too. But how many times do we do that on autopilot versus bringing an intentional process to who might not feel comfortable speaking up here? You know who for various power dynamics that are at play that aren’t called out on a day to day basis may not be fully heard. Now, what would it look like for me to try to not just embody my own perspective and ego and experiences and desires and outcomes, but also to attempt this audacious task of of really embodying the perspective of the group.
Michael Tennant (00:48:50) – You know, the thing is, is it’s not meant to be perfect, and it will never be. But we do it all the time, right? So this exaggerated practice of it actually strengthens our ability, because then in the exercise, we then ask you to look for affirmation vulnerably ask in the room, did I get it right or did I get it wrong? Because even that getting it wrong and allowing our system to, in a safe space, practice getting it wrong without like crumbling into fear. That’s work that we all can. We can all do.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:30) – Yeah. I mean, that’s where we grow. And that’s also we connect more through our vulnerability than I think anything else. It’s when we project some illusion of perfection which everyone knows is fake. That’s when we we stop from being able to connect. It’s like when we actually own our humanity in the face of others. That’s when others like, oh, you’re real too sweet. Me too. Maybe I’ll share a little bit more about like me as well.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:57) – Like beyond, you know, like this thing I’m trying to project out into the room because I feel like that’s how I have to show up. Yeah. So that lands in a really powerful way. It’s interesting to. Right, because this is something where you can scan the room for like, like who’s not being acknowledged, what voice isn’t being heard. This can be at a dinner table. This can be in a sales meeting. This can be around like this can be in a team, in a corporation. It’s like almost any setting you’re going to find this. And then to ask that, to say like we want to hear, we want to know and then to reflect it back. Right. And then to ask, did I get it right? The prompts are simple. Yeah, but the impact I got to imagine you’ve seen this probably so many times during the exercise. The impact has got to be so powerful.
Michael Tennant (00:50:42) – You know, as you were recapping through that, I was. Thinking about all the times where I’ve walked into a room or something was said, and you can you can feel like the shift physically in the room, but no one has the confidence or the skill sets to just bring that into the room.
Michael Tennant (00:50:59) – So it just kind of sits as a as a riff until we until you part and maybe into the future as well. Or even at that dinner table, just someone’s body language changes and they can either sit there in that discomfort or we could do something different that brings a different dynamism to the table by letting that person feel acknowledged or. I laugh a little bit because I realize that now I’m doing this work so frequently that I almost have some expectations of where we’re willing to go for real connection, where we’re willing to go to remain in our integrity, and to really honor ourselves in engagements. And and sometimes I think if everyone doesn’t have a similar baseline of expectations of boundaries and communication and and willingness to experience discomfort, then it actually can cause some dissonance as well.
Jonathan Fields (00:51:58) – Yeah, I could see that. It’s almost like you have to I don’t know if you have to, but probably an invitation to try and level set expectations.
Michael Tennant (00:52:07) – Yeah, well, you got to read the room, right?
Jonathan Fields (00:52:09) – Yeah, 100%, 100% a little bit further down as we move towards the later part of the 30 days, there’s a theme that kind of pops up in some different things, which is a theme of the relationship between empathy, scarcity and abundance.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:22) – I thought that was fascinating because I really never thought about the relationship between those. Curious about your take on that and why you feel like that is teasing that out is so important to the development of empathy.
Michael Tennant (00:52:35) – So there are two things that I wanted to tackle conceptually, but with returning to empathy and scarcity. One is our relationship with ourselves and our own narratives and our habits of returning to what we don’t have, rather than really appreciating what we do have. So much of my healing happened when so much of my material comfort and safety was stripped away. So much of my connection that remains today to happiness and fulfillment and just really feeling like I’m moving in a place where I’m walking in alignment with my purpose happened after losing a lot of the material comforts that I was used to. So it was really important for me to try to unpack that part of my healing and my empathy journey, and how much more compassion it was opening up to have that awareness. The other thing I wanted to try to address is just something that still can’t understand, which is why we hoard, why we protect so heavily, why we otherwise so heavily.
Michael Tennant (00:53:55) – And I wanted to do it from a place of empathy and from a place of compassion. That place of compassion is just honoring that our dominant way of being and interacting with one another, particularly in the Western world, is through the lens of scarcity. If I don’t have enough, I run out, address a passage of of weather cycles and hunting gathering, and the ability to really grow crops in northern climates in a short time in the year. So what it means is if we don’t grow crops and harvest them, then we don’t grow crops and save them for the non growing season than we die. So there’s this relationship between hoarding and this perception of death that hasn’t truly existed for, you know, since the industrial food revolution. So I just really try to bring to a place that is tangible, that is hopefully doesn’t feel ideologically biased, that we can process our relationship with scarcity, and how that then dictates how we engage with one another and how we engage with ourselves.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:19) – Yeah, I think it’s such a powerful underpinning because and it makes sense that if you’re coming to an interaction with a scarcity mindset, like there’s not enough resources for both of us, if you come into a relationship with that assumption and somehow you’re trying to engage in a way where everybody leaves feeling whole, it makes it hard because your brain isn’t going to be telling you the only way that.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:45) – That happens is if I give up something and I feel like I’m not going to have enough because there’s simply not enough for both of us to feel whole. So that means either we both suffer, or I’m going to suffer more to give them what they truly need, which makes empathy just harder to access, at least in my mind. So it was really interesting to have that teased out, because I never really thought about that relationship. But it makes a lot of sense.
Michael Tennant (00:56:13) – You know, and it relates to that power of choice. So we can either choose to continue to play into that system, or we can choose to find the ways individually and then outwardly, that we are abundant. I took a lot of care with how I address that, because I think that a lot of the places in spaces where scarcity and abundance are covered, I don’t think, give enough credence to the base level of psychological safety that’s needed to spend enough time in that that concept and disentangling from that scarcity for it to work.
Michael Tennant (00:56:57) – And because, you know, I have experienced such financial hardship, and I can look back at that person who would be resistant to these ideas. I really tried to put myself in those shoes and still find ways of addressing that, that area of choice that would be resonant to everyone. Even if experiencing financial hardship.
Jonathan Fields (00:57:19) – You’re able to draw on your own experience. So zooming the lens out, we started the conversation sharing how you literally have turned the exploration, the teaching, and the sharing of empathy into your work. I don’t want to say life’s work because I don’t know that, but it’s certainly the center of your professional work now. And from what I understand, you have a big mission attached to this. You know, like you basically want to create a global community of people who are out there, you know, empathy crusaders, empathy teachers, and people who are practicing empathy in the world, which I think we just need now more than ever because the world needs it now more than ever. So I’m hopeful and inspired by the work that you’re doing.
Jonathan Fields (00:58:03) – It feels a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this conversation or in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up.
Michael Tennant (00:58:14) – To live a good life? It’s letting go quickly of the things that don’t serve us, and cherishing the moments and the people that do.
Jonathan Fields (00:58:28) – Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode safe bet you’ll also love the conversation that we had with Terry Reel about the power of us. You’ll find a link to Terry’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy.
Jonathan Fields (00:59:13) – Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life project.