This post is part of a series of short articles about the 20 most crucial product management skills.
What it means
Empathy means understanding what other people are experiencing from within their frame of reference and what their needs, problems, and motivations are. Empathy has both emotional and rational aspects. Emotional empathy (also called affective empathy) is about reacting with appropriate emotional responses to someone else's mental state. The rational aspect is called cognitive empathy: the capacity to reason about someone else's perspective or mental state.
Both emotional and rational (cognitive) aspects are relevant to product management work. Emotional empathy is especially relevant to create a team environment of psychological safety and mutual support. Cognitive empathy is crucial for resolving conflicts, managing stakeholders, and understanding customer needs.
Why it is an important skill
As discussed in the article about communication, product management is all about working with other people. Empathy towards both the people that you work with (team members, leadership, stakeholders) as well as the people you are building the product for (customers, users) is the foundation to build great relationships with and/or products for these people.
Emotional empathy is especially (but not exclusively) relevant in the context of the cross-functional product team. Team members do their best work if they are able to bring their whole selves to work and not have to feel like they have to put on a mask hiding their emotional state when they start work. This means that sometimes team members will be sad, stressed, angry, distracted, etc. Being able to recognize, react accordingly, and provide support when needed as a product manager is a crucial ingredient to building a team environment of psychological safety and mutual support, in which team members feel valued and accepted.
Cognitive empathy is particularly useful in understanding the perspectives, needs, and motivation of customers, leadership, and stakeholders. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of others and seeing the world through their eyes is invaluable to understand the needs and motivations behind what people are saying, and anticipating and resolving conflicts.
What great looks like
Product managers who are great at emotional empathy exhibit a high degree of caring for their team members. They understand the emotional state that team members are in, react accordingly, and provide appropriate support if needed. They contribute to a team environment in which each team member feels like they can be their genuine, authentic selves.
Product managers who are great at cognitive empathy are very effective at evaluating trade-offs, brokering compromise, and generating buy-in. They identify the different viewpoints, motivations, and concerns of various stakeholders, make them explicit, and identify solution options that are in the best interest of everyone involved. They are also great stakeholder managers. Even before getting directly involved with cross-functional stakeholders or leadership, they are able to anticipate potential concerns and plan for them.
How to improve your empathy skills
Practicing empathy is all about pausing to think and feel. Before immediately jumping to (emotional or cognitive) conclusions, ask yourself why the other person acted in the way that they did. Building empathy is about asking “why”, and about active listening. On a more formal level, you can use tools like empathy mapping to ensure you think about the perspective of a relevant person from all aspects.
Practicing empathy is also about caring—you need to genuinely care about and be interested in the perspective of others to effectively understand it. Ask people how they are doing and feeling, and be interested in the answer.
As with other skills, feedback is of course also critical. Admitting that you care about and want to be better at understanding what others are thinking shows vulnerability and is the first step of getting better at it.
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