Jan 31, 2023 | Podcast, Your Business

Empathy for Change with Amy J. Wilson

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About the episode:

I am so delighted and thrilled to have my esteemed friend, Amy J. Wilson here with us today. Amy is a change leader, community builder, movement maker, and an empathy advocate. She is the author of Empathy for Change: How to Build a More Understanding World, a guide to create positive, compassionate change where we work, live, and play. All of this guides our conversation as we cover the different types of empathy and why they are important, dismantling current power structures and rebuilding them with empathy at the core, prioritizing rest, and so much more. Being empathetic does not mean you lack power, and this episode is going to tell you why – enjoy!


Topics discussed:

  • Understanding that empathy is the undertone in all of our relationships and how to facilitate empathetic change for those who aren’t natural empaths 
  • The three different types of empathy – the brain, the heart, and the hand – and how to use all three in our everyday lives 
  • When Amy realized she discovered she was an empath and why empathy is so deeply important and personal to her 
  • The way Amy thinks of power, the different eras of power, and the way this relates to empathy 
  • The changes that are happening within the workspace that are creating a greater awakening and awareness 
  • The importance of rest and uncollapsing the concepts of capitalism, laziness, and what it means to take care of yourself


About Amy J. Wilson:

Amy J. Wilson is a change leader, community builder, movement maker, and an empathy advocate. She is the author of Empathy for Change: How to Build a More Understanding World, a guide to create positive, compassionate change where we work, live, and play. Through the Empathy for Change Cooperative she co-creates approaches to today’s challenges to reverse our growing empathy deficit by learning about ourselves & understanding others. Members of the Collaborative study the impact of empathy on innovation and change, and empathy’s importance in a more technologically-advanced, volatile, and complex world.





Connect with Amy:


Click here for a raw, unedited transcript of this episode


Catherine A. Wood  00:02

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the prosperous empath. I am so delighted and thrilled to have my esteemed friend, Amy Wilson here with us today. Amy, welcome.


Amy Wilson  00:15

Oh, thanks for having me.


Catherine A. Wood  00:18

You know, for me, Amy, you are one of the first people in my life who I bought, like found a fellow love for empathy about when I feel like you’re an expert in empathy. So it makes a lot of sense that you’re here. Why don’t you share with my audience a little bit about who you are and your story?


Amy Wilson  00:44

Wow, thank you. Yeah, and empathy, like, I feels like empathy is underlining our conversation. Most of the time, but it’s also it’s something that I’ve been specializing in, I don’t necessarily say I’m like an expert, because I feel like there’s some times when, when empathy is, is something that I lack sometimes, but for the most part, you know, we all kind of have those moments where we’re, we learn from things, but thanks for having me, I think. My, my story kind of, like, has two sides to it, which I think is around the conversation for today is like, on one side, I’m a highly sensitive person and an empath. And also, I empathy is my biggest strength, like I certifiable, I went through like, Strength Finders to find that. But on the other side, I’m also somebody who like, like strikes and creates change, you know, catalyzes change. And so like, I’ve through my book that I published almost two years ago, this month, is and you also went through a journey of publishing a book is, is like having that experience I was looking at, I eventually got to this place where it’s like, both of these sides, how do I kind of like hold space for both of those areas. And so my book is called empathy for change, how to create a more understanding world. And what I was seeing in a bigger way is that in a lot of the progressive roles that I was having progressive in the sense of like, roles is like they’re taking they’re building upon each other not necessarily, because I’m a progressive for you, though, I’m pretty progressive. My, my story kind of goes from like, going from a place of working at in management consulting at Booz Allen Hamilton and being asked to build a culture of innovation on one side of the spectrum, but then, in 2015, I joined the Obama administration, to become the director of innovation and lead this thing we call the better government movement. And so kind of a shared place where we can inclusive space where we can practice and think about what does innovation look like. And, and so I have a lot of like, working in the various different sectors there. And and in 2018, I, the movements that I grow grew, the better government movement that we co created together, was taken down from the next administration. And then I was able to take this idea of taking a sabbatical in 2020, and 2018. And then in 20, the end of 2018, to 2019. Taking the doing, starting my book in 2019, and then in 2020, and of taking this place where I finished my book, and I do a Technology Policy Fellowship in 2020. And publish my book in 2020. So I kind of entered this place where it’s like, trying to, to, like make sense of having being in that space of an empath, highly sensitive person and empathy being my biggest strength, and also just trying to like force and sometimes force and like, Hold change for people. So I think I’ve been in those places, and it’s like, it’s not mutually exclusive. It’s like a yes end is what I’m trying to get more people to do.


Catherine A. Wood  04:42

You know, we’ve known each other for many feels like many years now, I don’t know if it’s been maybe for four years or so. And I think one thing I appreciate with people that you’ve known for a long time is that you don’t always hear their journeys or get all the details to their story. worry. So I really it’s really impressive hearing you share your story, and I am so delighted to hear it. And I love the piece that you said about empathy being the undertone in our throughout our entire relationship. And I think that that is a lovely aspect of being an empath is that we create empathic relationships. And we often get called to facilitate empathy or or Garner empathy and people who perhaps, are not as empathetic. And I’m wondering, how do you tow that line? How do you what’s the what helps to facilitate change, and empathetic change with people who perhaps lack some of those natural abilities or qualities?


Amy Wilson  05:53

Well, it’s interesting, I actually just did a class last week, around storytelling, for belong, storytelling, for belonging at work. And in that, you know, and this is getting a little bit into the weeds when it comes to empathy, but there’s actually three different kinds of empathy. There’s like the head of which is like your your brain and how your brain thinks and interacts. And sometimes your own the way you listen. And the messages you’re saying to yourself. There’s emotional empathy, which is the heart, which is how we share our emotions and have the be there in the space with somebody else. And the third one is the hand, I call it, which is also called compassionate empathy, which is compassion. And that’s when you’re taking action. So I think, I think we, most of us just say when they say empathy, they just say, Okay, I’m walking in somebody else’s shoes, literally. That’s what people say. And I do not like that definition. It oversimplifies what really empathy is. And I tried to think about what does empathy, how does empathy show up in our everyday lives? But how do we not just feel like it’s a passive emotion, making it an active feeling and action, like something we can take action on, which I’m is getting to that idea of compassion? So to get to your question, the thing that I was doing in the course of the class I was teaching last week was really like honing in on cognitive empathy, which is where our brains and cognitive empathy helps us see what makes us see two different things and makes us better communicators. And, and often that gets blocked when we’re engaging with people. And we’re also finding in research that empathy is a choice that people make. So often that choice is made, because in our brains, because we’re choosing not to have empathy with somebody. So when I think about cognitive empathy, and in particular, it has two attributes. It’s number one is how do I take somebody else’s perspective? On one side of the spectrum, and then on the other side is how do I stay out of judgment? And so, so one of the best ways to get out of those two things is like, is to build a like a culture and a mindset of curiosity. Because when you’re curious, you are you will stay without judgment, because you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on in their mind, what’s happening in the world, in their world that I might not be aware of. Right. One of my friends found out that her husband has cancer last week, for example, and and I am deeply empathizing with her and feeling for her. But I also know that she’s carrying that mind, you know, that in the back of her mind and every interaction that she goes with, but she might not say that she’s having it, but she’s feeling that way. But she’s, you know, she is opening up and, you know, and but you when you’re engaging with somebody, you might not know how, what’s in her mind, or what’s how you’re engaging with them. So I think that’s like something very, very tangible that we can be like, how do we get into a place of curiosity, and start thinking about what’s happening, not just in somebody else’s mind, but also in our own mind?


Catherine A. Wood  09:34

That’s fascinating. I had no idea there were three levels of empathy and so many facets.


Amy Wilson  09:41

Yeah, there’s a lot.


Catherine A. Wood  09:42

I almost want to kind of, I feel like we jumped in and I almost want to back up a little and ask you. When did you discover that you were an empath, and why is empathy so deeply? personal and important for you? Hmm,


Amy Wilson  10:08

I think it was an interesting thing about being it. When did I realize I was an empath? Um, I think I think is it just like over time, my family always would say, You’re too sensitive. Because what a lot of people say, Oh, yeah. I’m sensitive, right, here’s all this stuff. And like, I always thought it was like a negative reaction of just being like, there’s something wrong with me, is how I think I interpret it, interpreted it, I spent a lot of time isolating growing up. So I would shut myself in my room, and like, literally shut the world off. But then I was like, stuck in my head for a while. But I think the first time I actively was like, Yeah, I really care about people. That was when Hurricane Katrina hit. Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I was working in a job, I didn’t really care for living at home, and I come from a dysfunctional, broken and dysfunctional home. So it was like, I don’t want to be here anymore. But the hurricane hits, and I had done Habitat for Humanity in college right before that, and so I already kind of Lent lent myself to like building houses and, and like helping humanity out in some form or fashion. But when Hurricane Katrina happened, like, I was, like, I was distraught. I was like, the people I helped in the Gulf Coast. You know, like, I was thinking about them, I was there. And like, I was like, I need to do something about this. So I joined AmeriCorps. And I was like, I want to be a team leader in this work. And there’s a quote that actually have at the beginning of my book, and it it kind of just like, summarized up. For me, like, for me what it meant to be like an empath that wants to change things, instead of just like accepting things, how they are, is, and it goes by it goes like this. You’re not here merely to make a living, you’re here to live more amply, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You and I’m just paraphrasing, but it’s like, and you are here to make the world live more amply. And you impoverished yourself if you forget this errant. So it’s, it’s kind of like old timey it was actually by Woodrow Wilson, which has a string of he was very strict of like, terrible things that he’s done. But I think that quote, like I, it’s hard to take that away from the fact that it forced me to be like, Oh, create a lifetime of service, and of helping other people. And I think that’s where that moment when I read that quote, My friend told me about that, quote, was a moment where I was like, oh, yeah, this is the thing for me, like, I am here, not merely to make a living, I’m here to make the world live more amply, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement, you know, was really,


Catherine A. Wood  13:23

I feel like something I also heard in that quote, is that you get to include yourself, that living amply also includes us. Not just kind of selfless service and generosity.


Amy Wilson  13:38

Yes. And we often forget that, you know, yeah,


Catherine A. Wood  13:42

I think we do. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about, like, what this looks like, in your work, like, you know, you talk about, you talk a lot about power and your book, kind of these old eras of power and new power. And I’d love for you to share a little bit more about how you think about that.


Amy Wilson  14:09

Yeah. Well, it’s really interesting. So I was just saying on my podcast, the other day of that, History is written by the victors. And, and the people who are the victors, and I think that was another, you know, person from that era, same era, as Woodrow Wilson mentioned, that there. This mean, that essentially means that the people who win the people that and they happen to be like, white men, right? are the ones historically that have been given, like theme and power, and then their command and control and conquering somebody else. And it’s really the opposite. I have empathy and compassion. So those are the ones we hold on a pedestal. And, and it has led us to this place where we have this culture or this dominant culture that actually like has a very bad power dynamic, and power imbalance. And so, um, so I actually define power. Power and and this idea of agency are so related, and I talked about it, I have a whole chapter on power. And in my book, and an MO, there’s an MLK quote that I love, that talks about power, and love having to be together. And I think, when we think about and I’m speaking today is MLK Day when we’re recording this is that we have to have love and power together. And, and I can give that quote over, you can put in the show notes or something like that, because I don’t have right in front of me, but the whole chapter in power is talking about like, power is this idea of like, I can influence the behavior of somebody else, right. And so agency, on the other hand, is this idea that this, like natural human emotion, to change and create the world around us. And so those two are linked, because when we talk about power, we, we often say that we’re taking power away, often in the system that we’re in taking power away from people, so they don’t have agency to, to do things in their lives. And so I often think about, like, when I think about design and thinking about how do I, when I go into new spaces and new engagements with my clients, and the work that I do, I think about instead of designing for someone, which is often what we’re doing, right, we’re taking power away from somebody, how can we get to a place of designing with each other, so we’re in the same room, and we’re engaging. And this, this actually really closely aligned with the definition of empathy is like empathy is feeling with somebody, as opposed to feeling for someone. And so if you really apply that lens to like designing a new world, or new system, etc, we have to start thinking about how do we design with rather than designing for. And so that’s like that kind of like the bigger idea that I’m thinking about if when you’re creating an more understanding world or getting more empathetic world, we have to focus on that. And the other idea of power is, is really been forced by, by technology, and shifts, like the pandemic, for example, as forced us to really have a reckoning where it’s, there’s like a new type of power that’s emerging. And this is a book by Henry Tim’s and Jeremy hymens it came out quite a bit of time ago, maybe five or six years ago, but I came across it while I was writing my book is the idea of old power is command and control. Top down, power is directional, I tell you what to do, is where old power sits, this new power that’s emerging, because technology is pushing in this way is that power is like a current, you can direct power to whoever you need, rather than being directional. And means it’s we’re open, we’re participatory. peer driven work. Transparency is really important. And, and I think, you know, the technology has definitely, like, really blown up, like, in so many different ways. And recently, because you’re not seeing those things, like you’re seeing that technology is supporting it, but also in ways of in like creating unintended consequences from their work, right, like, you know, and what’s happening in the world. So, so I, I find that really fascinating. And also the pandemic has really blown apart a lot of things and shining a light in areas that we need to start putting time resources and power to.


Catherine A. Wood  19:43

Oh, my guess I have so many comments on what you just said. But before I jump in, have you ever read the book Cassandra speaks by Elizabeth lessor, she’s the founder of the Omega Institute in upstate New York.


Amy Wilson  19:55

Yeah, I’ve heard of it, but I had to get to listen to you have to add


Catherine A. Wood  19:59

that onto your list, but The thing I wanted to mention is she talks a lot about a language in her book. And the idea of the language that is connected with old power to use your terms, versus the type of language that’s connected with new power. And she references you know, how we, we think about, we, we communicate a lot through language that references, warfare, and sports, like a lot of our leadership language is revolved around these kind of aggressive, dominant, just kind of authoritarian regimes, and when we think up through a more collaborative and surrendered and welcoming vocabulary that we can oftentimes, kind of, I guess, speak into existence, this new form of power and leadership that we want to model. And the question I wanted to ask you, because I didn’t I didn’t hear you mentioned, and she talks about in her book is like the idea of, of power being more feminine, of power, being more women identifying kind of emotional versus intellectual or, or kind of head based. And I wonder, I wonder how you think about that? How you think about kind of the masculine and feminine energy relates to old and new power? And I don’t mean that through a gender perspective, either I like I really mean it through the energy.


Amy Wilson  21:40

Yeah, and I, I think I understand that nuance, like, it’s, like, masculine and feminine doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s like, it’s like, male or female, right? It’s just the kind of energy that it gives off. You know, I, what’s interesting, when I think about power, the way hits historically have been done, it’s been a masculine energy, right? Like, you’re, you’re saying, It’s like being like, I’m going to take right taking from you. And instead of giving, right and going back to MLK quote, about power and love, right, need to be co creating with each other. I think in the way, you know, I how I interpreted from what MLK says is that, you know, power and love need to coexist, and power in this dynamic as he was, it was an, I think in contending was to say that power is like, conquering and command and control, right? And then love is a little bit more of the feminine energy of like, carrying and holding, and hugging, right, that kind of thing where it’s like, I and you know, an MLK talks about Beloved Community, and like, How can we live in a space of beloved community, where we do give care and, and attention to each other. And it’s generative, instead of like, destructive, which I see power often is right, is very destructive. And I love how you meant words, because that every day, I feel like I’m learning about like, what are new words that I should be using, and one of my friends mentioned, and that the word stakeholder, for example, we often use that, but the origins of that word of stakeholder, most people don’t think about it. But stakeholders literally, I’m going and I’m conquering a space, and I’m putting a stake in the ground and saying this is mine, right? It’s very much that masculine energy. And so I am stopping myself, I keep doing it, but I’m learning how to take the phrase and the word I choose now as collaborators right to go to that place. It’s like, okay, instead of like, who are in who are our stakeholders, I want to say, who are collaborators on this project, and that little nuance, like changes the, like, opens people up I feel


Catherine A. Wood  24:14

I so appreciate that. I’m also constantly in that inquiry of just like listening to the words that I use, and whether they’re kind of the values that I want to instill and model in my work.


Amy Wilson  24:29

Of course, yeah.


Catherine A. Wood  24:31

Well, I’d love to hear like, so this. How do you see perhaps whether in your work or in your research that we are modeling and facilitating this new era of, of, of power in the present, like how are we facilitating change in this new model? Hmm.


Amy Wilson  24:59

Well, I, I feel like we’re stumbling to tell you the truth, right? I think, I think when when they wrote Tim’s and Hymens wrote the book, probably about five or seven years ago, they were looking at this phenomenon about, like movement building. And we’re seeing, like, you know, I remember writing my last chapter of my book, which is about the pandemic, and how it’s laying there. A lot of different things that are happening in our society right now. And we’re not very good at solving our mace postbase, basic, basic challenges in the world. So when I think about it is, is at the end of the day, we’re, we’re understanding we have like, not that great of an understanding of what our real problems are in the world. And our, our, our, like, priorities are still like, around capitalism, around this dominant culture, and like, and we have to examine that piece of that, like, where are we giving our time and energy to? And I think that we’re still, like, you know, you’ve probably have heard the Great Awakening, or great resignation that people have done in the past year or two, a lot of people are in the pandemic are now stepping in and saying, I, this is not the culture that I want. And this is not the thing that I want in my life, because I’m rethinking my priorities. And I actually, instead of calling it the great resignation, I call it the Great Awakening. And that this is an awakening awakening that we’re all having. And that, you know, there’s so much possibility that’s, that’s happening and will come out of that. case, in point, the surgeon general just launched the framework for well being in the workplace, just in October of last year. So like, there’s this greater awareness of that we have a loneliness, culture, we have all these different things that are happening. So I think that with, we have greater awareness. And the one of my greatest greatest teachers once taught me that the awakening comes down to having the right intention and paying attention. So in order to reach that awakening, we’re having we need to set those intentions, set those intentions with equity, with community design, with all these things that we want to have in our life, and then put that into action and paying attention to are we coming back to that intention back and forth. So I think that’s, that’s like in a, in the grand scheme of things, I think what we are starting to do, but we need to do a lot more.


Catherine A. Wood  28:05

I mean, I share your sentiments that the great resignation has created many opportunities. And, you know, in my line of work, we say that you have to generate a breakdown in order to generate a breakthrough. And that truly, like the only way around this is through and you have to be willing to lean in.


Amy Wilson  28:25

Yes. 100%. I agree with that.


Catherine A. Wood  28:30

Well, as we wrap up, I’m curious if there are any, any words of of hope or inspiration that you would like to leave my audience with as we kind of continue this period of self reflection and well being that we’re just starting to, I don’t know, really gained some traction and, and strength around as needs.


Amy Wilson  28:59

Yeah, I think unto just just under that, to that space is just like being able to create a space for us to find out what is in the realm of possible and I think, the Great Awakening, and sometimes it’s like a forced thing, like many of my friends have actually been laid off recently. So it’s like, whether you’re in a place where you’re actively leaving, or you are, there’s like a force leaving, it gives us the space to reflect and to and to learn about ourselves and our tendencies and what we want and step deeper into our purpose. Like I like I did with my sabbatical that I took between 2018 to 2020. So I think that gives me hope that we are we are starting to examine the world a lot more than we ever have been And, and many of us are exhausted. So I think what’s really important and a book just came out about rest is resistance. With Tricia Hershey love that


Catherine A. Wood  30:12

book, I shared that book with countless friends.


Amy Wilson  30:18

And it’s like the nap ministry. Amazing. So it’s like, things that is that that just that piece alone is just saying that we have to rest. Don’t like that is that is resisting the urge that we all have towards this capitalistic and like, like, you know, take take take energy, and that that the the masculine energy and gives us to go towards the feminine energy that you’re talking


Catherine A. Wood  30:46

Oh man, what a beautiful note to leave us on. I feel like we could record an entirely different episode on that topic. I love this topic of rest is more and less is more. I recently recorded a podcast on my word of the year, and for this year, it’s leisure.


Amy Wilson  31:06

Or a woman of leisure. I like that.


Catherine A. Wood  31:08

And the idea of uncollapse ing these concepts of leisure meaning laziness, right? has historically been a very embodied experience that when we choose leisure, we’re being lazy as if it’s a bad or negative thing. Oh,


Amy Wilson  31:27

yeah. Like yeah, absolutely. And, and like your idea of like, love of word of the year, it makes me think about my word of the year, which is beloved. Actually, I wrote it yesterday. And it’s like two words be loved. And it’s I think that’s like, along those same lines is like, How can I show love and accept love and feel love? From so many different people like shout out also to Bell Hooks, like all about love? Amazing book? Oh, my gosh. So how do we see other parts of love and show that and extend that to all parts of our lives? And then also how to how do we feel it? How do we give it and then receive it? So that’s what my year is going to be about? Well,


Catherine A. Wood  32:16

my empathetic dog must be agreeing in the background because she’s just started barking fiercely. Like this thing? Yeah. Well, as we wrap up, my final question for you, as I do with all guests is what has supported you and becoming a prosperous empath.


Amy Wilson  32:38

I have been thinking about this a lot recently. And I, without a doubt, I think the thing is my chosen family. I like to say, I come from like I mentioned before I come from a dysfunctional home. But I have so many people in my life or chosen, I’ve chose to have in my life and time and time again, they they’re always there for me and like when I don’t feel like I can go to my family for things that I’m struggling with. I can go to them and continually trusting that they’re going to have my back and that the universe in the in the grand scheme of things. We were talking about that when I first got on, like trusting the universe that it has your back and that you’re in when you need support that that community is going to be there for you.


Catherine A. Wood  33:28

I love that and I love Bell Hooks teachings about that too. Amy, such an honor. I adore you. Thank you for taking the time and such a pleasure.


Amy Wilson  33:40

Yes, thank you for the time


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