Maria Ross is an accomplished empathy expert and advocate. She has authored a book on the complexity of empathy, hosts a podcast on the subject, and has delivered a TEDx Talk. Ross has dedicated her career to fostering empathy in the workplace and beyond, drawing from her personal journey of recovery from a ruptured brain aneurysm and her professional experience as a brand strategist.

In this episode, Maria Ross joins Christina to discuss the transformative power of empathy in today’s challenging world. Her personal story reveals how her near-death experience and recovery significantly shaped her understanding and advocacy for empathy. Maria stresses the critical role empathy plays not only in personal recovery and relationships but also in enhancing business environments and leadership models.

Empathy: A Game-Changer

Maria Ross, an empathy expert and advocate, is all about spreading empathy vibes through her book, podcast, and even a TEDx talk. 

Her journey to empathy expert status didn’t happen overnight. She got married in her 30s, became a mom at 41, and now, at 51, is fulfilled doing impactful work. After recovering from a life-altering brain aneurysm, she bounced back and found herself volunteering at a hospital that played a pivotal role in her recovery. What stood out to her was the intentional empathy woven into their care model. This sparked a realization: empathy isn’t just a nice trait; it’s a game-changer in business and beyond.

The lightbulb moment came when she saw how empathy in business spills over into personal lives, relationships, and communities. So, she took it upon herself to make the case for empathy in the business world through her book, “The Empathy Edge.” Plus, as a mom, Maria was inspired to seek out and spotlight companies and leaders who prioritize empathy. 

Challenging Traditional Corporate Paradigms

Instilling empathy in traditional corporate environments can often be a challenge, especially among senior executives who may resist change. Maria discusses the shift happening in workplace culture and leadership paradigms, accelerated by the pandemic. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing the human aspect of work—personal struggles impact productivity and engagement. Maria makes a compelling case for empathy as a strategic skill necessary for innovation, employee retention, and customer satisfaction. She empathizes with seasoned executives facing this paradigm shift, acknowledging their fear and resistance. Often, leaders need to see demonstrations of the tangible benefits of empathy showing ROI and evidence of a strong business case to focus on empathy as a strategy. 

Ultimately, Maria aims to guide leaders towards adopting an empathetic mindset, knowing that once embraced, it leads to positive transformation both professionally and personally.

Empathy v. Sympathy

Many people use the terms “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably. Maria dives into the intricacies of empathy, distinguishing it from sympathy and discussing its relevance in various aspects of life, including the workplace and political discourse. Maria defines empathy as the ability to understand and, where appropriate, feel another person’s perspective. She emphasizes that empathy is a trait inherent in all humans but may atrophy over time if not exercised. Contrasting empathy with sympathy, Maria highlights that empathy involves being on both sides of the table, while sympathy often involves pity and maintaining a distance.

There is a misconception that empathy is overly emotional, but it’s really more about understanding—not necessarily agreeing. In this episode, Maria shares examples of how empathy can bridge political divides, citing Edwin Rutch’s Empathy Circles as a powerful tool for fostering understanding and connection across ideological lines. The importance of active listening and setting aside judgment to truly engage with differing perspectives cannot be understated.

Christina reflects on the media’s role in perpetuating division and suggests that individuals take control of their consumption to seek common ground. She and Maria agree on the need for more empathy circles and similar initiatives to promote understanding and unity in society.

Teaching Empathy

We know that empathy is important, but can it be taught? Maria emphasizes that empathy is innate in humans but can diminish if not nurtured. She stresses the significance of exposing children to diverse perspectives, whether through books, films, or discussions, to encourage empathy-building exercises.

Initiatives like Empathy Week in the UK, which aims to instill empathy in schools through various activities and discussions, help bring this important trait to the forefront. Maria suggests engaging children in age-appropriate discussions about characters’ feelings in books or biographies, encouraging them to consider others’ perspectives from a young age.

Cultivating empathy in children requires consistent effort and engagement, but the impact of even small actions can be profound in shaping compassionate individuals.

Empathy: A Universal Trait

Empathy plays different roles across different cultures and scenarios. While Maria acknowledges she’s not an expert in cultural differences, she emphasizes that empathy is a universal trait, albeit expressed differently across cultures. Maria explains the distinction between cognitive empathy (understanding someone’s perspective intellectually) and emotional empathy (connecting with someone’s emotions). Empathy can be practiced in various cultural contexts.

Maria shares practical strategies for fostering empathy in communication, particularly in conflict situations. She suggests using phrases like “tell me more” to encourage open dialogue and understanding. Active listening and reflecting back what’s been said without judgment are also important. These techniques can be applied in personal and professional relationships, enhancing communication and connection.

Understanding Empathy’s Role in Business and Leadership

There is an intricate relationship between empathy and effective leadership. Maria outlines five key pillars essential for empathetic leadership: self-awareness, self-care, clarity, decisiveness, and joy. She emphasizes the significance of self-care in fostering empathy, pointing out that without a solid foundation of personal well-being, leaders struggle to extend empathy to others—this often leads to burnout. Through her research and interviews, Maria identifies these pillars as fundamental traits shared by successful empathetic leaders, helping them to achieve high performance and foster positive team dynamics.

Other areas of business that can be impacted by empathy are product innovation, financial performance, and customer loyalty. Citing statistics from her website, Maria underscores the ROI of empathy in business, with CEOs and team members alike recognizing its pivotal role in driving success. She emphasizes the importance of empathetic customer service, noting that even in cases where issues are not fully resolved, customers leave with a positive impression if they feel understood and valued. 

The transformative potential of empathy is significant—although it is not without challenges, its critical role in creating positive change is hard to ignore.

Navigating Empathy Amidst Global Challenges

Reflecting on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria discusses the dual nature of empathy during uncertain times. While the pandemic blurred the boundaries between work and life, providing opportunities for increased empathy, it also led to social withdrawal and a loss of social skills, particularly among younger generations. She recommends maintaining empathy in leadership amidst rapid societal changes, and cautions against a snap-back to traditional leadership paradigms driven by fear and uncertainty. The younger generations who grew up in a digital age have a unique perspective, and Maria stresses the need to adapt leadership approaches to accommodate their diverse experiences and values.

Reflections and Future Aspirations

Reflecting on the empathetic and positive impact Maria has had, she shares her recent career pivot towards advocating for empathy, a decision driven by her desire to make the world a better place for her son. Despite feeling a mix of fear and excitement, Ross embraces this change and looks forward to the future with optimism. As she looks to the future, Maria hopes for retirement and the opportunity to travel more with her husband once their son reaches adulthood. 

Wrapping up the discussion, Maria shares that although empathy can lead to burnout or being taken advantage of if boundaries aren’t set, true empathy, when practiced effectively, doesn’t lead to being walked over but rather forms the foundation for effective leadership. More on this can be found in Maria’s upcoming book which focuses on building the pillars of successful and empathetic leadership. Stay tuned for release details coming this September!

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