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Why Empathy is Your Business Edge with Maria Ross

Has anyone ever told you that you can’t show compassion and empathy AND be successful in business? Maria Ross sets the record straight on cash flow, creativity, and compassion.

Why Empathy is Your Great Business Edge with Maria Ross (#1 Business Tips Podcast)

Summary: Empathy is Your Business Edge

Has anyone ever told you that you can't show compassion and empathy AND be successful in business? Brand Strategist and author Maria Ross is here to set the record straight on cash flow, creativity, and compassion.

  • More and more companies want to use their platform for good
  • Why empathy can be your edge
  • Empathy, your customers, and revenue
  • Active listening and empathy make you a marketing mindreader
  • How empathy can supercharge your brand

Words of Wisdom

Empathy is a philosophy. Making money is an action.

If you are not empathetic with your customers and clients, you're dead. Empathy is a great business edge. There's no other way you can operate a business but to be empathetic with your customers and clients. And what I mean by that is seeing things from their point of view.

Maria Ross, Brand Strategist

Transcript: Empathy is Your Business Edge

Has anyone ever told you that you can't be empathetic and make money at the same time?

Because a funny thing happened to me on the way to record this interview. Someone told me it's not even possible to have empathy and a profitable business.

Maria Ross is joining us and letting us know why that's an incorrect assumption. All that and more here on Women Conquer Business.

My name is Jen McFarland. I help business owners like you lead, plan, and execute their projects for maximum impact. Women-led businesses receive less funding yet our businesses are more successful. As consumers, we hold the purse strings. It's time for us to take on the business world. Welcome to Women Conquer Business.

Maria Ross is the founder of Red Slice. A consultancy that advises entrepreneurs, startups, and fast-growth companies on how to build an irresistible brand story and authentically connect with customers. She is a keynote speaker who regularly speaks to audiences on marketing and building an engaging brand story that drives growth and impact. She is the author of The Empathy Edge, Branding Basics for Small Business, and The Juicy Guide Series for Entrepreneurs. Maria started her career as a management consultant with Accenture and went on to build marketing and brand strategies for multiple companies, including Discovery Communications,, Business Objects, now SAP, and many other startups and technology leaders before starting her own business.

As a brand strategist, she has worked with brands such as Microsoft, Dropbox, Alertix, and GSK. As well as many smaller leaders in niche industries. Maria has been featured in written and numerous media outlets including MSNBC, Entrepreneur,, Huffington Post, and Forbes.calm. Maria understands the power of empathy at both a brand and personal level. In 2008, six months after launching her business, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that almost killed her. Her humorous and heartfelt memoir about surviving this health crisis, Rebooting My Brain, has received worldwide praise. Maria lives with her husband, young son, and precocious black lab mutt in the San Francisco Bay Area. Please welcome Maria to the show.

Hey, Maria, welcome to Women Conquer Business.

Thanks for having me, Jen. I'm excited about the conversation.

I am too. So when we first were connected I thought that you were like brand marketing all the way. And then we started talking and you've written a book. Do you want to talk about maybe how you went from brand marketing to writing this book and how these two things play together?

Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, you're totally right. I am a brand strategist and an author and a speaker. And I wrote a book many years ago called Branding Basics for Small Business and have pretty much built my business around that book. And in all those years I was talking to clients a lot of the time about how they wanted to be perceived. Obviously, that's a big part of your brand and your brand story.

And my philosophy is all about, well, it has to be authentic.

You can't just pretend to be something just because you want to. All my tech clients are like, "We want to be Apple." And it's like, great everybody wants to be Apple. You're not Apple. What are you good at, right? What's your sweet spot and what do your clients care about? And so I would often get into this conversation about authenticity, which I hate that word.

But this idea of how do you walk your talk when you're presenting your brand. And in the last few years, especially with sort of like what's been going on in our world, and our country and things that we're seeing and behaviors that we're seeing, I had a lot of clients and colleagues coming to me about how do I use my brand and my platform for good.

How do I create more empathy in the world where I personally am feeling really empathetic and I don't know what to do with that empathy?

Like, how can I put it into action? So it was this sort of thread of how people want to appear and how they want to connect with their customers with this very deeply personal longing I guess would be the word for wanting to make a difference in the world. And so several years ago or a few years ago, it launched me down this path of exploring empathy in more detail because I guess I've always been a student of empathy. And I would consider myself empathetic.

But I didn't really tie that back into my work until the last few years. And so I started researching how does empathy impact business? So how does it impact the workplace?

How does it impact us as leaders, and started to create this philosophy for myself that, "Wow, this all makes great sense and reading about all the benefits that organizations get and brands get from presenting themselves as empathetic." It also kind of sparked this-- this philosophy like I said of, "Wait a minute. This is great. And if we can't master empathy in the place where we spend the bulk of our time, I don't think there's really much hope for us to create a more empathetic world outside of work [laughter]."

So I wrote a book called The Empathy Edge that pull together all that research, the data, the case studies. And also, what was important for me was to offer practical actionable habits and traits for people. So what do I do to try to become a more empathetic leader? What do I do to try to create a more empathetic brand and a better connection with my customers? And that's how we go to where we are today. And The Empathy Edge was born, so [laughter] long roundabout story.

No. And it's awesome. And I get as you can imagine because you're in marketing, so you know a lot of people in marketing want to be on this podcast. And I'm usually fending them off because so many people want to skip ahead with small businesses into things that they really don't need. I go around and teach local small businesses about the foundational pieces. So I don't want to bring somebody on my show who's going to be like, "You need click funnels," and like going all the way into these other programs because I think things like empathy and being authentic and showing up as your authentic self are very important in small business because you're the brand, right?

Absolutely. Yeah. And it's the non-sexy stuff, I think, that everyone wants to skip the foundation work and skip the strategy work because they want to get to like, "Well, what am I going to have on my Facebook page? And what is my logo going to look like," and yada, yada, yada.

And all of that-- it's like decorating a house that hasn't been built yet. And so how do you build that foundation?

And for me, even like creating a culture or a brand that people are attracted to that they want to be part of that certain people are attracted to - not everybody, but your tribe - empathy comes up more and more over the last few years of like, "Well, I really want to communicate that we're empathetic to our customers." And I'll have some clients say that. And I'll be like, "Really? Are you empathetic?"

Like [laughter], it's okay not to be [laughter]. And so just this idea of what is the mindset and what is the foundation of what I have to do to be this thing in the world and to present myself as this way and to legitimately walk my talk?

And I think that that's great. And also, as a recovering piece core volunteer, empathy is such a baseline for everything that I do. And then, when I talk to somebody-- as I was leaving my co-working space today to come interview you, she's like, "Yeah, empathy. But like, can you really make money doing that. And one of the things I really appreciated--

I love that. A do empathy. I love that. That's great. You're doing empathy. That's the problem right there. Yeah.

But it's a business. And you touch upon that in the book. And the people who are like the empathy haters [laughter], I guess. And then--

Yup. Let's call them the skeptics. I try to be a little bit-- yeah. No. The skeptics.

The skeptics [laughter]. Hater is my word. Not Maria's word [laughter].

Hater's good. Hater's good. Yes.

What I love about your book is how you talk about how it translates to customers and revenues and things like that. So what do you tell people when they're like, "Eh, empathy. But I want to make money"?

Right. Well, so empathy is a philosophy. Making money is an action. Right? So empathy is a way that you operate in business. Just like everybody's got their mission statement and their vision statement and their values. And then, often, those get left being sort of a nice poster on the wall. And it doesn't actually connect to what a company or an entrepreneur is doing every day. In my work with brand-strategy clients, I make them tie those values and those attributes to their products, to their services, to the way they talk, to the way they operate. And so empathy's no different. It's sort of just another way to approach your business and have a philosophy about your business.

But like you said, what's great is I wanted to write this book for the skeptics because it's like, "Here's the data," right? Here are the case studies of companies that are operationalizing empathy, meaning they're not only leading with this philosophy but they have policies and practices that support it. They hire based on it. Their leaders operate based on empathy. Every day, they're showing empathy to each other and to their customers. And oh, by the way, they're boosting innovation. They're increasing productivity. They're retaining their top talent. They're, in some cases, increasing their market valuation and stock price.

So anyone who tells me, "What does that have to do with business?" I say, "Everything," right? Even if you don't call it empathy, if you're not attuned-- even forget about the internal, right, if you have a team or whatever. Let's even focus on an entrepreneur who says, "I don't have a team. It's just me." If you are not empathetic with your customers and clients, you're dead. There's no other way you can operate a business but to be empathetic with your customers and clients. And what I mean by that is seeing things from their point of view. Understanding what their life is like. Understanding what they fear, what they value, what they cherish, what they despise so that you can offer products or services that align with what they want. So call that whatever you want. Call that market research. Call that customer connection, customer experience. It's got to be grounded in empathy. And that has bottom-line results because it's going to help you make your sales or not.


[inaudible] [laughter].

Okay. We're done. It's over.

We're done [laughter].

I think that-- and I'm sure that you run into this too where people are like, "Well, I mean, how can I be empathetic with my customers?" I'm like, "Well, ask them what they need." What do you tell people?

Yeah. I mean, that's one of the best places to start. And then the inevitable next question if someone's launching a business is, "But I don't have any customers yet." I'm like, "Okay." So we need to create ideal customer profiles. And that's part of the brand-strategy work I do. And not just women between the ages of 25 and 50. No. I want a real person, like who is Jen? Where does she live? What does she care about? What does she crave? What does she fear? All of it. And then it's kind of a mixture of imagination and common sense of like, "What is this person like?"

And then if you don't have customers yet, you find people people who like that ideal profile. And you go interview them and you go take them for coffee and you go talk to them about-- related to your products and services. If you're a marketing consultant, for example. What's your biggest struggle with marketing? What do you wish you had? What's been most successful for you? And one of the ways in the book that I talk about, from a marketing perspective to be empathetic, is when you have those conversations with your actual customers or with personas of your ideal customers, is document the words that they are actually using.

So we get innumerate of our own way of saying things, right? In a vacuum of "This is what I want to communicate to you." But when a customer verbalizes the need and verbalizes what they want, use those words in your marketing and sales messaging. And then all of a sudden, your prospective customer reads that and goes, "Oh my gosh. She's reading my mind. That's exactly what I need." And it's because they said it. So for example, with my business, I talk about myself. I am a brand strategist. And some people get what that is and some people don't.

They think that I design logos or they think I -- whatever they think. And so sometimes I have to use language that's going to affect people where they are and that's empathy. That's like, "Okay. I know that what you need is a brand strategy but you're not verbalizing that that's what you need. So let's talk about it in terms of what you actually need and what you're saying to yourself at night when you can't sleep and you need this problem solved." So I think that that's just one way that no matter how big of a size of a company you have, you've got to be talking to your ideal customers. You've got to be knowing them intimately and understanding their hopes and fears and desires at a personal level. But also as it relates to what you do and then using that language back.

That's so beautiful.

Thank you.

Honestly. I mean it--

It seems so simple but we all struggle with it. I struggle with it too.

Yeah. I mean, we do, right? And I think oftentimes what all of us do is we talk about what we do in a way that we would talk to our friends who do what we do. Do you know what I mean?

Exactly, yeah.

Like, brand strategist, I'm like, "Oh yeah. No, I totally get what she does. Cool." But then I think if you talk to somebody else, they're telling you a big story about what it is that they need. And you're like, "Oh, I do that." And they're like, "You do? Because I don't know what this brand strategist thing is." And so it's about listening. But to me listening is really one of-- the heart, if not the heart of empathy. It's one of them is listening and taking that in and then showing people that you've heard them.

For sure. And that's actually one of the traits of, they call it highly empathic people. Is that they're very curious and they're good listeners. So the idea that-- one of the tips I have in the leadership section for folks to flex their own empathy muscle is to practice presence. Because that's the only way you're going to be an active listener. Is to be in the room when you're in the room and not checking your phone and not trying to think of other things. But also to be curious and ask questions. So when you get in a conversation whether it's with a colleague or whether it's with a customer. And let's say there's a disconnect there. Instead of sort of digging in your heels on your own position or jumping into prescription mode, "This is what I think you need." It's asking questions. Hmm, why do you feel that way? What's bringing you to that conclusion? Where do you think that mindset comes from? Tell me a little bit more about why you have that opinion? What is your goal here? What's your intention of what you're actually trying to do? The more you can ask questions the more you can gather the information you need. And, here's the big and. Don't just ask the questions to be able to jump on what you want to say, as the answer, right? It's the whole like, I'm asking you the question, but I'm really just asking you the question so I can answer it.


You know those people, right?

I do.

So and this is, believe me, I'm a redhead, I'm Italian, I can talk, and I have to be very mindful. Again, that's where I sort of bring the practicing presence into it, to force myself to be in the conversation and put aside what I think I want to say. And if I'm chomping at the bit, maybe I just write it down so that I can fully take in what someone else is trying to say.

I love it and we're human, we're not perfect. So we're all going to make mistakes in that area. I think one of the things that I do that slows me down, actually, in that context is I want to be able to say this back to somebody. You know what I mean? And so then I'm listening more intently, and then I always preface it with let me see if I heard you right. And then I say it. And then if I have something else, like a question or suggestion then I always say you might consider. Because it's all up to them. It's not really about me putting something on. Because that's part of listening for me is you might consider this and then I kind of wait to see how that lands.

Lands. Yeah.

But what I love about the book, absolutely, are you have these great lists, and then resources that people can go to, to practice this. So what's the intention for that for people? How do you envision people taking that out into the world?

Well, when I started this project, about three years ago, it was very important to me not to write another book about the theory of empathy, because I am not an empathy expert, per se. I feel like I am now but there's a lot of people that are better at it than I am. And I'm also not a social scientist. I'm not a psychologist.

And so, I didn't want to write a book that was about something I didn't know that much about. What I do know about is about business and effectively connecting with people and connecting with customers. And so I wanted the book to be very action-oriented. In that, yes, it was going to talk about all the benefits of empathy, but then, what do I do next? So that was why specifically in those sections of the book around leadership, culture, and brand, I wanted to have not only the case studies that exemplified this behavior, but a roundup of here's the seven things, six things that you can try and that's why it's kind of hard-- I can't really call them tips because they're not really tips.

But I keep bouncing between are they habits, traits, practices, whatever they are their actions. And one of the things I was pointing out to someone who I was talking to you about the book a couple of weeks ago was-- and you don't have to try it. All of them all at once. If you're really trying to cultivate your empathy and flex your empathy muscles, that phrase I keep using, try one or two for two weeks, see how it changes the conversation, see how it changes your mindset, your perspective. I was able to in a few of the chapters to really dig into some specifics like how to find common ground with someone who disagrees with you, or how to run a meeting in an empathetic fashion.

So a couple of places I did take a little bit of a tangent to get very detailed and give some good tips, if you will, on those subject areas. But the whole goal, before this book was even anything when it was just like an idea in my head was really about, again, what was going on in our world, especially around 2016. And this idea that people felt paralyzed, they felt like there was nothing they could do. And so again, I didn't want to write another book but that's just like we just all need to be nice to each other. But how can we do that? And like I said at the top if we can tie it into where we spend the bulk of our time, then there's hope.

Because if I'm spending 8, 9, 10, 12 hours a day. Whether it's dealing with customers or dealing with colleagues or partners or whatever. If I can master being empathetic and kind and being compassionate there it can't help but spill over into my life. For whatever reason that's making me try it, right? Oh, I'm only doing this because I want to boost productivity or I'm only doing this because I want to increase revenue. Fine, welcome to the party. Because I was talking to someone the other day and I said, "It's kind of like being pregnant." You're either pregnant or you're not.

So if you try to be "empathetic." And I know I'm doing air quotes here, I know people can't see. Once you do it, you've done it. Whatever reason made you be empathetic or have an empathetic mindset or perform a compassionate act, you've still done it. So it's going to change your feedback with the world. And I've seen it in action where it can transform you from the outside in.

That's fantastic, yeah. And as much as you like to talk about empathy without being-- you say you're not an empathy expert but I read the book.

I feel like I am now.

And I think we all are practitioners of different things. So I think you can be the empathy expert for business owners. You can own that soft skill for me. At least you'll own it for me.

Thank you.

And the one that I talk about a lot is gratitude as a grounding center for leadership. And I always say the same thing. Where you can start with gratitude in the office, you can start with it at home. And it's going to spill over into both. Because if you practice it in one place it's going to go into the other and I find that to be the case with a lot of these soft skills. Because they just translate-- and I hate the term soft skills, by the way.

Yeah, I know.

Because it seems to kind of belittle it. And I really think that-- and I would like to get your take on this because I think you mention it in the book a little bit too. Is this transition that we're feeling and facing in leadership, especially among people who are younger than us. I'm a Gen-Xer. So among Millenials and generation Z is they care more about things like gratitude and empathy, having a good place to work.

They do and that's actually one of the benefits I cite becoming an empathetic-- Or creating an empathetic culture and an empathetic brand is that that is very appealing to Millenials and Gen-Z which is the up and coming talent pool and the up and coming consumer pool, right? And what was fascinating in my research is that when I looked into how those generations feel about empathy.

Number one, I found data that showed that those generations are among the most diverse and empathetic that are entering the workforce. And their diversity extends beyond, I'm a Gen-Xer too. It extends beyond what we were able to accomplish when we first started out which was even getting diversity on the radar, right? We were like, "No. People have to be represented."

And we looked at diversity strictly as representation. What's so hopeful about these younger kids [laughter]. [inaudible] but it's true. But these other generations coming in behind us, they're taking it a step further. And they're saying it's not just about representation. First of all, it's not even just a moral imperative or an ethical imperative.

It actually leads to better business outcomes. That's what they're saying. They're tying diversity and empathy to business outcomes which is something that our generation didn't really even do. We were just like, "It's the right thing to do."

But their definition of diversity is expanded to even include cognitive diversity. And this is where empathy comes in. They are not just looking for sort of checking the box like, "Yup. Ther'es a woman here. Yes, there's a person of color. Yes, someone is transgender." They're looking at how does the organization-- or if they're a consumer how does the brand harness the various perspectives and viewpoints? Are they actually listening? Do they actually act on what they're hearing? So they're looking at much more about, "What are you taking action on by bringing all these people together?"

And what I like to say is sort of, diversity can't be effective for an organization and reap all the benefits that people say you get when you get diversity unless there's empathy. Because otherwise, you have just a bunch of different people sitting around a table staring at each other and disagreeing with each other. Because they can't understand each other. So even if you say you are a diverse organization. It's like, "Really? What are you doing from an empathetic standpoint to harness that and to help those people better understand each other and collaborate?"

Absolutely. And I will say that, because I want to start shifting into the brand and how empathy helps with brands-- but I wanted to kind of put a pin in this because, as we talk about brands, my assumption is that the younger generations are also more empathetic in their branding and showing what good they're doing in the world. And the one thing, I'm not sure if it's in your book or not, is that the younger generations are also more entrepreneurial than we are. So they're going to be dominating the market, and if we don't learn [laughter] how to be more empathetic in our branding, we're going to be missing out, not only on the younger consumers, but losing out to the younger generation of entrepreneurs who can be our partners, our supporters, and also competitors.

Yeah. And I didn't necessarily stumble across any research about whether there is an increase in entrepreneurship, but there's definitely data that shows that those generations care more about a brand being empathetic if they're going to spend their money with that brand. And you can look at that in a variety of factors. You can say, "Is the brand doing good in the world? Is it being compassionate?"

So whatever umbrella you choose to look at the term empathy, whatever lens, there is documented data that shows that they are more loyal to those brands that are doing good in the world, that treat workers fairly, that care about diversity and diversity of thought, and that are sort of using their powers for good versus evil [laughter]. And those are the ones that are-- and they're super loyal when they're loyal. They've got money to spend. And the other thing we were talking about before we started taping was this idea that they can sniff out a fake very quickly.

So I have a whole chapter in the book about the empathy veneer, and it's sort of like, "Yes, I invited to this conversation regardless of your motive or your intention, but you also need to know that you can't just slap this coat of empathy paint over your business and expect that to be sustainable." And that's why it's not about just this one-off actions of empathy. Like, "Oh, we're empathetic because we donate once a year to a local food bank. That's going to show that we're empathetic."

It's about a mindset and an environment that the organization, whether it's 1 or 100,000 people, creates to foster empathy. Foster empathy through its policies, its practices, the kinds of people they hire, the kinds of customer service that delivers-- you create sort of this total ground for sustainable empathy that can go on and on and on for years and years and years, and that's how you create genuine empathy and avoid that veneer.

But anyone who thinks that it's going to be a couple of token activities here and there and then you're fine after that, you can treat your employees badly, you can have really horrible customer service, like, "Oh, look over here. We gave all these money to--" name your charity [laughter]. It's got to be part of a larger fabric of what the organization is doing. And what was also great is that-- in the book, I cite really huge companies like REI, Airbnb, Salesforce, but I also talked to smaller companies, small solopreneurs. Alexandra Franzen, for example, who has a great mindset of empathy in her business in that she always gives back a portion of whatever she makes on a project or on a class. That's part of her business model, its philanthropy, and her audience knows that. And she offers a personal touch.

She will respond to emails, even if it's just a few words. She always tries to create a personal connection with her audience even though it's huge. And so, again, that's empathy. It's looking at she's looking at her audience as people, not just a number of subscribers or number of followers. And I think if you have that mindset even as a solopreneur, that can just make things hugely successful for you and help you avoid being seen as like, "Oh, this is just something they're out there touting that they're empathetic." It's sort of like if you have to be telling people you're empathetic all the time, it's like someone who goes around going, "I'm hip. I'm hip [laughter], aren't I?" If you begin to tell people that-- but it's through your actions, and it's through your mantra. Yeah [laughter].

You're making me laugh--

I know [laughter].

--because when I say that and like, "Oh, I'm hip," but I'm saying it because I know I'm not [laughter].

Because you're being snarky. No, I love that, so yeah.

Well, no, just I'm acknowledging that I'm like 100% geek and like [laughter] that might be hip some places, but not really.

But you're geek chic, so it's okay [laughter].

Oh, just because I'm wearing a hoodie. I see what you're-- I see what you're getting at.

I know. I know. I know [laughter]. I love it. No. But yeah, it really is that thing about-- I don't even know if it's from Shakespeare or not. She [does?] protest too much. And it's one of those if you're out there like, "Our company is empathetic. Really, our company is empathetic [laughter]," it's like, "Hmm, I don't know."

Well, it's funny, though, because I do some of the things that you're talking about and yet, I don't share that with my audience. So when it comes to branding and being empathetic like, "How do you share some of the things that maybe if you just operate in that lane, you don't think about even telling other people about it?"

Well, you need not to tell other people. So all of the outreach-- for example, with [Alexander Story?], all the personal touches she offers, all of the email responses, that generates word of mouth for her. That's going to make someone tell their friends, "Hey, you should follow this person. You should listen to their podcast. You should go by their course," because-- you don't want to be the one tooting-- I mean, you should [toot a little more?]. I shouldn't deliver that message. People should have pride in what they do and talk about what they do.

But the great thing about being an empathetic brand is that when you truly are empathetic and you're doing all these things, people will spread the word for you. And even in the largest companies, there's things that they've done that they didn't even intend to be a marketing promotion and it yielded all this crazy press, and social media blew up, and whatever. And it was sort of like kind of surprising to them that this happened, and that's the power of being an empathetic brand is when people feel that connection with you. You become part of their identity. And they want to share you with other people to say, "Look, I'm the one that told you about finding [Jen's?] podcast or using her services [laughter]," or whatever. And so I think that by the very nature of you doing those things, not expecting the fanfare, you're probably reaping your rewards of it and don't even realize it.

Okay. Cool. I'll take it.

Good for you [laughter].

I'll take it. No. I mean, I just think there are a lot of people that are probably doing things and then thinking, "Do I have to tell people about it?" So let's talk about that a little bit, then, how empathy maybe shows up in your branding so that people aren't out there [went off?] branding [laughter].

[Went off?] accident that they--

[Went off?] [inaudible] of empathy like, "What does that look like in the brand lane?"Well, number one, you really need to be aligning on your mission and your story. And so if you have that clear brand strategy, brand story, whatever it is, if you've got that clear story, are you aligning across all touchpoints on that? And that's true of any successful brand is the consistency and the clarity. But if empathy is really core to what you do and a philosophy with which you want to run your business.

How are you aligning that to the courses you create, to the products you develop, to the services you decide to offer, to the pricing? All of those things, it's got to be wrapped up in one package. To the content, to what you post on social media, etc, etc. So is it something that you flip a switch and all of a sudden it's there?

No, because it's about consistency and clarity over time. So that's the biggest thing is aligning on your mission and your story and being consistent. Another way is if customers have an experience with you of accepting feedback, they know that you accept feedback as a gift. So if they are able to really tell you how they feel and take the time to tell you how they feel, are you accepting that feedback, are you acting on it, are you making changes to the business, or are you being really negative in response to getting that feedback? That alone is going to give you a reputation of truly being empathetic or just being a jerk, right? So I think it shows up that way. I think again it shows up in being able to offer a personal touch.

One of the things I'm out there talking about now is empathy in a digital world. And a lot of our interactions with companies, with people, it's over email, it's over Zoom. So what are the things that you can do to offer that personal touch and create what my friend Melissa Kazera calls a boutique experience for people?

And there's ways that you can do that. And just as an example, when you get email subscribers-- a lot of us are building lists. But I try, I know I'm not always good at it-- I would pick sort of two or three new subscribers at random each week and send them a personalized message. And usually they'll write me back and they'll say, "This is what my specific struggle is," and then I might point them to some resources. And I'll be like, "No. This is not a bot. This is really Maria. And just that reminding yourself that they're not just numbers, there's people behind those numbers, I think is really important, especially in this digital world.

Same thing with if you are responding to-- if you're a larger business and you're responding back to a customer service email or a complaint, how do you do that? Are you doing it in a way where it's very understanding and you're like, "Wow. I'm really sorry that happened to you. That must've been horrible. What can we do to make this right?" Or are you standing behind very rigid policies and procedures?

And to be honest, I know quite a few solopreneurs who create these very rigid policies because they think they're being "professional" and they think they're being, what's the word, they're showing their confidence and standing their ground. And a lot of times I'm like, "Ooh, that's a little squishy there."

Because sometimes - again, like you said earlier - everybody's human. And is that really the best response to somebody who just had this personal crisis, you're really not going to give them a refund on your course? Really? So I think that sometimes solopreneurs especially go too far down the best practice spectrum and they're like "No. These are my policies and they are etched in stone." And so that's going to give you a bad brand reputation as well. So that's a few ways that it shows up in how you're operating day-to-day.

Yeah. I think that one of the things that I talk about a fair amount is that as a solopreneur, you don't want to shit all over yourself. So it's like [laughter]--

I love that.


Yeah. [crosstalk]. I like that [laughter].

You can use it. It's free.

Yeah. Thank you. Okay [laughter].

But what I mean by that is I should do this I should do this. I should do this. And then all of a sudden, you're worse than-- pick your least favorite cable company to work with, because I think they're the worst. By the worst, I mean, the worst, which is why they're failing, right? They never treat their long-term customers as well as they treat the new ones. They don't reach out and actually help you. They give you horrible windows to work with. It's very rigid. So I think that a lot of times, people think that that's what they have to do in order to be successful.

And again, I'm not saying I'm perfect, I make all kinds of mistakes, but for me, whenever possible, I'm trying to preserve the relationship first even if I have to take a little bit of [inaudible] on things sometimes, thinking that at least if we're parting ways, it was still a good interaction.

Totally. And I think, yeah, there is that fine line of-- I think empathy in the workplace, empathy in your business just comes down to-- again, you don't want people to be getting your services for free. I'm not implying that. But just to remember that people are human and remember that there might be a moment where you could be misinterpreting something.

And so when a client or a customer or a partner does something that you see as very negative, maybe, again, get curious and take that step back and go, "What could possibly be an explanation for what's going on here? Is it that they're being a total jerk, and they're trying to use me? Is it that maybe something happened that day?" Let's say someone stands you up for a coaching call or for a meeting.

You don't want to get in the habit of always giving people a pass, but it just seems our first reaction is always so like, "That [inaudible]," insert your [laughter] expletive here. And then it's like, "Well, no. You're going to have to pay all over again to schedule another meeting and blah, blah, blah, blah." Well, let's hear each other out. Let's find out what happened. I have a great personal story about that. About 10 years ago, I suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, and it was pretty life-altering.

I wrote [inaudible] more about it. But the day that I collapsed and basically almost died, I was supposed to have a call with a potential new client. And when my husband went back, as he was checking emails-- because I was in the hospital for six weeks, and of course, that was the last thing on our minds, was to see who I stood up for a meeting at work [laughter].

He went back through, and of course, there was the snarky emails that came through from that person of-- and this person sort of knew me. They knew that this wasn't really my MO. And finally, the last email was like, "Oh, my God. I just heard. I'm so sorry." Now, I'm not saying everybody that stands you up for a meeting had a brain aneurysm [laughter], but let's show a little grace at times and just sort of let's get curious and find out what's going on. And yes, have policies, have procedures, don't get taken advantaged of, but let's just be human to each other I guess is my [crosstalk].

Absolutely. And I think [laughter]--


I think the way that you put it in the book is so eloquent. You call it the platinum rule.And I didn't coin that. I can't [cop?] to that. But yeah, it's the platinum rule for sure.

Yeah. So do you want to tell me what that is?

Sure. I can. I didn't want to steal your thunder.

No, I have no thunder.

Yeah [laughter]. You have no thunder. No. But we always talk about the golden rule about do unto others as you would have done unto you, and empathy invites you to take it a step further because it is about seeing things from the other person's perspective.

And so the Platinum Rule is, "Do unto others as they would have done unto them." So it's about actively trying to put yourself in the position of that person and what is it that they need, what is it that they would want. And this comes out so clearly in studies. I don't know if you've ever read the book Drive by Daniel Pink.

I mentioned it briefly in the book. But it's like 10 years old now or so. But he talks about the surprising things that motivate people. And he did all this research-- he's a New York Times bestselling author. And he did all this research-- it doesn't seem earth-shattering now, but at the time, it was like, "Not everybody's motivated by the same things."

So when you want to get more performance out of your team, or whatever, motivating them with more money might not always be the motivation that makes someone perform. And same thing with customers, right? If customers aren't acting, your natural inclination might be, "Well, let me lower my price. Let me discount."

And that might not be what's motivating people. So you've got to look through the lens of the other side and say, "What is it that's the issue here? What's going to actually be the [carat?] for that person?" And that is a much more empathetic way to look at the situation than to think like, "Well, this is what I would want. So, of course, naturally, that's what Jen would want."

Right. Absolutely. And it's hard. It's hard to do that sometimes. And yet, I think that that's how we build better relationships.

And to your point that you made at the beginning, when you don't know what that is, ask. We're so afraid to ask our customers what they want. We're so afraid to ask what-- this is random, but I just did a segment this morning on local news about how to help working moms, how to be empathetic and help working moms transition back to work.

And that's actually one of the big things is like, "Just ask them. What do they need? What would help them be more successful?" Ask other moms in the office. What would it been helpful to them [laughter] to help them get-- it's like we're so-- I don't know what it is. We feel like we have to have all the answers or something. And sometimes, it's a lot more efficient to just ask, like you said.

Yeah. Well, then getting back to-- you talk about it in the introduction about the personal experience with the aneurysm and about even a more compassionate way of getting care in a hospital, which I think is very powerful. I don't want to give too much away because I want people to buy this book [laughter]--I want them too [laughter].

As you were describing it here today, it reminded me of another instance where someone didn't show up for a meeting and the solopreneur went down this entire rabbit hole of assumptions about why that happened and ended up losing the client over it because the client had something really big happen in their personal life. And the assumptions kind of went bizarre after a while about why they're not responding.

It was kind of like paying attention to when you're telling yourself a story [laughter] about what's going on, instead of just saying, "Hey, we had a meeting today. I just want to check in and make sure everything's okay." And then wait [laughter].And then wait. Yeah. Exactly. [But we spend?], right? And I've been guilty-- like I'm raising my hand. I've been guilty of it too. And I will tell you just - if we have time - a real quick story about a partnership that I had with somebody I'd never met. I was introduced to someone over email, and they wanted to do a web training for a private course that they were doing. So we had an agreement. We had a contract.

I was going to provide some content. And then my spidey sense started going off because they were just some weird things where the person was like supposed to do something, and then didn't back to me. And meanwhile, like I'm putting this all together as I'm getting ready to go on a 10-day holiday to the UK with family.

And so I was kind of like, "Okay." Like, all the stuff was happening. And I started to get a little weirded out by it. And then, long story short, I ended up having to work on this presentation while I was on vacation. When I came back, I couldn't get a hold of this person at all. I go to the designated time for the webinar.

I blocked my whole day to do this. I had no information. They basically ghosted me. And I had spent all this time putting stuff together. And I was trying to get in touch with the person. And I actually gave them the benefit of the doubt for like five emails and phone calls.

I was like, "Hey, if something really serious happened, please let me know." Like, I couldn't even say this isn't your usual behavior because I didn't really know this person. And at the end of the day, they just ghosted me. Like, they were just completely unprofessional. And I got screwed and lesson learned and whatever. But my phone is I at least felt better about myself and my behavior and my reaction. And I protected the integrity of my brand by not completely sending the email that I wanted to send, which was like, "You," la, la, la. But I was like, "Okay. Maybe something did happen."

And again, my experience from several years ago of course was like the forefront of my mind, like did something-- did some personal tragedy happen to this person-- like, whatever because we seemed to be talking. And then, all of the sudden, it was like-- went dark. So my point is I didn't come out of that experience unscathed. But I came out of that experience holding on to my integrity because I tried to have empathy. And that to me was the biggest win from that whole thing.

Absolutely. And I wish I could say I always handle things that way [laughter]. But I don't.

And I don't. I don't. Yeah. That's why I'm like that one stands out from the like 900 times I didn't do that [laughter]. But--

Do you have any closing thoughts?

I think just that we-- the larger-- the larger message of the book is that I really am trying to start a conversation to flip the script on how we define success. And this idea that you have to be competitive, you have to be cold, you have to be take no prisoners-- to be ambitious and competitive and a leader is BS. I mean, there's ample proof that shows that companies can act--organizations, entrepreneurs can act in a different way and still be successful and still lead their markets and yes, still make a ton of money. And so I think my mantra has always been cashflow, creativity, and compassion are not mutually exclusive. We actually can run a business with compassion and integrity and be ambitious and be competitive as hell and lead the market. And so that's what I want to leave people with-- is that you don't have to choose. You don't have to choose integrity and compassion over cashflow and revenue.

Absolutely. So where can people find The Empathy Edge?

So for book information, they can go They can find the book on Amazon, on Barnes & Noble, and all the usual suspects. If folks want to get in touch with me and read my blog and sign up for my sassy email newsletter list, they can go to and check me out there. And I'm on all the usual suspects-- Instagram-- Red Slice, Maria, Twitter-- Red Slice, Facebook-- Red Slice. So join me there.

That's awesome. I think I'm going to do that


Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thanks for having me.[music]

Hey, ladies. I know you're working so hard to grow your business, a business that aligns with your vision and your values, a business that supports your lifestyle. And I know that it's been a bumpy ride sometimes. I see it all the time-- women overspending on shiny objects and magic pills because they're tired of not seeing results, business decisions based on short-term gains without a critical eye toward the future. Most heartbreaking of all? Women who walk away because it's just too damn hard. The good news is you're not alone. You have support all around you. If you're ready to take joyful action on your biggest business schools, if you need strategy, accountability, and a path to get you exactly where you want to go, let me know because I'm here to support you as a consultant and strategist. You can fill out a quick application to work together at I've opened up just a few spots over the next couple of months for clients who are ready to make a move. It just takes a few minutes at [music]

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