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Episode 11 Transcript

Published: Thursday August 31, 2023

The Essence of Empathy | Michael Tennant

The Essence of Empathy and Inclusivity with Michael Tennant


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odd. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia, and I am so happy to have some more space and time with you today!

We have got an awesome, amazing guest. His name is Michael Tennant. He is an entrepreneur, A keynote speaker and author of The Power of Empathy coming soon. Dropping in all stores that you can let us know where we can buy this amazing book on October 24th and beyond into these stars.

He is a creator of Actually Curious, the empathy conversation game. I want you to dive into this creation and this product that I believe you are selling all over the place now, Nordstroms and all kinds of stores.

Michael, his work has been featured by the New York Times, the Today Show for his teachings and fostering empathy and having a thriving ecosystem of advocacy for diversity, mental health.

We love that.

And, well-being through his products, content, workshops, and technology.

Thank you so much for taking some time, Michael. I am inspired by you daily when I see your content coming out and by our friendship. So, thank you so much for sharing all of your goodness with us today.


Michael Tennant: Thank you. And same here. I feel like you set the bar with the wonderful work that you are doing. And, I am so grateful to be in that kind of energy exchange with you.

Alycia Anderson: Yes. Energy exchange, we are going to definitely talk about that because from the moment you and I met I feel like we have been having a very organic energy exchange. We come from different backgrounds, but I think we are advocating for a lot of the same things and we both lead with intention and with our heart. So, I am really, really excited to dive into that.

I think before we do, like can you share a little bit about who you are? What is your background? What are your intersections? What is your identity? What drove you to do this powerful work that you are doing today?

Michael Tennant: Yeah. Well, I am Michael Tennant and I go by… use he/him pronouns. I am from originally from Bedside Brooklyn, NY and my parents are Jamaican immigrants. So, I am a first generation American.

I grew up in a lower middle-class background in Brooklyn. But I have been fortunate that, you know, I have been blessed with some intellect and some skills that I have been able to use to get some great opportunities to study. Studying in different communities, communities that have more resources than I grew up with. And I have just been really grateful to bring that background of needing to figure out how to morph into other communities more resource than my own. I have been able to bring the learnings from a lifetime of that into spreading empathy and into a willingness to get uncomfortable in order to get to progress.

Alycia Anderson: I love that. It is like being uncomfortable is kind of required of us.

So, you brought up the word empathy, right? Like this is what your book is about. Your platform is… it is all over your platform. It is embedded in the work that you are doing.

Do you want to talk to us a little bit about why, empathy?

Michael Tennant: Yeah, sure. So, you mentioned the conversation game Actually Curious and Actually Curious was originally created to gamify building trust and getting people more confident discussing having intentional conversation, and ultimately getting people willing to lower their ego so they could see the other person’s perspective.

And, we got into this whole world of product development. Leading into the midterm elections of 2018. Looking at our country, looking at how divided it was becoming even then and wanting to not just be a part of the chorus of people talking about the issues but not actually using their skill sets, their creativity to try to make progress.

In this case, you know. I think a lot of people talk about divisiveness but are perfectly comfortable staying in their bubbles in their echo chambers. And, we wanted to disrupt that a bit.

Now, why I have gotten and committed my life to empathy because at that point this was just a thought leadership project. But in 2019, I suffered… my family and I suffered…we have… we and my brother’s friends and children, we suffered the loss of two of my older brothers, two of my siblings in separate occasions.

And like, I can actually feel the clenching in my abdomen right now just like when I learned that news for the first time.

And, at that time, I was not this thought leader and empathy and wellness and DEI… I was a marketer just in New York City trying to, you know with the values and trying to play with how to bring that more squarely into my life, but also, addicted to material things… addicted to climbing the corporate ladder… addicted to substances… addicted to dating and getting the affirmation… getting affirmation from that.

And so, the reason I ended up so deep in empathy is I realized I did not know how to be with difficult emotions. When I needed them to heal. I had to almost learn from scratch.

You know, finally, all like therapy and group therapy and all mindfulness. Which we are just abstract ideas. They finally came together and were like ohh these are… these are your tools for being able to be with these difficult emotions. Whether they be something as severe as a death or even just being in a difficult conversation.

So, you know, at the at the risk of being a bit long winded, I want to just connect that fast-forward after the summer of 2019 and into 2020 when the pandemic hit and then later on that summer when the racial uprising happened. I have gotten pretty decently along on my healing and having positive coping mechanisms and unpacking and wanting to bring meaning to… to all this pain and loss.

And I realized that. Humans. Americans. Humans at large, we have not been taught how to be with difficult emotions that show up.

Maybe some of us, but at large we do not know how to be with those difficult emotions.

And that was the catalyst for how I connected my experience of loss into something that was going to be useful for the world.

Alycia Anderson: That’s so… that is so… it is giving me the chills. It is so powerful.

And, can you talk a little bit about how that work with empathy. How you gift that to your clients?

Michael Tennant: Yeah, so you are seeing… sounds like… you are asking about learning and development, but you touched on our consumer products and the conversation game Actually Curious. You have talked about the book.

The thesis that rests atop it all is that we at Curiosity Lab make empathy easy and accessible to learn and teach.

So, whenever we get into the creation room, we are always thinking about how hard it is to learn or how hard it is to confront emotions and having empathy for that versus scoffing at it. And then we are trying to from that place of compassion. Come up with ways that are going to be fun. Gonna be sticky. Gonna be repeatable. That you can tell it back very easily and then it creates its own viral effect.

When we do learning and development that summer of the pandemic and the racial uprising. I ended up unpacking a model called the five phases of empathy and it starts with increasing your emotional awareness. Increasing your knowledge and confidence, speaking about your emotions, and giving you this baseline tool that you can actually slow down, notice, label your emotions, and then choose consciously how you want to act or respond or speak.

And so that is the foundation.

And even when I get to do a 30-minute talk or you know? Someone brings me into to facilitate a game of connection with their team, I will usually teach that skill up front so that when we get Actually Curious.

The way Actually Curious works is you start light and then you level up into deeper conversation.

So, if I can teach people like, OK, this is what it is gonna look like, feel like in your body when you are leveling up into those deeper conversations. Or even when you are waiting to hear this question and kind of, you are giving up control. This is what it feels like.

When you can slow that down and experience it in simulation and do that over and over.

It is just like any other exercise, now all of a sudden, the ball comes to you and you catch it instinctively because you have been practicing catching it all the time. Now the emotion comes and you can actually slow down, see it, label it, and choose rather than getting lost in it.

Alycia Anderson: So, I love it and I love the exercise of the facilitation through your cards and your game.

Like, can you give our listeners an example so they can? I mean, Marty and I have sat with your cards and played with them like it is such a great experience just to sit on the couch with your husband or your partner or your family and just start to engage with some of these challenging questions.

Like can you give like an example?

Michael Tennant: OK, so there are 5 editions of Actually Curious. There are two that are lighter in the icebreaker realm called the Culture Edition and the Happy Hour Edition.

There is one that is in the deep end and that is the Human Rights Edition. That is the black deck and that is 52 questions that get you discussing all your blind spots, right. And in a way… and we will see… maybe we will… we can go there.

In a way, I had noticed some of my own blind spots coming up, and I felt the safety to explore my blind spots around ability with you and Marty. And because I have done all of that work to say, “Hey. Do not run away from that feeling.” I even feel it in my heart now bringing it up.

I got to step in forward and that unlocked this beautiful friendship.

So how about we start in the lightest level of the human rights edition? Sorry, of the Curiosity Edition, and that is the blue level.

And just to make it fun. You, your listeners cannot see this, but I am gonna kind of scan across this deck and you are gonna tell me to stop and. I will pull a question.

Ready? So, starting now.

Alycia Anderson: OK.

Michael Tennant: So, we just scanned through the blue level, which is the lightest level in this deck.

You have to do a blue level question in order to unlock green.

So, after this we would be able to go up into the green level, but we would not be able to touch the yellow and pink levels yet until we stretch the container.

So, the question we have here in blue is, “When do you feel most secure?”

Alycia Anderson: Good question.

Michael Tennant: You know, for me, I know that. Actually, playing games like Actually Curious was really difficult for me or being asked these introspective questions like, “When do you feel most secure?” would actually get me upset… on why are you getting so personal with me!?!

This is like four years ago, but now after having the reps of doing it by myself like you said. Introspect, doing it groups, feeling that discomfort, realizing afterwards. Like, oh, that was not so bad.

That was way worse in my head than it was afterwards. I feel secure.

I feel secure when I have more practice and I have a heads up of what is happening.

Alycia Anderson: Me too. When there is a plan in place.

Michael Tennant: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: The plan… and a plan for that place.

And, I feel most secure sometimes too, when. I am just like, and this is gonna sound so stupid, but like literally, when I am just like in bed with my husband and he is just like bear hugging me and I am like hiding from everything else in my life.

You know what I mean? Like. Uh. That is when I feel the most secure.

Can you get one more like example of a card that challenges…

Michael Tennant: So green then!

Alycia Anderson: Go a little deeper.

Michael Tennant: So now that we have unlocked the green level, I am just going to pull a couple of examples so that you hear the green level.

You have got… “Are diversity quotas a problem or a necessity? Why?” …we’ve got… “What are you willing to fight for? And why?” …you have got… “Gentrification is real. How has it affected you or how have you played a part in it?”

But like a yellow question in the yellow level, it starts to get a little more, a little more esoteric, a little more personal.

“How do you love?”

“How do you find fulfillment?”

“Is there anything too serious to be joked about?”

And then the pink level is the most difficult in this set.

But just hopefully you are, you know, your listeners can get a sense. Like what this does is it gives you the ability to start light, and have empathy for your crew. You know, take a step back and think about what it is you are trying to achieve and pick the right question. The right deck that is going to engender that. And then when you are ready to go further than…we got you as well!

Alycia Anderson: You were listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia, and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia. We have got an awesome, amazing guest. His name is Michael Tennant. He is an entrepreneur, A keynote speaker and author of The Power of Empathy coming soon!

We were at this DEI Summit in Memphis last year, which was a powerful place to have a diversity summit, right? Because it was where Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, and there is so much history in the Civil Rights Museum. And there was all these professionals in DEI at this amazing quaint conference and we met like on the first night, right?

Like we are sipping on a little cocktail together, just making friends, and you are so genuine in your interest to learn about somebody else’s perspective and you are so genuine with Marty and I wanting to like really learn about the disabled experience in this entire like DEI experience that we were having and it was fascinating to me.

Then because it was consistent through like the three days that we were there. So, help me, like where does that come from, and how do we give that to other people?

Because if we could all have a little tiny bit of that. I think we would get into a much beautiful, more beautiful place in Society of understanding.

Michael Tennant: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: That was long…

Michael Tennant: Ohh, it is great and I am not… I am trying to figure out where I want to approach it.

I think there are two things I wanna like just cover off… It is almost like context setting… Is that both you and Marty were really warm, really open… in some ways, in some ways I feel like you all maybe even made like a first step, leaning forward in a way… at least in my experience of it and in such a way that… and, I can’t say that I know of any specific like judgment or bias or just something that came up, but I realized I had to shift and reframe myself a little bit and I finally was put in this place.

What I am asking others to do on behalf of their privilege in and around race or in and around resources that I was on. I was facing that like I had to be both a student as well as being proud to share what I knew and I felt safe to do so.

So, the reason I wanted to give that specific caveat is you and I had a conversation where you talked about your positivity and your kind of, you are leaning toward like, hey, we can only make progress from a place of liking one another and knowing that we have the same goals.

And of course. In my experience, I have gone through a lot. Your experience. You have gone through a lot.

It is easy and understandable and totally not judging at all. Or meriting of judgment at all if someone feels more jaded than that disposition. And then brings that forward and I have been that person. I am that person.

Sometimes I now look, I moved from the northeast to Florida and I am trying to catch and unpack the protective judgments that I bring into like feeling like me as a liberal black person in the South may not be welcome.

And then I distance as a result. So, I am working on this on multiple levels, and so I just want to say that we both come in with enough healing. And Marty, the three of us with enough healing done that we come in doing our individual work while the others doing their individual work as well.

Does that make sense?

Alycia Anderson: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Tennant: Makes sense when it is from the space of like knowing that I had bigger guards up in the past. That I can even not in all instances, but you know that is like the training that I have needed to give myself to be fully in my conviction going into a space that might be hostile to teach empathy.

Hostile in that for various reasons they have already got their guard up about empathy. Or we get there when we have leveled up into a topic that people are like, “Why are you doing this to me at work?” You know, and it is like, no, I am not doing anything to you?

If anything, we are just creating a container to talk about the stuff. That is surrounding us anyway, that maybe we are speaking about in silos and not together. Or maybe we are speaking together and then it is getting uncomfortable and we are leaving or worse.

So yeah, it is just, I think it is healing enough to be willing and able to have compassion for myself and the other person when it gets difficult.

Alycia Anderson: I love that. And you, I… feel that from you deeply and I think that is the human experience and this work that catapults… are as a catalyst of… and you know, like I lean into empathy too because I do not know what other way to have a human experience in understanding each other without leaning in with love and empathy.

And so, I think that we are very similar in that and it was a powerful moment for me to not only be… I felt like and this DEI Summit like I did, feel like that I was like representing this ability and I felt a little bit alone in that. You know in this, but you made me feel very seen and acknowledged as an important piece of like the work that we are doing.

And when we were leaving, we happen to bump into each other at the Civil Rights Museum, where Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated.

And it is like, giving me the chills. It is one of the most powerful places that I have ever been to in my entire life.

And that is where you learn about our history, right? Our powerful history of… of all of it, really, and walking through. Walking and rolling through this museum together and learning about his life and his advocacy and the past. The entire path from slavery to where we are today. It was… It was powerful to experience that with you. And we are walking through… I am getting the chills again because we are walking through this having learning from you and in exchange you kept asking about us, and it was so beautiful that it just… it was a very rare moment of the collaboration of understanding of the human experience was happening like very organically, and it was powerful for me.

I will never forget it as long as I live. It was… I have never experienced anything like that in my life like it was really special for me, and I think that is the work you are doing.

Michael Tennant: I think there is so many reasons that others in our shoes or in our wheels could feel almost jaded, and some of us adapt and we make room and it was just… it was the first time I had gotten to really being in the shoes of two individuals who were working with and please correct my language because I am learning, but I guess in impaired physical abilities.

Alycia Anderson: Just disabled.

Michael Tennant: Disabled.

Alycia Anderson: I mean, you know, like we talk a lot and I am sure you do this in your own space too. Like, what is the right word… language… right… and visual.

Michael Tennant: Right.

Alycia Anderson: And for me and for us like, disability is not a bad word.

Like it is OK to say it, it is like it can be an empowering word, you know. And so yeah, I mean… And I think, what you just did was a great lesson for any of our listeners. Which I get asked a lot is, “What’s the right… tell me like can you help me?”

I am learning… and I think that that’s … It is vice versa. You know, I am learning from you the right words and terms and things to say or not to say.

And I think that that process is again part of that collaboration of understanding that human our human experience as a collective. You know, so yeah.

Michael Tennant: Yeah. So, if we can, I think if I can have you know. Your support and your listeners support and understanding how very humbling it is to make those mistakes. But also, how very humiliating it is that we do not actually… we were not taught the tools to be able to make those mistakes and not feel like our whole world is shadowed.

Our egos have shattered because we crossed into a territory we did not mean to. Because if we genuinely do not mean to, then we genuinely are willing to learn how to not do it.

So, like I said, I… Curiosity Lab… where our mission is to try to make these skill sets easy and accessible.

I think now that your listeners know the intent behind Actually Curious when you pick it up it is not just a box of questions. You now know that you have a system to go from wherever you are today to a deeper place of comfort and also to help others go from wherever they are today to a deeper place of comfort.

Getting into these topics, you know, we do the workshops, we have had the privilege of going to places like NASA and Johns Hopkins and Viacom to teach the five phases of empathy through our workshops.

But I cannot be in every room and we cannot spread these tools fast enough really.

So, that is why we created The Power of Empathy.

And essentially that covers the five phases of empathy, but we added a sixth phase.

So, let us say you go through the five phases of empathy. It is a 30-day model, so you get a lesson and an exercise every day that teaches you an additional skill and empathy. But the sixth phase is for those who want to pay it forward.

They want to be empathy thought leaders and experts themselves, they want to bring this into their schools and into their facilitation or therapy practices.

Well, there is some residual effect at times from opening up these conversations both for ourselves and our well-being. I mean, I have found after the first kind of nine months of every week having some sort of speaking engagement where I was teaching empathy, I found that like even my skin would be raw to the touch from not having had that kind of exposure of receiving people’s stories and holding space for it.

So that is the sixth phase in the book, it is really about equipping people for remaining resilient if they really chose to pay this work forward.

Alycia Anderson: Where can our listeners find you? Follow you? We are going to put it in the show notes, but I want to make sure that every single person is able to connect with you.

Michael Tennant: Well, you can find me on most social media: Instagram. TikTok, LinkedIn. On Michael Tenant NYC on Instagram and Tik Tok and The Power of Empathy is out for pre-order everywhere it is at Target. It is at Barnes and Noble. Like, you dream it up, and if it is not there yet, please drop me a DM so I can I can mention to the team so they get the book there as well.

But I am really excited for October 24th and I am excited to bring some new allies into the movement for empathy!

Alycia Anderson: Congratulations, Michael. OK. This is so cool.

I am going to put you on the spot.

We have a pushing forward moment. Is there a mantra or advice or something that you can give to our listeners that are going to inspire them or encourage them or motivate them in some way in their life?

Michael Tennant: Yeah, I would say that before achieving growth, it always feels impossible.

Alycia Anderson: Thank you so much, my sweet, amazing friend for spending some time and space with me and just being a part of my life.

You are amazing. I love you.

And thank you so much to our listeners for spending some more time with us today.

I think this was a really beautiful conversation and this is Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how we roll on this podcast.

See you next time.