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Dealing with Difficult Emotions in Product Management

Published on 1st April 2020 Last Updated on: 9 Oct 2023

As product people, we make tough decisions and sometimes, we have to work with challenging people. It is therefore no surprise that we experience difficult emotions at work. While feelings like irritation, tension, and anger are unpleasant, learning to constructively deal with them is an important skill: It increases our mental wellbeing, builds trust, strengthens connections, and improves our ability to make effective decisions. This article helps you deal with difficult emotions at work.

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Why Difficult Emotions Matter Particularly for Product People

We may not like difficult emotions like confusion, frustration, anger, envy, sadness, and worry, but we all experience them. This is especially true in times like these, with the Coronavirus pandemic causing many people to be concerned about their health and jobs and the wellbeing of family members and friends.

For us product people, however, difficult emotions are particularily relevant. Here is why:

  • We routinely interact with individuals who have different perspectives, interest, and needs, such as users, customers, stakeholders, development team members. Users don’t always have the same wants and needs as customers, and the ideas of the stakeholders and dev team may diverge. This can lead to friction and conflict, which gives rise to difficult emotions.
  • We are responsible for their success of our products. While I really appreciate this entrepreneurial aspect of our work, it can bring up tension, stress, and frustration when we are trying to progress our products towards agreed goals but are in danger of missing them, be it a sprint goal, product goal on the roadmap, or a strategic user or business goal.
  • We have a rich and creative but equally challenging and multi-faceted job. It ranges from carrying out product strategizing work to managing the product backlog; from talking to users to meeting with marketing and answering questions from the support team—to name just a few examples. Having to attend to so many different tasks can be challenging: It can create difficult feelings like restless and irritation.

Negative emotions, however, are not only unpleasant. They influence how we perceive reality and how we communicate. When you feel hurt or grumpy, for instance, your thoughts are likely to show a negative discolouration, and you might interpret what others say as criticism rather than take it as their observation. This can lead to misunderstandings and damaged connections, as well as wrong analysis of feedback and data and wrong product decisions.

To put it differently, learning to skilfully deal with difficult emotions increases our mental wellbeing, strengthens our connections with stakeholders and development team members, and improves our ability as product people to make effective decisions.

A big shout out to Marc Abraham who, according to my knowledge, was the first person to bring attention to challenging feelings like frustration in product management.

Becoming Aware of Difficult Emotions

To constructively deal with difficult feelings, we must become aware of them and learn to accept them. This might seem trivial, but it is a crucial step that is sometimes hard to take. There are three reasons why this can be the case:

  • Self-view: If you firmly think of yourself as a gentle, kind person, then you might find it difficult to accept that at times, you too can feel emotions like anger, ill-will, and envy.
  • Mental State: If you are very busy, rushing from one task to the next, then noticing difficult feelings will be harder. In fact, you might not become aware of them until they have grown so big that they can’t go unnoticed any longer.
  • Work Environment: If you work in a male-dominated environment, then tuning into your feelings may not feature very high on your agenda, especially if you are male. The male-dominated workplaces I have experienced were largely characterised by ignoring difficult emotions, rather than acknowledging them.

But ignoring and suppressing unpleasant feelings won’t make them go away—trust me, I’ve tried this more than once. Instead, it will affect your mental well-being and impact your ability to make the right decisions. In the worst case, an emotion will eventually grow so big and powerful that it overwhelms you and that it causes you to act it out, thereby possibly saying or doing something you will later regret.

Therefore, bring awareness to how you are feeling, and allow difficult emotions to be present. One way to do this is to spend a few minutes going through the following sets of questions, which are adapted from Jay Oren Sofer’s book Say What You Mean:

  • How are you? Are you feeling irritation, worry, or anger?
  • If that’s the case, where do you experience the feeling in your body, for example, in your belly, shoulders, hands, or face?
  • What does it feel like? Is there pressure, tightness, aching, heaviness?

Don’t rush through the questions above. Take your time to answer them. Be aware that sometimes several feelings are present that can be initially hard to discern. If that’s the case for you, start with the most dominant one. Afterwards, look at the more subtle emotions. If you find, however, that you don’t feel anything, then try to relax. You might be caught up in thoughts, or your awareness might be impacted by stress or tiredness.

Overcoming Difficult Emotions

Once you have become aware of a negative feeling, try the following six tips to overcome the emotion:

First, accept the feeling for what it is: a difficult, unpleasant emotion—no more, no less. Label the feeling and call it out as anger or worry, for example. But don’t be self-judgemental and don’t beat yourself up for having the feeling. Rather see it as something natural, a part of the human experience we all share.

Second, take responsibility for your the feeling. An emotion like anger may have been triggered by someone’s speech or action. But it belongs to you and you are responsible for dealing with it. Let’s say that Jon, a senior stakeholder, requested another feature, despite you having already explained to him that you would not be able to accommodate any new requests. Your emotional reaction to his request is worry and anger: worry about what might happen when you decline the request and anger at Jon’s apparent lack of respect for your role and the established product management processes.

But it would be wrong to blame Jon and make him responsible for the worry and anger you are feeling. After all, you didn’t have to react this way. You could have responded with empathy whilst kindly but firmly declining his request. Therefore, don’t blame others for difficult feelings and don’t hope that your mental state will change simply by others changing their behaviour.

Third, don’t hold on to or identify with the feeling. Don’t label yourself as an angry or anxious person, for example. Simply recognise that anger or fear is present—just like it is in millions of other people right now. Don’t allow negative emotions to define you. What’s more, the most difficult feeling will dissolve over time. Emotions come and go. No feeling lasts forever.

Fourth, become aware of negative thoughts that feed a difficult emotion make an effort to let go of them. Let’s take the example above and let’s say that Jon’s request triggered anger in you. It will be hard for you to overcome the emotion if you keep thinking of what happened and how mean and selfish Jon is. Instead, put things into perspective and think of a positive quality that Jon has. This will help you stop having negative thoughts about Jon and allow your anger to dissolve.

Fifth, counteract difficult emotions with positive thoughts. When we are stressed or worried, everything can feel difficult and bad. To help yourself snap out of a negative mindset, put your emotions and thoughts into perspective and count your blessings. Consider all the positive things in your life and the goodness you have received. This helps you mitigate a strong negativity bias where you view everything from a negative perspective and where difficult emotions dominate, and it brings balance to your mental state. (But don’t use this technique to ignore or suppress negative emotions!)

Finally, pay particular attention to recurring difficult emotions. We all occasionally experience tension, grumpiness, or worries. But if you are regularly tense and stressed, grumpy, irritated, or worried, then investigate the cause of the emotion. Explore why the feeling is present. Are there any thoughts or stories connected with the emotion? Do they point to an underlying need? For example, if you are routinely overworked, them you are likely to regularly experience irritation and tension. Overcoming these emotions will then require more than relaxing into them and letting them be. It will require you to change how you work and how much work you accept.

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