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Empathy in Product Management

Published on 16th August 2022 Last Updated on: 9 Oct 2023

I was recently asked at a product management conference what superpower product people should have. I didn’t have to think twice and replied, “empathy.” This article explains why empathy is particularly important in product management and how you can strengthen your ability to empathise even with seemingly difficult stakeholders, customers, and team members.

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What is Empathy and What is It Not?

Empathy is our capacity to understand other people’s feelings and needs, to take the perspective of another person. Empathy entails a warm-hearted, open, and kind attitude. This does not mean, though, that you must like the other person and that you must be happy and smiley all the time—nor does it mean sugar-coating messages, only telling people what they want to hear, and putting up with issues. The opposite is true: You can empathically address unhelpful and inappropriate behaviour, as the following example shows.

Imagine that John is a sales rep and a key stakeholder who hardly ever attends the product strategy workshops you’ve invited him to. Instead, he requests product roadmap changes by talking directly to you. You should then consider asking John to change his behaviour and attend the strategy sessions to share his change requests. But act in an empathic way: Find out first what’s going on with John and try to understand why he missed the meetings. It might be that he is overworked and short of time or that there is an ongoing conflict with one of the other stakeholders that makes it difficult for him to participate in the workshops. At the same time, be frank. Don’t beat around the bush but make a clear and specific request once you’ve found out what drives John’s behaviour.

Note that it’s easy to confuse projection with empathy: The former means making assumptions about what the person should feel according to some preconceived ideas—for example, believing that someone who speaks loudly wants to dominate and take over a meeting. Empathy, however, implies developing an understanding of what is really going on for the other person. In the example just mentioned, the individual might have an odd communication habit and a general tendency to speak loudly, or the person might raise their voice because the individual is upset, not because they want to dominate.

Why is Empathy Important in Product Management?

While empathy is a fundamental human quality, there are three reasons that make it particularly valuable for product people. First, empathy is the foundation for effective leadership. It creates trust and psychological safety, and it allows you to influence others and encourage change. That’s key for product people who lack transactional power, who are not the boss of the stakeholders and development teams, but still have to guide and align the individuals to achieve product success.

To put it differently, becoming more sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs will increase your ability to lead them. Note, though, that the empathy you show must be authentic. If you pretend to care or if you empathise only to get someone to do something, people will sooner or later realise what is going on and they are likely to lose trust in you.

Second, empathising with users and customers helps you develop a deeper understanding of their needs. While we have more data and more powerful analytics tools available today than ever before, I find that reaching out to selected users and customers with respectful curiosity and genuine warm-heartedness—for example, by observing how they get a job done and talking to them about their experience—is crucial to truly understand what they want and need. This, in turn, enables you to make the right product decisions, which makes it more likely to offer a successful and ethical product.

Third, showing empathy towards yourself and cultivating self-compassion helps you be a happier person. It strengthens your ability to empathise with others, and it avoids the risk of overlooking your own needs and, for instance, regularly working too hard—which is an easy mistake to make, given that most product people have a demanding job. But being overworked and stressed is counterproductive. It can lead to a drop in productivity and motivation, and it can harm your mental health. Practised correctly, self-compassion will help you balance your own needs and the needs of others so that neither are neglected.

How Can You Strengthen Your Empathy?

We all have the ability to empathise. But how strong it is, varies significantly. Not everyone we meet is a highly empathic person. What’s more, it is easy to empathise with someone we like and who we agree with. But if we are dealing with a “difficult” stakeholder, customer, or team members, developing an open, warm-hearted attitude can be challenging. The following four techniques will help you increase your capacity to empathise with others.

Practise Active Listening

Listening is not only crucial to have a successful conversation. It is key to understand someone’s feelings and underlying needs. To achieve this, listening has to take on an active, engaging quality. You have to listen with the intention to understand the other person, no matter if you like or dislike the individual and if you agree or disagree with their views. This requires you to give your full attention to them, develop a genuine interest in what they have to say, be respectfully curious, and cultivate an open mind—which I’ll discuss in the next section in more detail.

What’s more, you should listen not only to what is being said, but also pay attention to the body language including voice pitch and volume, facial expressions, and gestures. These often reveal the person’s feelings, for example, if someone speaks loudly and has a red face, they are upset or excited, no matter how carefully they mince their words. Feelings, in turn, are gateways to the underlying needs, interests, and motives. To discover them, consider using open-ended, non-directive questions. You might say, for instance, “Can you please tell me why this is important to you?” You can find more guidance on how to listen effectively in my article Listening Practices for Product People and in my book How to Lead in Product Management.

Cultivate Curiosity and Open-mindedness

Attentively listening to someone and empathising with them is difficult if you are strongly attached to preconceived ideas and beliefs. For example, if John, the sales rep mentioned earlier, has come up with unhelpful suggestions for product roadmap changes in the past, then it is easy to label him as incompetent and annoying and to no longer pay full attention to what he says.

But this does not only reduce your ability to understand and connect with the individual. It also risks ignoring a suggestion that might turn out to be a good idea. It is therefore helpful to develop an open, curious mind and take a real interest in what the other person has to say, how the other person is feeling, and what their underlying needs are. This does not mean, of course, that you cannot or should not have any opinions. But do hold your views lightly and be willing to challenge them.

Walk in the Other Person’s Shoes

Empathising with someone requires the ability to take the perspective of the other person, to see things through their eyes. You can achieve this by walking in the individual’s shoes and sharing their experience.

You might, for instance, shadow users to better understand how they get a job done and what they might be struggling with; you might visit selected customers with John, the sales rep mentioned earlier, to learn more about his job and the challenges and pressures he is facing—as well as the customers you visit; or you might pair with one of the product people on your team to find out why they struggle to select the right KPIs for their product and how you can best help them.

Sharing someone’s experience can truly be an eye opener. It can help you cultivate an open, receptive mind and better understand people’s feelings and needs.

Practise Self-compassion

It’s hard to empathise with others and cultivate an open, warm-hearted attitude if you are not kind to yourself. To be more self-compassionate, follow these four recommendations:

First, don’t expect to always succeed and get everything right. Don’t beat yourself up when you make a mistake; don’t be overly self-critical and have unrealistic expectations of yourself. Recognise that mistakes and failure are part of developing new skills as well as bringing new products and features to life. As Albert Einstein said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Look at yourself with kindness without being complacent and ignoring any shortcomings you might have.

Second, don’t sacrifice your own needs but look after yourself at work. Practise sustainable pace, stick to standard working hours, and take regular breaks. Consider delegating some tasks. For example, ask the development team members to refine (some of) the user stories and carefully choose the meetings you attend. Additionally, focus on your product role and don’t take on responsibilities that are not part of your job, such as, coaching a development team or teaching Scrum to the stakeholders. Make sure that you get the support you need and that you have, for instance, an effective Scrum Master at your side. Otherwise you are likely to become overworked or neglect important, non-urgent duties such as product strategy work—neither of which is desirable.

Third, make regular reflection part of your work. Allocate thirty minutes in your calendar towards the end of each work week and ask yourself the following three questions, which are based on my book How to Lead in Product Management:

  • What did I get done this week? Which challenges and difficulties did I encounter? What did I learn?
  • How am I feeling right now? How did my moods and energy levels develop during the week?
  • What changes do I want to make next week so I can be more productive and happier at work?

Fourth, consider meditating to develop a heightened awareness of how you are feeling. For example, are you relaxed and content, or are you tense and stressed? If you find that you are getting increasingly tense, then this allows you to investigate why this is and make the necessary changes, for example, stop working extra hours. Noticing your mental states without judgement and blame will not only help you understand yourself better and be more effective at work. It will also increase your self-compassion and mental wellbeing.

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