Kristen Donnelly of Abbey Research: “Get to know yourself”

Get rid of any feelings of guilt over past mistakes, assumptions, or missed opportunities. As you do this work, you will possibly come up against feelings of shame that you didn’t know something, or you should have done better in the past. Shame and guilt are unproductive emotions and don’t do anyone any good. Instead, […]

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Get rid of any feelings of guilt over past mistakes, assumptions, or missed opportunities. As you do this work, you will possibly come up against feelings of shame that you didn’t know something, or you should have done better in the past. Shame and guilt are unproductive emotions and don’t do anyone any good. Instead, acknowledge that you now know differently, and can now do differently.


As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kristen Donnelly.

Kristen Donnelly (MSW, M.Div, PhD) is a TEDx speaker, international empathy educator, and researcher with two decades of experience in helping people understand the beauty in difference, and the power in inclusivity. She is one of The Good Doctors of Abbey Research, COO of their parent company, and an unapologetic nerd for stories of change. Kristen lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, where they are surrounded by piles of books and several video game consoles.


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

Thank you so much for having me, what a privilege! I was raised in the Philadelphia area, and have been part of a family business for thirty years. Both my brother and I were raised to understand that our purpose in life was to serve others — that the world should be better because we were in it — and that has infused every part of my life. I’ve been an avid reader since I could hold a book in my hands, and that only served to feed my curiosity. Now, sitting here with two masters and a Ph.D., those seeds were planted early for sure!

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Goodness, what hasn’t. I’m in a unique situation in that my career has been an evolution. Sometimes people assume that because I’m now in the family business, that was always the goal — but that’s not the case. I always knew I wanted to serve and educate, but the shape of exactly what that looked like took time to suss out. I had professors who were essential in helping me understand my own brain and calling, and my parents were instrumental as well.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I have been insanely blessed that the list of people who have helped and encouraged me would be hundreds of names long. Consistently, however, what I always need is people who remember who I am and what my calling is on the days where I struggle to remember. If folks don’t have people that do that for them, cultivating those relationships are the ones I’d recommend hopping on quickly.

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

Oh, gosh, how much time do you have? I think the most consistent mistake I make is giving into shiny object syndrome — I get a new idea and it sounds SO GREAT and I’ll start chasing it without thinking about its place in our strategic plan. This is why I’m intentional about working with people who can serve as my brakes!

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Be insatiably curious. Even when you think you know the answer, you probably don’t know every facet of it, and we can all learn more about the world around us.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill were books I read just at the right time as I was learning about the world, and they each taught me that the world existed in shades of grey and that empathy was the best operating idea to work with.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“When people show you who they really are, believe them.” — Dr. Maya Angelou. We spend a lot of time making excuses for toxic people to stay in our lives, but they’ve shown us who they are. Believe them.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I had the privilege of giving a TEDx talk on the importance of redefining diversity at South Lake Tahoe’s TEDx event in May 2021. I’m currently applying for several more TEDx events in order to spread the other pieces of our platform that are ideas worth spreading.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

In my formal academic training, I’ve been exposed to lots of theories as to how people get along with each other and the world around them. My research focus — throughout three post-graduate degrees and independent study — has been around how does someone’s belief system in themselves, other people, and a higher power affect how they live their lives, and I’ve noticed several things. First, people who understand people get farther in life than those who don’t. Second, everyone craves being seen, heard, and understood. Third, human life is best lived together, so we have to combine those first two to truly have a full human experience.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

Emotional intelligence is the practice of being aware, empathetic, and realistic about your own personal history, perspectives, and worldview, while also mirroring that practice with others.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Traditional intelligence is often about how fast we process information, how much information we can hold at once, and the patterns we see in the world. I see patterns in words very easily, which is why I conduct qualitative interviews when I do my research. My father sees patterns in numbers very easily, which is why he’s an accountant at heart. Emotional intelligence demands a different skill set than observing patterns in the human output. Instead, we have to observe patterns in body language, tone of voice, eye contact, what is not being said — all while being aware of our own patterns that may affect both how the other person communicates with us, and how we receive their communication.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

As I said before, all humans crave being seen, heard, and understood. The only way for that to happen is truly through emotional intelligence. For example, let’s say a child has behavioral issues and the parents are at their wits end. Without emotional intelligence, they’d most likely begin to see their child as a problem to be solved. With emotional intelligence, they can see their child, and work alongside their child and other experts to create an environment for their child to thrive. Another classic example is how often people jump in to fix other people’s problems when usually people want a listening ear and validation of their pain. Emotional intelligence follows up a rant or a tearful confession with “what do you need from me right now” rather than a diatribe full of our own emotions.

Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it. Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

The upcoming workforce — both Millennials and Gen Z — are more interested in being treated as people than as employees. If you think I just said the same thing twice, I’d encourage you to investigate your mental posture towards this issue! Understanding the whole person, instead of just the body that shows up at work, is essential to successful business relationships.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

People want to be seen, heard, and understood. Cultivating understanding through emotional intelligence can serve every relationship you’re in.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

One of the key disciplines of minding your mental health is identifying your emotions, sitting with them, and putting them in perspective. Sometimes we need external help to accomplish that, sometimes we can do it on our own. As this practice is key to cultivating emotional intelligence, the two go hand in hand.

Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Listen. Cultivate the practice of actually listening to the people in your life — don’t just wait for them to stop talking, or assume you know what they’re saying. Listen well.
  2. Un-learn what you think about the world. A lot of how we *think* the world works is shaped by the specific subculture we grew up in, and we may assume truths that are incorrect. In order to understand others, we have to recognize where our thinking or feeling needs to shift.
  3. Seek out opportunities to do life with people you don’t already know. I always recommend volunteering at a cause you believe deeply in and then get to know your fellow volunteers or the staff at the organization. Often, by having an understood thing in common deeper conversations can happen and relationships can be cultivated.
  4. Get to know yourself, your worldview, and your personal history. A key difference between emotional and traditional intelligence is our ability to hold our truth and the truth of others at the same time. You can’t do that if you don’t know your own truth.
  5. Get rid of any feelings of guilt over past mistakes, assumptions, or missed opportunities. As you do this work, you will possibly come up against feelings of shame that you didn’t know something, or you should have done better in the past. Shame and guilt are unproductive emotions and don’t do anyone any good. Instead, acknowledge that you now know differently, and can now do differently.

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

I’m not a parent, but I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that could lean both ways. What I have seen firsthand is that faculty, staff, and institutions need to have more emotional intelligence as they deal with a changing world. Issues like changing photos of girls in yearbook photos to encourage “modesty” or suspending a boy for wearing a skirt — those are issues that show a grave lack of emotional intelligence on behalf of the administration.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want everyone to operate out of a discipline and posture of empathy, understanding, and radical hospitality. Not condoning, or agreeing with, or excusing. But understanding someone else’s worldview before deciding if they are to be a part of your life, and then doing the work within ourselves to continue to grow and expand our worldview to see it through the experiences of others. This can only lead to richer lives, and fuller ways to be human.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

My answer to this question is always Dr. Brene Brown. I’ve used her work more than any other scholar to teach from, and more than anything, I’d like to thank her in person.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We are @abbeyresearch on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. You can also find me on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/kristendonnellyphd) and Clubhouse (@klndonnelly). Sign up for our weekly (very brief) educational newsletter on our website at http://www.abbey-research.com.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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