Empathy: The Product Manager's secret weapon

Simon Tratnik
  • 5
    min read
  • Simon Tratnik
    May 3, 2023

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. 

Empathy is the secret weapon of every Product Managers. Product Managers are using empathy in conversations with customers to build connections, understand context and learn unmet needs and pains. But so many Product Managers fail to lead with empathy when working with internal stakeholders.

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. 

Team is as strong as the weakest link, so talk with people and ask them about what they experience at the moment. But don't stop there, use empathy to discover how they feel about certain situations, so that you can help them overcome challenges and don't expect anything in return. That way you'll genuine help them and good things will happen in retrun by themselves.

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.


Sales is a hard part of business so sometimes we, as a product managers need to step back and ask ourselves how can we help these people out so that they feel they are also making progress and we treat them as allies.


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. Use your product expertise to enrich webinars, or join forces for in-depth 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. 

When was the last time you asked about the current state among your colleagues in customer support? What are some positive or negative trends they are experience on a daily basis. Doing that will give you new context of how you can help them as Product department, no just as you individual contributor (IC).

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. 

Product Managers that are using empathy for internal use, sometimes forget to have empathy and humility for external people - the users or the customers. The problem is that these product managers forget who is expert in the problem and who is expert in solution and they don't be humble enough and discover the pains and needs of those same people they are building solution for.

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.  

3. Human-to-human

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.


Cross-department collaboration is promoting empathy because each department gets the needed context of other parts of the company because at the end all teams contribute to overall success of the company. However companies don't invest enough in trainings where program like Training Sprint would equip employees with tools, recipes and mindset for new way of working.

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.”
<quote-author>Henry Ford<quote-author>

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