Observe Closely, Listen Carefully: The Role of Cognitive Empathy in Marketing - Signal Theory
Four women sitting at corner of a conference room table, two women are leaning in and intently listening as the speaker gestures with her hands.

How leaning into curiosity can make us better communicators.

Signal Theory puts human behavior at the heart of every marketing campaign we create. Understanding how customers think, feel and act is an integral part of building a strategy. As humans creating these campaigns, we also have to get to the root of our own assumptions and biases. It takes intentionality, effort and continuous curiosity to think beyond what we know.  

Gaining outside perspectives is key to thinking beyond our own experiences. So we invited Karen Faith, CEO and founder of the empathy training company Others Unlimited, to join us for two days of professional development. Faith is an ethnographer and strategist who specializes in training individuals and teams to observe more closely and listen more carefully.

The Power of Understanding

Faith led us through a series of exercises in research design, empathy, group facilitation and insight composition. It was no surprise there are many layers of communication and observation. But through this workshop, we gained a deeper understanding of the differences in how a message is intended, shared, heard and understood. 

How a message is intended and shared is within our control as marketers. How it is heard and understood depends heavily on a person’s individual experiences and the things in their lives they are responding to – work, family, stress, etc. We practiced the concept of cognitive empathy, which relies heavily on curiosity about another person’s experience to understand the best way to reach them. Given that curiosity is one of our signals of culture, we all embraced the opportunity to practice this concept.

Three Ways Marketers Can Listen Better

  • Look beyond emotion. Understanding customers’ needs, wants and desires is essential; knowing what they long for helps us address those needs on a more personal level.
  • Ask the right question. Closed, open, poetic and pressing questions all have different purposes and can be effective or ineffective depending on our interview subject’s experience and current state. Using cognitive empathy in our research helps us ask the right question at the right time.
  • Behavioral science works on marketers, too. Behavioral science tells us the longer a person waits to speak, the less likely they are to contribute to the conversation. During team meetings, we can prevent groupthink and make sure all voices are heard by supporting psychological safety, enforcing boundaries, acknowledging diversity and normalizing disagreement. 

Signal Theory brand strategy director Samantha Scantlebury was among the attendees. She shares additional takeaways and insights in her LinkedIn article, My Journey Toward Better Listening.

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