Effective Product Manager - Empathy
Last week, I kicked off the Effective Product Manager series with Communication. In this post, I'm going to discuss the next core quality of a great PM - Empathy.
What Is Empathy?
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
definition from Oxford Dictionary
To me, it's the ability to put yourself in others positions to fully understand and experience their feelings, desire, and challenges. When it comes to problems and pains, it's as if we're having those issues ourselves.
It's different from sympathy in that with sympathy, you simply see the suffering of others and you feel sorry about it. Empathy is at a deeper level.
You might also have heard of compassion, and in fact it's yet another level. With compassion, you're empathetic enough to feel so strongly about others problems that you're motivated to take actions.
So in the context of being a great product leader, we're actually talking about both empathy and compassion. First we need to fundamentally feel the problems in others position, and we make plans and take actions to solve for them. For simplicity sake and because of how widely empathy is mentioned, I'll just use empathy below.
Why Empathy is Important
Speaking of empathy in a product manager, most naturally think of "user empathy". Which is the empathy toward the users who you'll improve or build products for. It's undoubtedly important, because your goal is to understand and ultimately solve their problems. It's already covered at lengths in numerous other resources online. But let's not forget about the importance of "colleague empathy" and "stakeholder empathy".
Product managers work with cross functional partners and colleagues every single day. Engineering, design, data science, marketing, sales, etc. A great product manager works well with all of them and the key to that, starts with having empathy toward them - be in their shoes and understand their goals, needs and their challenges. Yes your end goal is to solve users (and business's) problems. You can't accomplish it if you don't first solve your cross functional team's problems and create a high performing team around you. Think about: What keeps your engineers up at night? What's your designer's biggest fear? What is it that the sales person is driven by? As a product leader, understand those in their shoes and do the best you can to address.
When was the last time you were frustrated by that difficult stakeholder of your project and you wish he doesn't exist or that you could've worked on other projects with easier stakeholders? I guess as product managers, hoping that we'll never run into difficult stakeholders is like hoping you'd never fight with your significant others. Or, hope that every other driver on the road behaves exactly the way you want them. It's just unrealistic.
But, there's a better way to look at it. Be empathetic toward the stakeholders as well. Their difficulties might be related to their personalities. Or it might be their side of the goals and stress that you don't fully understand. It could be both. Understanding their needs and problems just like how motivated you are to understand your users, is going to make a lot of difference in not only how you better take in and respond to their (reasonable or seemingly unreasonable) requests, but also build a stronger relationship.
Remember, product manager is a people-centric role. Empathy is the key to working well with people. Whether they're your colleagues, stakeholders, your bosses, or your spouses and kids.
How to Develop Empathy
Now that we see the importance, how do we actually build up that empathy over time? Here's my tips:
Be Curious: about other people. When you talk with other people whoever they are, always try to learn more about them than the surface. Keep asking the questions as appropriate to both you. The empathetic understanding always starts from your curiosity about the other person and genuine interests to want to learn more.
Active Listening: In your conversations with the other person, listen attentively, ask the right questions based on what you just learned, and repeat until you feel you fully understand him/her. This sounds straightforward, but often is overlooked when we're talking. It's easy to fall back to focusing on getting our own points across, listen mindlessly and just always think about what to say next, being distracted by something else etc. It takes committed and deliberate practice.
Experience the other person's context: Or some said "live the other person's life". It might not be as easy to really live their lives, e.g. if your user is a coffee shop owner you'd attempt to open a coffee shop yourself to experience it and develop that empathy. But you can probably proxy through shadowing or contextual inquiry techniques, or recreate the context wherever possible (e.g. low wireless reception, noisy workspace, etc.)
Use Your Daily Life: Almost nothing is provided with as many daily training opportunities as to develop empathy. Every interpersonal interaction can be your chance to train yourself on the above techniques. Your spouse who's not in the mood to hear your complaint today at dinner, your kid who wouldn't leave their toys to go to bath, the coworker who didn't respond to your email as quickly as you wanted, or that other driver who cut you off. To be clear, to practice empathy is NOT the same as to tolerate whatever unreasonable things thrown at you. It's really just to take the step to think about: what could be the context the other person's in that contributed to what you see.
Practice Mindfulness: OK, meditation might not be your cup of tea. I personally find great values developing mindfulness by practicing meditation. How does this relate to empathy? The more you're present in the moment and pay attention to what's happening, the easier it is to listen to and observe cues from other people you're talking with.
Let's practice! I'm far from perfecting the tips above myself, but they already positively change my life in small and major ways. Because of the increasing level of empathy (or at least the effort I made to develop it), I got less triggered by that cold faced waiter, that rude driver who cut me off, and that colleague who never returned my email without 3 follow ups. Like I mentioned in "My Best Moments in Product", being a product manager and the effort to grow in product, have made me a better person. Developing stronger empathy is just one example :)
I'll cover more core competencies of a PM, in the next posts of the Effective Product Manager series. Leave comments below for what you'd like to see next!
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