Product management is a career that requires extensive empathy. A great product manager must understand the user’s challenges, needs and problems. If the product is in the B2B space, the PM needs to often grok the perspective of the user’s manager and the buyer, which are not always the same people. PMs work with multiple teams and stakeholders; who needs what? What motivates these different people? What do they want from you and your team? A successful product manager is able to empathize with these numerous and diverse groups of people, and synthesize these needs and desires into a coherent product strategy.
Empathy in my career
As a product manager and marketer, few skills have been as vital to success in my role as empathy. Putting myself fully in the mind of a customer or buyer or evaluator are necessary steps to building and selling a great product.
When asked about strength, I usually point to my empathy, yet it wasn’t always the case that I viewed it as a strength. As a child, I was often dismissed as “too sensitive” and teachers often had to comfort me to stop crying about one thing or another. However, as an adult, I’ve found that my ability to listen and deeply take in perspectives beyond my own has proven invaluable. I’ll follow up on conversations when I’ve thought more thoroughly about the other person’s point of view. This has led to deeper, more productive conversations and meetings, when I’ve been able to approach the subject from the other’s needs and desires.
Empathy is also key for people management. Recently, I experienced a very traumatic incident. My boss emailed me to let me know that it was okay not to come into work the next day, and that I should focus on my family. After that single email from him, I developed an even greater respect for him.
Empathy as a skill
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they are worlds apart. Sympathy is when a friend loses a relative and you proclaim “I’m so sorry for your lost.” Empathy is when your friend loses their relative and your heart aches, and you feel their lost.
What is the value of empathy? When you are empathetic, your relationships, both business and personal, will improve.
Being empathic is often seen as something you do, not something you practice. However, by making the effort to become more empathetic, you can improve your relationships and life.
Reading fiction can also be an excellent way to develop empathy. I’ve found that novels force me to experience someone’s life, even if for just a few pages. I personally am a huge Russian literature fan in this regard; look no further than Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for a complete empathy workout.
Empathy is a skill and trait that can be developed and refined over a lifetime. For product managers, making the effort to become more empathetic has immense value: your product will address real problems and needs, your colleagues and stakeholders will feel that their wants are addressed, and personal conversations will be more productive and meaningful.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin