Ep 18: Maria Ross: The Empathy Edge

This is a transcript of Erica Mills Barnhart’s interview with Maria Ross on the Marketing for Good podcast. You can listen to the episode here and listen to more episodes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. Enjoy!

KEY WORDS

empathy, people, listening, customers, understand, patience, tagline, curious, clients, questions, employees

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Welcome to the show, Maria.

Maria Ross 

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I am super duper glad you’re here. I feel like empathy is like really having a moment. And so I always look at the etymology of words, and I spend a lot of time doing that one, because I am that way, but also because you know, when you understand the history of word, I feel like you have a different relationship with it. So I learned that etymology comes from Greek and it meant passion or state of emotion, and then we break it down, it means in feeling to be in feeling.

Maria Ross 

Which I thought I’d give you a round of applause for being a good students, because I did a slight thing on that in the book, and I love that you’re talking about this.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah, well, I mean, we’re all up in our fields these days, because global pandemic, you know, finally facing, you know, roots of racism and how that plays out today and you know, racial equity and, you know, social justice, all of these things are happening. And by the way, we’re sheltered in place. So, so I want to get to empathy and really dig in on that. But I feel like before we go direct to empathy. If you’re open to it, I’d like us to take us back to 2008. So that listeners understand your path here. And in 2008 shortly after launching your business, I understand so dodgy timing. You suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that almost killed you, and that inspired your memoir. I have a really hard time with that word memoir memoir, I can say it in French, memoir, that’s easy.

Maria Ross 

Because then you just sound pretentious.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I know, I know, so don’t do that. Anyway, your memoir Rebooting My Brain will you tell us about that experience and the impact it has had on you and how you kind of see the world and walk through the world and how it brought you to empathy as a topic?

Maria Ross 

Absolutely. So yeah, as you said in 2008, I almost died from an unexpected ruptured brain aneurysm I had been healthy and active and was actually lucky enough if you can say that, that I had symptoms for about a month and a half. And, but doctors misdiagnosed me. And luckily, on the day that I collapsed unconscious, my husband had come home from work early that day. So I was very fortunate. But to speed through, I spent about six weeks in the hospital, partially blind, because I had some damage to my retinas from the hemorrhage. And that came back over time, but yeah, that whole experience and then the eventual rehab period, and then, quite frankly, I had a miraculous recovery based on the severity of the hemorrhage that I’d had, I then got back into my business again back into my life again, and had to find a new way to work. But what was monumental about that experience that I bring into the book, The Empathy Edge, is my stay in the hospital was an amazing experience. I was at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. And there were all these things that happened that made that a wonderful experience. So wonderful that I later became a patient advisor to be the voice of the patient on their Patient and Family Education Committee. And just the respect that was shown to me the fact that they explained things to me, they called me by name, you know, when you’re in the hospital, it’s one of your most vulnerable times. And what I came to find out later was that those, that experience was not an accident. It was a way that the hospital operationalized empathy for their patients. They subscribe to a philosophy that’s worldwide called patient and family centered care. And it means that you create policies and processes and habits and expectations for your employees. So that you create this empathetic experience where the patient is at the center of the experience.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

So a culture of empathy?

Maria Ross 

Culture of empathy, right, but not just hiring a bunch of really nice people like what they did was create actual processes and policies, you must call patients by name, you must introduce yourself and knock before you walk into a room, you must explain terms and tests and what you’re doing to them before you start poking and prodding. We are going to give them a choice of what they want to eat for lunch on a menu of options. We are not going to have official visiting hours when patients need their family and friends, their family and friends can come. So all of these things were actually policy decisions that ultimately impacted the patient or you know, we’re talking about for profit business, the customer experience, and that’s when I realized the power of this is not just about creating a brand or creating a culture, because you say it’s this thing, it’s about creating the environment and putting the policies in place. So it makes it really easy for people to default to the behavior that you want them to have. In this case, it was empathy for patients. And so that combined with my brand strategy work, working with companies and fast growth companies, over the years, they started to talk more and more about wanting to be seen as an empathetic brand, which I hadn’t heard 10 years prior, you know, it was like, Oh, we want to be seen as innovative and cutting edge and-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

everybody wants to be in innovative, yeah. Everybody wants to be innovative. But, you know, the very, very hardcore technologists would start to talk about yeah, we want to be seen as approachable and empathetic and I was like, what is going on here? Like, I’m all for it. But you know, it’s interesting. And so some of them I had to have difficult conversations with like, well, are you though, are you guys really, really are you really and so that’s where you know, my branding work intersects a lot with the work that you do in marketing is that you have to live it from the inside out, and if you’re going to make the brand or marketing claim, how are you backing that up? Yeah, I think Seth Godin, I think it was Seth Godin said you can’t just schmear marketing or branding on something. Like it’s not cream cheese.

Maria Ross 

Exactly. And I always said, You can’t slap a coat of brand paint on it, right? So just anyway, all these things came together to ultimately lead to the book that I started researching in 2016. But that very personal experience kind of set the spark of this is possible. This is possible for a company to intentionally create an empathetic environment for its patients or its customers or to donors or it’s-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

And not just possible, but actually profitable. Yes, that’s the key. So the wonderful thing about also why I talked about this story at the beginning of the book is that patient and family centered care started as a profit driven exercise. It started because patient readmissions cost hospitals a lot of money, mistakes cost hospitals a lot of money. If you get discharged without the proper instructions, it costs them a lot of money. So even though it’s the right thing to do, of course, to be patient centered as a hospital, it ultimately started from a profitability motive. And that’s fascinating. That’s the crux of the book is that I don’t care how you why you want to adopt empathy as an organization or as a leader, because even if it’s a selfish motive that’s driving you there. It’s sort of like being pregnant. Like it doesn’t really matter how you got pregnant. It’s that you ultimately create an empathetic organization you help your leaders strengthen their own empathy, you create an environment where employees thrive and environment where customers are taken care of and feel seen, heard and understood. And that ultimately does lead to profitability, word of mouth, retaining the best top talent, all of the benefits that befall a empathetic organization or an empathetic brand. So you can become, and this, you know, true of people too, but you believe companies and organizations, even if it’s not naturally or historically in their DNA through operationalizing empathy, they can truly become empathetic. Because I don’t know that that’s true. You know, let’s go back to innovation. Every single clients that I’ve ever worked with over my 15 plus years, you know, we do like brand personality, and they’re like, innovative and I’m like, mmm. You do the same thing, are you? Are you really? And in that case, you can become more innovative, but I think being the work of brand and brand personality and values, is work of excavation. Right, is like what’s already there that we want to elevate. But I’m hearing you say something kind of different. Yeah, absolutely. I think if that’s what you’re, you know, this is how I talk to my brand clients about their aspiring brand, or what’s the brand they aspire to be? Because that’s often the question that I get in brand workshops. Yeah. Are you asking us who we actually are or who we want to be. And I’m like a little bit of both because of if you then put the the foundation in under that to support that claim that you’re making to the market so it’s believable whether it’s, you know, if you if you do want to go out there and say you’re innovative, how are you hiring? What’s your product quality process? What’s your product development process? How are you keeping everyone sharp and at the top of their industry with the latest learnings? You know, those are all things that you can create processes and policies for. So if you’re willing to as a company say, yeah, we want to go big on being seen as an innovative company, you’ve got to do that change management work on the inside the structural work on the building, so that yeah, that’s a believable claim now Yeah, yeah. Okay, that’s interesting. I don’t think we can talk about empathy without referencing Brené Brown. And there’s so many quotes from her about empathy, but the one that struck me just because of where we’re at in terms of Covid and everything, was empathy is communicating that very important feeling of you are not alone. And that, you know, we’re sheltered in place, you know, and yet because of global pandemic and as a, we as a country, excuse me. I mean, I think there’s a sense of like people wanting to come together, and they are physically coming together for better or for worse for various reasons. But fundamentally, we are often both emotionally and physically alone. And so I’m just I’m curious on your thoughts about what role does empathy have in like, all of this that’s going on right now? Well, I think it’s important to understand that there’s, there’s two sides to the empathy coin. And that’s why this conversation is so timely, aside from everything going on in the world. So timely now, because you, you started off talking about the word origins of empathy, right? And the definition of empathy has changed over time. So in the 1500s, it meant something much more akin to sympathy, actually, sympathy meant empathy back then. They were synonyms?

Maria Ross 

Well no, the word sympathy meant empathy. It didn’t mean what we think of. So you could be in sympathy with someone and not because their dog just died. It was just that you were you were understanding where they were coming from you were feeling what they were feeling. But for a long time, it was just the affective empathy, just the I’m feeling what you’re feeling, I’m feeling your feels. But modern psychology has broaden that to say it’s also about cognitive empathy, which is just, I may not feel exactly what you’re feeling, but I understand where you’re coming from, I can see the world through your point of view. And that’s the kind of empathy we’re talking about in the workplace. So for so long, leaders have shied away from empathy in the workplace because of all the feels right, like, oh, but it’s also what I what I propose in the book that is that if we, if we look at it as a method of perspective taking, as a method of gathering information, it doesn’t mean that I have to be balling just as much as you when we’re having a conversation. It just means that I see where you’re coming from. I understand the situation from your point of view. And further, I’m going to take action based on that information. Not that I’m going to do exactly what you want. Because that’s what people often think, oh, if I’m empathetic at work, I’m just people are going to walk all over me. No, no, no. But it’s about how you make your decisions. That’s the difference. You could still be delivering a decision that somebody doesn’t like, but you do it in a way where you’re supportive, where they are seen, heard and understood. Maybe you deliver it differently. Maybe you provide them different resources. Maybe it can impact the decision, the actual decision you’re going to make, who knows but it’s a way of getting to the decision that is enabling people to be seen, heard and understood. So I agree with Brené on the affective empathy component of like you’re not alone. But it doesn’t have to be that in the work context. It can just be I as an empathetic leader understand that this is going to be hard for you Erica to hear. I’m giving you difficult feedback. So the way that I do it is I’m seeing it from your point of view. And I’m asking more questions than delivering more advice. I’m trying to understand the context of, maybe you’ve been late to a lot of meetings, and then I uncover that you are taking care of an aging parent at home. Now, there’s context. Now, it’s not about performance, it’s about, oh, there’s a different problem we need to solve here. You know, so and that you can take that through to any any contentious situation or disagreement that you’re having with someone at work is, if you could go at it by trying to get curious about the other person’s point of view and perspective, it doesn’t mean you have to agree. And it doesn’t mean you have to give up your course of action. It just means now you can have a productive conversation, because now you understand where the other person’s coming from.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Okay, I’m imagining I’m imagining some listeners at this point who are thinking, okay, but then we get into conflict. Like I get you you get me, but, we don’t agree. So now I’m in conflict and I don’t like conflict, right? We’re like we’re so conflict averse. So how do we, how do you manage both of those things, the sort of operationalizing of empathy and creating space for it, understanding that that might in fact lead to more conflict, but that that’s healthy. I mean, on the other side of conflict is clarity. Right? This is a piece of feedback I always get from my clients, it’s like, you’re very comfortable with conflict. I’m like, I don’t love it any more than the next person. But it’s, to me, it’s actually a positive because on the other side, if you can move through that with compassion, then there’s clarity. So why wouldn’t you? You know, why not? Right? It’s there anyway.

Maria Ross 

Right.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

And either you’re gonna surface it or not.

Maria Ross 

Exactly. And I think that’s where as a leader, you need to strengthen and even as an aspiring leader, as a human right, you strengthen your own empathy so you can go into those conversations not to give in or concede, but just if you need to strip the conflict part of it out of it so we can get to the actual problem solving and a constructive conversation. So you can imagine two people that disagree about a strategic plan in the workplace. Right? And they’re butting heads. I’m pushing my fist together. And it’s because it’s all about I want to come in and tell you why I’m right. And you’re wrong. And you want to come in and tell me why I’m, I’m wrong and you’re right. Empathy requires that both people come to the table and go, I understand we have a different approach to this. So now I’m going to get curious, Erica, about why you think that’s the path to success. I’m going to start asking questions and digging deep and removing the defenses. So you deflate the conflict a little bit. So it’s, it’s now just tell me about your point of view and your perspective. And the amazing thing is curiosity is the number one trait of empathetic people. And here’s why. When you ask people questions, and they give you answers, you know, their point of view, because they’re telling you so you don’t have to guess right and so once you can have that conversation, then the other person can also have that conversation and then you can look at okay, where do we have common ground on this? Oh, our common ground is we both want to hit our quarterly number this year, we both agree that that’s where we’re going. And we don’t, we don’t want our company to go bankrupt. Like, we can both agree on that. It can be the highest level aspect of common ground, but you can start to find it, and then determine okay, well, what is it behind your course of action that appeals to you? Maybe we can find a course of action that’s different from mine or yours that gives us both what we want.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

We start with, so if there’s conflict, then we start with curiosity and getting-

Maria Ross 

Absolutely, absolutely.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Asking questions. From there, we identify common ground.

Maria Ross 

Mm hmm.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

And then how do you come to a decision from common ground?  Yeah, that’s where you have to just keep the conversation going, like you can get to what someone’s trying to accomplish, you can maybe find three different alternative ways to get it. But if you don’t even have that conversation to begin with, you don’t ask the questions and here’s the key, actually listen to the answers. Not just, I’m gonna wait for you to stop talking. So I can say what I want. But that’s-  And by the way, while you’re talking, I’m not listening. I am preparing my counter argument, my counter points, they will be amazing. You will be blown away by them, right? I mean, we spend so much time quote unquote, listening and not listening. I mean, just being silent doesn’t mean you’re listening.

Maria Ross 

Exactly. Yeah.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

You know, what comes to mind is that Anais Nin quote, that we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Maria Ross 

Mm hmm. Yeah, the antithisis of empathy.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Right. Right. And so I think that that’s kind of important to hold. Like, left to our natural devices, that rings fairly true. Although I do feel an opening because of everything that’s happening in the world toward this idea of like, I have to figure out, you know, how you see them. So, so I’m hoping that there’s that openness. I’m hoping that you can help us understand another aspect of this, which is in marketing of course, a lot of what you’re trying to do is very purposely get into the minds and hearts of the people, you know, clients, customers, donors, volunteers, whoever it may be. And so one of the liabilities of of marketing which I taught, you know, when I teach and I talk a lot about this idea of projecting. Right, meaning I like events, everybody will like events, why wouldn’t you like events, right? Assuming that what you like is what others like and so I feel like through empathy and really like the purposeful unleashing of empathy, yet strategic unleashing of empathy, that that might be a really productive bridge to getting into the minds and hearts of your target audience. Yeah, absolutely. In the book, I quote Dan Pink, who wrote the book called, oh my gosh, the name is escaping me, Drive, which was all about the surprising truth of what motivates us. And, you know, he talked all about the fact that not everybody is motivated by the same thing. Even in the workplace, not everybody’s motivated by a higher paycheck, they might want more vacation days, they might want a different job title, they might want more flexible hours, whatever it is, right. And that side note, many studies are showing that employees view flexible workplace policies as empathetic because it’s, oh, you’re understanding that I might need to make changes. You’re not making me work this hour to this hour. You are being empathetic that I might have different needs, right. But to your point, it is that gateway to better understanding what’s going to resonate for people and understanding that your target audience might not be you and so that’s why you have to get out and talk to them, you’ve got to get out of your ivory tower, and find out what life is like for them. With my clients, I always do the exercise of, well, I understand that that’s the way you want to describe your company. But let’s get out and talk to some customers and see how they actually describe you. Why did they sign on with you? And you can get a different answer, you can get a well they want to call themselves this jargony thing, especially in tech right. They call themselves this jargony thing, because that’s what the analysts want them to call their space. But when you actually talk to a customer, they say, well, this is the problem that they solve. And this is why I like them. It is also in problem solution language. Exactly. And it’s and it’s in real language. It’s not just the pretty marketing language that the company wants to say, but it’s like, no, this is how people really talk. This is what the voice in there, I call it the voice in their head, what is the voice in their head actually saying? It’s not saying I need a best of breed solution so I can maximize productivity, like nobody’s saying that, right? They’re saying like, I need a cleaner, simpler way to do X or whatever it is. And that is empathy is letting go of, well, this is how we want to say it in our marketing, to this is the language it’s actually going to resonate and surprise, when they read, when someone reads that language on your website. They’re going to go oh my gosh, that’s exactly the voice in my head. Yeah, they’re reading my mind. And now I’m gonna sign up and learn more. Yeah, yeah. So many things come to mind around that. I was just listening. I’ve been thinking a lot about taglines. Well, I, in general, I feel like one of, that this is a forcing function on marketing language. I think that we’re about to have a really big wake up call where there’s just kind of a zero tolerance policy for blah, blah, blah.  Because our cognitive load is so high. Nobody can you know, we just don’t have the openness, mental openness to process the stuff and I you know, so we’re not going to there’s less than a tolerance for it. Whereas I think, not like and not like people are like, oh, I love that when you talk to me in gobbledygook, said no one ever, I don’t have time for you. So I think that’s really interesting. It’s also why when I work with clients around messaging, I actually start by having us do the spoken elevator pitch and optimizing that first. Because like as a for instance, the term wraparound services.

Maria Ross 

You know, there’s wraparound services.Yeah, no one’s saying that.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

No client ever has been like, well, I’m really hoping for some wraparound services and a spa, maybe at a spa. Wrap the kale around me, I don’t know. But it’s stuff like that, where and that’s why I do it kind of in reverse order of a lot of others. And at first people are like, that’s kind of weird. And then you understand that it’s so easy to elevate the spoken word, but in the other direction feels like demoting you’re very beautiful marketing ease. So but about taglines. I’m very curious to see what will happen because you know, like, like every piece of, you know, the marketing mix. They have trends happen and I feel like we’re coming off a trend of kind of aspirational taglines. So like, you know, all together one. That’s one I just saw it, I was like-

Maria Ross 

Explore. Discover. Connect.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Exactly, exactly. Which can be perfectly fine. I’m not saying any of that was good or bad. But I am starting to see a little bit and I’m curious if this is gonna be a blip or a trend towards like, let’s use your example. You know, dry cleaning, fast, easy, cheap. I mean, whatever it’s gonna be. I, you know, I’m just I’m curious about that. That’s, I think, and I think that that approach, in many ways is more empathetic. Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting. It’s not something I had noticed I, I’ve always been the person that with clients, I go if you if we have to force a tagline, you don’t need one, like unless it pops out naturally from the messaging that it’s like, you Yeah, that’s it. That’s, you know, just do it. Yes. But if you are sitting there racking your brain trying to figure out a tagline, you probably don’t need one right now. Right? That’s not going to be the end all be all of why someone’s going to come buy from you or not. And you know, like you it’s that’s just one marketing tactic one marketing tool in the in the communication toolkit that they have. And so it’s like, you know, oh, do I have to have a tagline? You don’t have to. If some, if one is perfect, then yes, but don’t have one just to have one. And like you said, have it say nothing at all. Yeah. Now, do you feel the same way when the company or organization has like a completely made up word as their name? I still feel the same way because I think in the end, no one’s just buying a product by their the name of the company alone. They’re looking into what that company actually does, right? So if someone’s making a buying decision based on the name of the company, and the tagline, I don’t know that that’s an ideal buyer. Do they understand what their needs are? I don’t know. I don’t see I don’t see the job of the name or the tag line as a as a door closer I see it or as a deal closer I see it as a door opener. Mm hmm. Yes. It’s really intriguing for sure to be intriguing. But sometimes- Just like, that’s what I want. I want fast, dry cleaning, I don’t know why I’m so stuck on that example, but- Google never had a tagline. But it’s an intriguing enough name that you’re like, what is what do they do? You know what I mean? So you don’t always have to, if you’ve got that made up name, you don’t always have to have the tagline. But, but I think that’s a really interesting trend based on what you’re seeing. I hadn’t thought of it actually. And it probably is exactly what you said is that the cognitive load is too much right now. Like we just want to cut to the chase. We don’t want to have to think about things this hard. And no one you know, to your point no one ever did before. We had, you still only have like 10 seconds for people to like look at your homepage and understand what you do. So but I think people’s tolerances, if it could get any shorter is gonna be a little shorter. So, that’s a really astute observation. Thank you. This is what happens when you obsess about, you know, certain things sometimes good observations. You are probably familiar with Karla McLaren’s work on empathy. She wrote the book The Language of Emotions, which is how I came to know her. I mean, that book is like custom made for me, I feel like it’s about language and it’s about emotions. Okay. She also wrote a book called The Art of Empathy: a complete guide to life’s most essential skill. So, you know, she, and I think that came out like 25 or six years ago. So and she’s researched a ton on empathy like she’s you go to your website, you’re like, you have gotten deep on this on emotions and empathy, so this is an aside but I just found it so fascinating, is that societally some emotions we consider to be negative and others positive, like, you know, joy or happiness. And so like we’re in this quest to always be joyful and happy and light. And yet, what she points out is that all emotions are neutral. And it’s how we how we socialize them, where they take on positives or negatives so like there’s so much wisdom in anger, in sadness in all of those, I mean, tears are our teachers. Right? And so I just I think her approach is super interesting and this gal’s gone deep, so part of what she also says is that everyone is an empath. Meaning somebody who you know, feels all everybody’s feels a lot and I don’t know to your point if she means only affective or also cognitive. But in that she says the trick is to kind of get in touch with your inner empath. I thought that was really kind of controversial, very curious on your thoughts.

Maria Ross 

Yeah. It’s so funny because she’s basically it’s the premise of Inside Out, right, the movie inside out the animated movie, which was all about the fact that you have to have sadness and anger to balance joy and the other emotions as children develop, right? But here’s the thing, I always, I always call BS on people that say, well, I’m just I can’t be an empathetic leader because I’m just not naturally empathetic, right? First of all, we are all hardwired as humans in our DNA science has shown to be empathetic from studies on young animals on young baby humans, we, we would not have survived as a species if we didn’t have the ability to empathize and collaborate with each other. My theory is kind of similar to her is that it for some people, that muscle has just atrophied. Maybe they grew up in a family where it wasn’t fostered, modeled or rewarded. Maybe they’ve been in a workplace so long where it’s sort of been beat out of them. That that’s not how you get ahead in that work right by right empathizing with other people’s emotions you get ahead at that workplace by take no prisoners, look after yourself, be competitive, hold things close to the vest, don’t care what anyone else is thinking or feeling. And so this idea that this excuse that people make of I can’t I can’t embrace being an empathetic leader for my people because A) I’m not naturally good at it or I don’t have time for it, thats the other good one I get a lot-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Or do you get often I’ll look weak?

Maria Ross 

Yes, but putting that aside the whole excuse of like, oh, it’s, it’s just not a skill I have or I just can’t. You absolutely can. That’s like saying you can never have six pack abs or you can never run a mile because you just haven’t been to the gym in a long time and you haven’t been to the empathy gym in a while. So it’s all about, you know, you have to do some that that’s why I included actionable habits in the book because they’re gonna feel forced and unnatural at first if you haven’t done it in a while, but the point is so does your first trip back to the gym after being gone for 10 years, it feels painful. You’re sore.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Well, and the older you get, by the way, you’re like, wow, that hurts.

Maria Ross 

Exactly, exactly. So you know, you just have to be practicing it more and more and more so it becomes part of your standard operating procedure. So it becomes a default. So it becomes muscle memory, if you will. And this is exactly what psychology has shown working with very severely autistic children who do not get in touch with their empathy. They are given wrote lists of checklists of how to interact with someone. And they’re told do these things, right? Not because it’s coming from them. They do these things and what happens is it changes their feedback from the world. It changes the how the interaction goes. And so it starts to create something where like, oh, I want more of this. The more they do it, the more they can stop thinking about doing it. It moves out of there. prefrontal cortex, that is who they are. And I interviewed psychologists for the book as well. So that’s what has to happen with empathy at whatever age you are, is try some of the habits and try them on a daily basis.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Can you give us some examples?

Maria Ross 

Yeah. And the number one I start with is practicing presence. And that is about whatever that means to you. If it’s meditation, if it’s taking a few deep breaths before a big meeting, if it’s sitting with your phone and laptop off with your latte, if it’s going for a run or a walk, you have to be grounded and outside of your own head before you can make room to take someone else’s perspective or point of view. If I’m to hamster wheel, this is what I have to say I’m, I’m scared, I’m nervous. Like I’m all about where I am in my head, I can’t make the space to actually hear you and listen to you because I’m too concerned with my own protection. So you absolutely have to be grounded before you go into situations where you’re you’re dealing with someone else, if you’re going into a performance review, or you’re going into a contentious negotiation, meeting, whatever it is, you have to practice presence. So you can actually come from a place of being centered, and be able to do this and be able to ask the questions and not get defensive.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I’m a big fan of belly breaths, three deep belly breaths. I feel like honestly, if we all took time, multiple times a day just to do that our world would be a better place. It would for sure, and that- There’s science behind it. It’s not just like-

Maria Ross 

There is science behind it. Yeah. I mean, there’s totally science behind mindfulness. And that’s why the Dalai Lama loves working with scientists to prove that mindfulness is actually at a biological chemical level. Um, but you know that and then as we talked about, is is learning to ask more questions. So if you go to these situations, maybe before you go in, think of three questions you can ask based on what you think that person is going to say. But also listen to what they’re saying, and ask the follow up questions. Tell me more about that. Erica, tell me why you think that ideas going to work? Tell me why you think it’s not gonna work?

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Do you have tips for folks who are listening and they’re like, I know I’m a bad listener. I’m a person who is preparing my defense. Yeah, I mean, I have had to really work at it. For sure. And you know, sometimes I do better than other times. But one of the, so one of the tips that somebody gave me, which I pass along to folks is to actually have like, either like a pen, or you can do with your finger, it doesn’t really matter what it is your fingers are always there for you, but that you have a specific spot that you touch. And it’s always the same spot or the or the same pen or pencil and you hold it in the same way. So that that’s somatic act, get like is your way of saying stay here. Stay present. Be listening. It’s like your reminder to listen rather than going you know, start preparing your, you know, 16 ways that you’re going to take them down. Do you have any other because I think listening is really hard.

Maria Ross 

It is hard for sure.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

True listening is really hard.

Maria Ross 

Yeah. And I, you know, I, I talk about the fact that I’m constantly working on this because I get excited I get like, I want to jump in and be part of it. You know, I also, you know, quite honestly, I had a brain injury, like I have problems with my short term memory. And so I do a lot of note-taking while someone is talking so that if something comes to mind that I know I want to say I just say hold on one second, and I write it down so I can continue listening to them and remember what, remember what I was going to say. So the other thing is, I call it my internal shusher. And I talked about it in the book of just be here. Let her finish. Let him finish what he’s saying. You will get your opportunity you will get your five minutes of debate back, but sometimes it has to be a conscious thing like you said. I had never I’ve never heard of the tapping thing but you know I have heard of like just for presence, you know, if you have a rubber band that you can snap and bring you back to the moment that works for people too, but-

Erica Mills Barnhart 

That sounds painful.

Maria Ross 

It is, But I find that a lot of times when people stop listening, it’s also because at least for me, it’s, I’m afraid, I’m going to forget the point I want or what I want to react to and what the person is going to say, or what the person is saying. So I will try to, you know, and I often ask people, is it okay, if I take notes, but sometimes you might just have to be comfortable with going. Okay, hold that thought for one second, I just thought of something and I want to write it down before I forget and then I want you to continue talking so I can stay focused on you and not try to keep my question in my head.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

And that that last little bit that you just said, which is I want to stay focused on you. I was thinking, you know, when you make them, this is the I versus you statement stuff. But you know, when it’s I want to remember it, I think maybe more empathetic way of saying that could be something like you’re making a really good point and I don’t want to lose it.

Maria Ross 

Yeah, absolutely.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Just so the person’s like oh, I was on a roll. Yeah, you know, I don’t know that I’m gonna get back on my roll.

Maria Ross 

Yeah, yeah.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

The listening is hard. And yet I’m you know, curiosity and listening are so inextricably linked. So, yeah. So you did you, you mentioned the research that you did for this book, The Empathy Edge, and I’m curious, well, what was one of the most surprising things that you learned when you were researching that?

Maria Ross 

Um, there were a lot of little surprises. I’m trying to think offhand of one thing. Oh, actually, one of the biggest things that I was surprised about is that empathy is the number one trait of successful salespeople. But surprised but also it makes sense. Because it’s not it’s not extraversion. It’s not. It’s not even. What’s the word they used? Drive and ambition, although there is a study from USC that shows that a successful salesperson has equal parts empathy, and drive and ambition. Because if you just have empathy and you don’t have drive and ambition, you’re not making a lot of sales calls, right?

Erica Mills Barnhart 

You’re just sitting around feeling everybody’s feels.

Maria Ross 

Exactly they did studies that correlated the most successful salespeople as having both right. But empathy is about listening to someone and hearing what their challenges are, and then figuring out how to pivot your discussion to address their needs in the moment, the best salespeople I’ve ever worked with and I worked with enterprise sales teams for a really long time, are the people that have the, what I call the empathetic fluency in the moment, the situational fluency of because I’m actually listening to you I’m, I’m actually going to throw away my sales pitch and we’re going to talk about this and we’re going to talk about how our solution, how our product gives you the solution that you’re craving because I’ve heard what you’ve said, right. And that’s very different than yeah, yeah, okay, you just told me all your challenges now let me give you my pre prepared pitch that had no input from you and what you’ve just said to me before we had this conversation. Yeah. So that was that was quite surprising. I think the other thing that was quite surprising is just the the bottom line dollar data attached to empathetic companies. There’s there’s all kinds of data that shows empathetic leaders and empathetic organizations can improve their stock price, boost innovation, boost, employee engagement, boost customer word of mouth. There’s the data and the research is all out there. And I just wanted to curate it into the case for the book that if you think this is soft, it’s not and companies that have done complete turnarounds like I said, maybe for selfish reasons. There’s a great quote in the book from Ryanair CEO Ryanair is a discount airline in Europe. And they implemented a program in 2015 I think it was called always getting better. And it was sort of like Southwest like they did away with all the nuisances of travel for customers, you know, no baggage fees, no allocated seating, no this no that based on the customer’s flying experience, and their net profit grew 43%, the year after that was implemented. And the CEO famously said, if I’d known being nice was so profitable, I would have done it years ago. Right? But this is what I mean about if you’re doing things and for whatever motives, that company decided to put them, maybe they did decide just because we want to increase our profitability, but the fact that they knew that that would increase profitability to me, you still create this amazing experience for the customer. And when customers are happy employees are happy and when employees are happy, customers are happy. So it’s, it’s good for everybody, no matter for what reason they implemented that program.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah. What that example makes me think of is how often like where does the feedback loop start? So it’s a it’s a dynamic between company and customer or client. But I think oftentimes we take this into sight out approach and to a certain extent that makes some sense, you know, you want to, you know, be centered on your values and these types of things. But it’s such an interesting is sort of like a no duh point, which is go to like, what are your, what are the people who are going to be coughing up cash, really want and build it that way as opposed to let’s think about how we can accommodate ourselves like, as a company, what’s gonna work best for us? Well, it’s gonna be allocating these seats or whatever, it’s gonna be. That’s really that’s sort of a forehead. slapper.

Maria Ross 

I know it is. And if you want to hear a great inside out example, we could talk about REI. So they’re wildly successful opt outside campaign where they close their stores on Black Friday. So how that started, I spoke to the Vice President of customer connection, customer care, I can’t remember the exact title, his exact title from REI. He told me how that came about. And it was from an employee meeting about what the holidays meant to them and to the brand of REI and everyone said, well, you know, our mission and this is why it’s so important to be aligned on mission internally and and aligned on mission between you and your customers, is your mission, something your customers care about, too, right? But they started talking about it and saying, you know, like, the holidays have just become so commercial and our whole mission is about getting people to enjoy the outdoors and here we are getting them to take part in this ridiculousness where they’re in a mall, or they’re in a store all day. They’re standing in lines, like they’re not spending any time with their family and as employees, it sucks to work on Black Friday, like it’s just mayhem. And so some, an employee just said, what if we closed on Black Friday? And they said, but we could never do that. And they were like, I don’t know, could we? And they started figuring out what that could look like and the amazing thing that Ben Steele the EVP shared with me was, it wasn’t actually as hard of a sell as you would think, to the higher ups even though I mean retail closing on Black Friday, right? Because the company was so aligned on mission and because the company was so aligned with their customers like that was the mission, that was why their customers were customers of theirs and members of their co-op was to support that same mission. So that when they decided to do this, it blew up, like in a good way, like, yeah, the social media hashtag, they actually it resulted over the years it’s resulted in millions of new members and millions of new dollars in revenue and free press galore. Right.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

I love that example.

Maria Ross 

Right. And that’s what I mean by you know, the whole book, I have a whole chapter in the book about the empathy veneer, what we were talking about earlier, and this is why why that’s different is that it wasn’t someone just like a bunch of people in a boardroom going like how can we get more word of mouth and like make us look really different and did it that’s calculated, right. And again, to go back to what I said before, I don’t care if that’s how they get there. But but that’s what we mean by genuine empathy coming from the inside out is this was this sprouted from the employees having a conversation about the holidays, under brand. Not some calculated thing of like, how can we create a viral campaign to get us new customers?

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yeah. And that’s, I think the difference. We have we are coming out of a phase of being very much a culture of a and, you know, either or but, and I feel like we are sort of coming into more of a, you know, an and.

Maria Ross 

Yes. Yeah. We’re embracing improv. And it’s yes and.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Yes, and yes.Yeah, but I love that example. The REI example was fantastic. Yeah. Um, okay. I think everybody needs to read your book. I think that has become very clear, The Empathy Edge. What is your preferred place that they would go to get that?

Maria Ross 

 They can go to Amazon, it’s in some bookstores, bookstores can order it. So if you want to support your local independent bookstore and have them place an order for you and get it to to your house, you can do that too. But you can also get it off Amazon. And it’s like you said it’s called The Empathy Edge. And yeah, it’s available in Kindle and it’s available in paperback and also audiobook now.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

Alright, so I end every interview by asking my guests the same question. So the root of inspiration that means to breathe in. And then motivation is about taking action. So we need both of these things. What inspires you and what motivates you to keep doing this work?

Maria Ross 

I think over the years, it’s evolved and I really, it’s evolved, but it hasn’t in a way that I always had this master plan of wanting to build a platform to do good. And what I learned and got inspired by many years ago was the fact that you didn’t necessarily have to join the Peace Corps, be in health care or whatever, you take whatever platform you enjoy, and make it a force for good. And that’s what I try to talk about in terms of people’s brand message and their brand story is, you can use that voice to amplify for good, you can help people live healthier lives, you can speak out against social injustice, you can protect the environment, you can protect marginalized people. It doesn’t matter what you do, but what can you do within the construct of your platform to do good in the world and have your business contribute to being a force for good in the world.

Erica Mills Barnhart 

 Yeah, amen to that. Thank you, Maria, for being here for sharing your wisdom and your knowledge and for like skilling us all up when it comes to empathy, it is having a moment and I’m grateful to people like you who have done the research in advance so that we can take advantage of it. Listeners, I hope you got as much out of this as I sure did, and that you’ll experiment with empathy and getting in touch with your inner empath now that we know that that’s accessible to all of us. Because the world right now needs all the empathy we can muster. That’s for darn sure. So do good, be well and we will see you next time.