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28 Jan 2022

How To Use Empathy To Be a Better Product Manager

Communication, Relationships, and Stakeholders

I’ve occasionally joked that product development would be a lot easier if it weren’t for the people involved.

Some of you are probably aghast when you read that, shouting, “how dare you say that about the people involved! They are the most important part!”.

Others of you, whether you want to admit it, are probably thinking to yourself, “you’re not wrong.”

I did say it’s a joke.

I realize that the people we build products for and the people we build products with are extremely important to the entire endeavor.

But there is always a kernel of truth in every joke. People add complexity to any product. Depending on your perspective, that complexity makes product development so difficult, or so much fun.

Regardless of your perspective, one skill that helps you deal with the complexities that people bring to product development is empathy.

Here’s a look at empathy, explaining why it’s important for product managers and what you can do to build your empathy muscles.


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What is empathy?

Empathy is a way of knowing other people by understanding their feelings and emotions as if you were experiencing them yourself.

As Chris Peterson points out, empathy means “you just don’t know about them, you understand them. You don’t just know what they do, you understand why they do it.

Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy. You can think of sympathy as feeling for someone, whereas you can think of empathy as feeling with someone. Brene Brown does a great job of explaining the difference between empathy and sympathy.

While sympathy is not a bad skill to have, to be a better product person, empathy is probably the more appropriate skill.


Why empathy is important to product people

Ultimately, product management is about working with one group of people (your product team and others at your company) to solve the problems for another group of people (users and customers).

To do that successfully, it helps to understand the people you’re helping and the people you’re working with. That’s where empathy comes in.

Understand your users and customers

If you’re a product person, it’s tempting to think of yourself as a generalist rather than a specialist.

Mostly, that’s true, but if you’re an effective product person, there is one thing you specialize in.

You are an expert on the problem space. You know more about your product’s users and customers than anyone else in your organization.

To build that in-depth knowledge, you need to empathize with your users and customers. You need to have customer empathy.

That starts with understanding that there can be a difference between users and customers. Users are people who use your product. Customers are people who buy your product.

According to Samyukta Sankaran, you use empathy with your customers to understand what they want and then dig deeper to understand what they really need. Then you add an aspiration to delight.

Look to understand your customers’ pain points and how they define success. Find out their motivation for solving a problem and what it looks like for them when you solve that problem.

For your users, use empathy to understand their thoughts and feelings when they use your product. This will guide your decisions on how you design various aspects of your product.

To get a better idea of user pain points when they use your product, Zafeer Rais suggests the following things to consider when you watch people use your product.

  • What are the difficulties faced by the user in completing a task?

  • How long is it taking?

  • Can you reduce the number of steps?

  • It might be easy for you, but is it easy for the user to do the same task?

Empathy Product

Work well with the product team

Product development is a team sport. You work with a wide variety of people in order to create products that solve problems for your customers and users.

And if you want to delight your customers and users, you need to have a great team. Ryan Seamons points out that “Being able to understand what others are feeling is critical not just to building great products, but also to building great teams.”

An effective product team is a diverse product team. People from different backgrounds, different experiences, different ways of thinking, different characteristics and different personalities.

You want those differences so that your team finds it easier to have empathy with your customers and users.

And to make that team work, you need to empathize with everyone on the product team. You’ll get more done, and you’ll enjoy working with the product team.

But it doesn’t come easy. You need to learn about your teammates, their thoughts, and their feelings. For example, what keeps your developers up at night? What are your designer’s biggest fears? What drives your subject matter experts?

When you understand your team members' emotions, you’re able to react accordingly and provide support when needed. That leads to an environment where everyone feels like they can be themselves. They’ll be more comfortable working as part of the team and that will lead to significant results.

Collaborate better with stakeholders

To successfully deliver a product, you work with other people besides your product team. The bigger the company, the more people there are.

If you want your product development efforts to go smoothly, you need to see things from the perspective of sales, customer success, marketing and potentially several other departments.

You need to see your product from your stakeholder’s perspectives, so small misunderstandings don’t turn into huge barriers.

When you establish empathy with your stakeholders, you can respond to their reasonable and not so reasonable requests and also build stronger ongoing relationships.

Those strong relationships will help you evaluate trade-offs, build compromise, and generate support for your product. You’ll also be able to anticipate potential concerns your stakeholders might have and plan for them so that those concerns don’t get in your way.

Empathy Product

How to improve your empathy

As you can see, empathy is an essential skill for product managers. It influences the work you do and your interactions with the people on your team.

Concerned that you’re not as empathetic as you could be? Don’t panic. Empathy is more like a muscle you can strengthen than it is an innate quality you either have or don’t have.

Here are some things you can do to strengthen your empathy muscles.

Learn and Care

You can’t build empathy unless you actually want to learn about the people you’re interacting with and care about what you learn.

When you’re looking for a new product job, find a problem space that you genuinely care about. If you’re indifferent about customers and their problems, you won’t exert the effort to understand them.

You may not have as much choice in the product team or stakeholders that you work with, but you still need to care about them as people. People are often easier to work with when you view them as people first. You can start by asking someone how they’re doing, but make sure you actually care about the answer.

Ask and Listen

That points to a crucial first step in learning about other people, asking them questions.

There’s a bit more than just asking questions. Ask open-ended questions that focus on “why” and “how”. When you ask those questions, be quiet and give the person you’re asking a chance to answer. Uncomfortable silence will often yield unexpected results.

Then, when you ask those questions, listen to the answer. Actually pay attention. Don’t listen with your next question running. Listen to internalize what they say.

Observe and Immerse

There’s value in going beyond conversation. Where possible, watch people in their environment, and even experience what they experience.

When you release a product, or even have a prototype, watch a user actually use that product and pay attention to what they say, how they act, the problems they have.

Listen to how users describe their problems and their surroundings. Note the language they use so that you can use that language in your product and when describing the product and its value proposition.

Strive to get as many details as you can. Those details help you create effective generalizations, and they also help you know when those generalizations don’t apply to a specific type of customer.

Reflect and Act

When you collect information, either through conversation, observation, or immersion, don’t just stop with collecting information. Take notes and then set aside time to review those notes and identify any insights that come about.

When you interview or observe customers and users, do it with at least one other team member. Have one person ask questions and facilitate the discussion. Have the others take notes and observe.

After the conversation or observation is done, get together and compare notes. You’ll find that each of you heard different things, so you’ll get a complete picture if you talk through what everyone noticed.

Empathy makes it easier to work with people.

You can use the habits discussed above to build empathy with everyone. Those habits are important for working with your product team and stakeholders.

There are also several techniques you can use to understand customers and users, such as personas, empathy mapping and customer journey mapping.

The key to these habits and techniques is the willingness to see the world from others' perspectives.

When you’re able to do that, you’ll delight your customers and users, and you’ll be the product person who product teams look forward to working with.

Kent McDonald

Kent McDonald

Product Manager & Writer @ KBPmedia
Kent is an accomplished product management professional who works with cross functional teams to discover and deliver maximum outcome with minimum output. He uses business analysis and facilitation techniques to build a shared understanding between product teams and stakeholders from all relevant parts of the organization. ...more
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