3 Ways to Use Empathy as a Product Manager

I got root canal this week, and as I inhaled the delicious nitrous oxide, I thought about what an enormously empathetic person my dentist is, and how it drastically improves my patient experience. "I could learn a lot from her," I thought, "about empathy."

As product managers, we're often moving at a hundred miles an hour trying to get sh*t done: trying to move ten steps closer to launch, to get through the current sprint with no user stories bleeding over. Sometimes, we forget to be empathetic to those on our team. This is a mistake, since we all know how I feel about building strong and cohesive product teams

Here are 3 ways in which you can use empathy to build stronger teams and stronger products. 

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A note on empathy:

Empathy and sympathy are two different things. 

Empathy: You do not have to agree with someone in order to empathize with them. Empathy is simply understanding how that person feels, and understanding what that person's experience must be like. I understand that you love your ferret and that since the ferret is sick, you feel really shitty, even though I thinking having a pet ferret is really weird and something I don't necessarily agree with.

Sympathy: Sympathy is understanding a common feeling. My little sister is autistic, and your little brother is autistic. Therefore you can sympathize with many of my experiences as being an older sibling to an autistic person.

Understood? OK. Now that we have that clarified, let's move on...

1. Get to know the people on your team

Has someone on your team just been ill? Had a baby? Gone on a life-changing trip? Taken up yoga? Ask them about it.

As Kim Scott prompts in Radical Candor, you should really care about others on your team. So, get to know them. Next time Jim tells you he has to miss stand-up, you'll know it's not because he's a slacker, it's because his dog needs special medication that he has to administer at exactly 9am every day.

Personal factors can affect work performance - both positively and negatively. f your team members feel understood, they'll feel more comfortable at work, and everyone is better off.

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2. Understand motives behind opinions and actions of your coworkers and higher-ups

Rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that your boss is a jerk for telling you to bump up a timeline or change a big product feature, try to understand the why. Is it something s/he doesn't like personally because of a past proposed feature that looked or worked similarly and failed in testing? Is it because s/he's getting pressure from above to go in a completely different direction? What pressures and challenges is your boss dealing with?

Find out and empathize. Understanding what s/he is dealing with can start you on the path to finding a solution, rather than just fuming in a corner.

3. Empathize with customer feedback, rather than getting defensive. 

When my dentist told me I needed a root canal, I went into full panic mode. Rather than rolling her eyes at me and telling me everything would be fine, she sensed my anxiety and asked me what was wrong. I told her about my anxiety about drills, due to some bad experiences in the past. She asked, without judgement, if I'd ever had laughing gas. "It can really help patients who have a lot of anxiety," she said. Rather than brushing off my fears as ridiculous, she found a solution for it, and fixed the problem.

So, let's all be honest for a minute. There have been times when customers have given feedback, and, as product managers, our initial reaction was to get defensive. "The product isn't wrong, you're using it the wrong way!"

This is normal - perhaps you spent the last 5 years perfecting something that isn't getting the rave response you were looking for during usability testing. But please, please be aware of any inclination to get defensive, and instead put yourself in your customers' shoes. Maybe they are using it the wrong way, and it's because there's misleading verbiage during Step 1 that you can very easily fix. 

At the end of the day, your users are trying to solve a problem, and if your product or feature isn't getting them there, empathize with their struggles.