As a Product Manager, your ability to empathize is your greatest asset.
It’s your superpower, your secret weapon, and the key to success in customer conversations and internal stakeholder relationships.
Unfortunately, many PMs overlook the importance of leading with empathy, causing discord, confusion, and division.
In this article we’ll explore:
- What is cognitive empathy and why do product managers need it?
- How to use empathy to improve collaboration with other departments
- How to use empathy to better understand user needs
- First steps to incorporate more empathy in your work
Let’s jump in.
What is cognitive empathy and why do product managers need it?
An exploration by Berkley University describes empathy as ‘the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.’
Importantly, there is a difference between affective empathy - where you mirror the emotions of the other person and experience them as if they were your own - and cognitive empathy, where you identify and deeply understand the other’s point of view, but can see it from a more objective perspective.
It’s cognitive empathy which is a key skill for the toolbox of every product manager, because it allows us to take on board various feedback points and opposing opinions, and condense them into rational conclusions and action points.
How to use empathy to improve collaboration between departments
As Product Manager, you’re in the eye of the storm, a central point for all kinds of requests and comments - some constructive and some less so.
So how do you turn this complex position to your advantage?
Let’s look at some examples of how to get the most out of the range of perspectives in your organization:
Sales can be a cut-throat industry. This team is under constant pressure to hit targets, making them a valuable ally in achieving your product goals. However, requests for additional features can often strain the relationship between Sales and Product.
To avoid this, start by understanding their context. Ask how their quarter is going, how their pipeline coverage is (sepaking their language is a big bonus in fostering empathy), and how prospects are responding to recent product updates.
Next, offer to assist with customer discovery by joining a customer call or sharing your win/loss analysis. Do you have ideas for competitor weak spots they should focus on? Can you help generate pipeline leads?
Make it clear that you’re interested in what’s important to them, not only how your own department can benefit.
These small acts of empathy defuse tension and build a stronger relationship between your teams.
Marketing teams juggle multiple projects with limited resources, and often feel pressured from all directions. To better understand their priorities, ask what pressures they're facing this quarter, what they wish they had more time for, and how they choose where to focus efforts.
The common complaint about marketing departments is that they act too tactically – but the key to empathy is understanding that, from the outside, your own department may well look that way too.
If their latest industry report is overdue, or it seems they’re launching too many discount campaigns, there’s probably a good reason why. And you can only understand by taking the time to listen.
Once you establish rapport and context, find ways to collaborate. Offer to help write blog posts or release communications, present jointly at webinars, or work together on market research. Are both departments working with the same ideal customer profile? Can you help integrate it into their campaigns?
Combining the strengths of Product and Marketing teams can spell exponential long term success.
Customer Success & Support
While more and more Product Managers are realizing the infinite value of user testing, many of them are neglecting a gold mine of user knowledge right in front of their noses. The Customer Support team.
These people are in the trenches and know your customer better than anyone. A successful partnership with them can truly transform your product and retain happy customers long term. Failing to collaborate only leads to mutual resentment and an unproductive blame game.
As always start by listening - ask about the current mood among customers, trending issues, and the top recurring product complaints. The better you understand how your CS&S team works, the better you can understand their actions.
The next step to is to anticipate and prepare – what can you take off their plate?
Brainstorm difficult questions that customers might ask when functionality changes.
Provide pre-prepared answers for your CS&S team.
Consider an Engineering sprint to fix the top 10 support issues.
By making their lives easier, you build trust and empathy and forge a win-win collaborative relationship.
How to use empathy in user testing
It’s an easy confusion to make, but including user feedback during your product process doesn’t automatically mean your team are empathy experts.
In order to be truly empathetic, and therefore valuable, user testing has to be three things:
1. Consistent and continuous
Making contact with users and customers part of your regular planning rather than a once-in-a-while event, automatically makes the process feel more approachable, and reinforces empathetic skills.
Allow space for testing at various stages during development and iteration, and also seeking out ways to stay in touch with user needs and feedback in simple ways (see the section above on collaborating with Sales and Customer Support).
2. Open to all
At Human1st we’re all about interdepartmental collaboration, and user testing is no exception. Consulting different teams when preparing user interview questions, inviting them to be present in testing observation, and sharing the results will lead to invaluable insights and even more sources of empathy and understanding.
While quantitative research and written surveys certainly have their place, truly empathetic user testing must include personal contact. Space for active listening, unfiltered and spontaneous reactions and digging deeper on unexpected discoveries makes the interview format a treasure trove of rich data.
And remember to include a human touch when presenting data too. As UX designer Kayla J Hefferman recounts, from her experience at leading employment platform SEEK, teams respond better to research when it’s personalized.
Small details like including a photo of the participant when presenting a quote, or creating a video compilation of reactions (always with participants’ permission and understanding of where these will be used internally), help teams relate to and assimilate feedback.
So now we’ve explored why and where to use empathy, let’s look at how to get started.
First steps to incorporate more empathy in your work
Remember empathy not a limited resource – it’s a skill, a habit, that anyone can cultivate. So the great news is that the more you use it, the more you have.
To take the first easy step into promoting empathy in your team or organization, a Training Sprint is a great place to start.
This is a hands-on 3 day training format, that provides you and your team with the fundamental tools to foster empathy. Learn how to drop bias and truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes through:
- Active listening and collaboration exercises
- Observing and iterating processes
- Essential techniques for collecting and analyzing feedback
Because, in the words of OG innovator Henry Ford:
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.”
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