The importance of empathy for a Product Manager.

Mark Swanston, Product Director
12 June 2018

Opinions. We all have them. Some people love sharing theirs. Others keep them to themselves. They can be positive, negative, strong and diverse. We often form alliances with those who share similar opinions, but can be angered or offended by those who oppose them. This is because an opinion is underpinned by emotion. It’s a belief or judgment about something that we feel is right or wrong. Opinions aren’t always based on fact or truth, but they’re always personal.

Knowing how to handle opinion is an important skill within the workplace, especially for Product Managers working with cross-functional teams, multiple stakeholders and clients with the ability to influence projects. While you don’t need to agree with everyone’s opinions, it is essential that you try to understand them - and this requires cognitive empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, but it’s also all about communication, imagination and consideration.

As a Product Manager you need to listen to your team-mates, clients and users, give them time to explain their thinking and let them provide evidence to support their opinions. Discussing and debating opinions is a healthy process and will provide opportunities to challenge and influence others to change. This becomes especially important if you know an opinion to be factually incorrect or not in the best interests of the project.

You need to put yourself in their position and view things from their perspective. This can be difficult, especially when your opinion is different, but trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes will help you better understand their wants, needs, motivations and fears.

Once you understand these things you are much better equipped to support them, reassure them and provide solutions that are genuinely useful to them.

Showing empathy will not only enable you to see things from a different perspective, it will force you to question your own opinions and personal bias. This is often the most difficult aspect, as we all like to believe that our opinions and beliefs are the ‘right’ ones, however you need to be willing to change and adapt your opinion if it becomes apparent that it is either incorrect or inappropriate for the situation or context.

Failure to empathise can lead to misunderstanding, confusion or conflict and increases the risk of focussing on the wrong problem or delivering a product that doesn’t solve a genuine user need. You can’t really claim to be creating user-focused products or services if you don’t have empathy for the users that you’re targeting.

So try to be more empathic. It will not only improve your communication, motivation and influencing skills, it will also make you a better Product Manager (and maybe even a better human being too).