In this thought leadership article, I’m speaking with senior product manager, Karen González Fernández, about the role of empathy in product management. Karen has spent years managing products for everything from startups to scale-ups. In this article, she is sharing her best practices and advice for product managers who want to get better at dealing with difficult stakeholders at work.

I often speak to product managers who tell me they are struggling to create great collaborations with sales, support, and customer success teams. Why do you think that so many product managers find it hard to create great collaborations with customer-facing teams?

“Something that I like to remind myself is that product management is all about tension. It’s really hard to manage tension. Everyone is pulling you in a different direction, and the product manager is the person in the middle that needs to make sure that everything is connected.”

While we are on the topic of tension, Karen goes on to add:

“The tension also depends on how much everyone is pulling in you, and how good you are at making sure that everyone understands the other side of the arguments. Many times, it’s really about making people see the full picture and decide on the trade-offs.”

According to Karen, it’s not only about helping people see the full picture, but it’s also equally important to build mutual respect and understand where people are coming from:

“For example, I have always felt tremendous respect for sales. It must be super tough to knock on cold doors every day, constantly getting rejected. So when sales comes to me with feature requests blocking deals, I can imagine how much effort it has taken them to get to this point with the client.”

But what would Karen advise product managers who feel like they are already doing everything she is recommending, but still have stakeholders coming back every time they need a feature request?

“A manager once gave me this great advice: What works best to create a more healthy culture is to open the doors to product. Product can easily be perceived as something that happens behind closed doors. Instead, product should be this open, transparent door, where everyone knows what is going on and how we prioritize.”

Karen goes on to give a concrete example of how the open doors to Product can benefit product managers:

“If someone brings a feature request, we should educate them on the trade-offs. What would we need to stop doing in order to do it? What are our business goals, strategy, and vision for the product? We could prioritize this feature at the expense of all of those things, but maybe two years from now, we can’t sell anything because we are not important in the market anymore. We need to own that conversation as product managers.”

But that is not always an easy conversation to own as a product manager. Sometimes these conversations can get heated and emotional. So how do product managers own those conversations with tough stakeholders?

“As product managers, we always have the toughest stakeholders. Every time we present something, it can be torn apart by stakeholders. So you have to find a way to deal with the tension. Tension is emotion, and below every emotion, there is a concern. So we have to find ways to calm emotions and get into the concern that our stakeholders have.”

When it comes to finding ways to calm down emotions, Karen recommends to always lead with empathy:

“I believe empathy is the antidote to getting triggered. Going into a stakeholder call with an empathic mindset can make the difference between success and failure. You have to be able to feel what the other person is feeling. When people feel understood, things always come down a bit. It’s not always easy to be empathetic, but it’s something all product managers need to practice.”

And if you want to practice becoming better at being empathic, then Karen has a great exercise to help you with difficult situations and stakeholders at work:

“If things start escalating with stakeholders, I always recommend doing the exercise of coming up with ten reasons why you wouldn’t like to be that person. It sounds like a really negative exercise, but when you get to reason number nine, then you begin to empathize a lot with the person. For example, I would not want to be the CEO and have all the weight of the company on my shoulders. You begin feeling how it is to be that person and understand their arguments better.”

But what do you do in those rare situations where a stakeholder gets more and more emotional regardless of what you do? According to Karen you should always use time as a buffer when things get too heated:

“You always want to try to move your stakeholders from emotions to their concerns. But sometimes it’s not possible to get past the emotions, and that is where it’s good to ask for some time to think. You won’t have any good outcomes if your stakeholder continues in a state of emotions, but sometimes, just having a couple of hours to think things through can do wonders on both sides of the conversation.”

However, if you find yourself in a situation where things often escalate with stakeholders, then Karen recommends to make sure you begin working on building better relationships:

“Building relationships is super important. It’s not about having transactional relationships, but building genuinely good relationships that people don’t want to damage. When your relationship overall is positive; a few bad interactions don’t matter, but when you don’t build it, a bad interaction can really break it.”

We have spent some time now talking about the emotions of other people. So I asked Karen what her best advice was when it came to managing your own emotions as product manager?

“This advice is not only for product management, but for life in general. If the other person notices that you are taking things personally, then you have already lost the battle at this point. Because either they will be thinking it’s personal, so we are no longer having a neutral conversation, or they will increase the volume of the tension because it’s about who wins from now on. That is why it’s key to understand your own triggers and don’t take things personally, or do your best to not show that you take it personally.”

But how do you get to know your triggers well and get ahead of them? According to Karen, there are some simple steps you can take to get better at this:

“First, you need to learn from failing. There is always an opportunity to repair things when you fail, and you need to make sure you reflect about what triggered you when you fail. Second, once you are aware of what triggers you, then you need to learn to take a breath when you feel the tension inside of you is growing. Just take a breath. Calm yourself down.”

As we approached the end of our interview, I asked Karen what one piece of advice she would give to other product managers when it comes to dealing with stakeholders?

“Don’t get scared of confrontations with stakeholders. Don’t be scared by emotions. Embrace emotion in order to get to the concern behind it. And remember, we are equals. You should not feel above or below anyone else because you are a product manager. Come into every stakeholder conversation with the mindset that they might tell you something important about the product that you don’t want to miss.”

Get our guide on customer feedback best practices

Unlock your access to our tried and tested methods of collecting quality customer feedback. Complete with feedback questions examples. Get access to our free e-book with step-by-step guides.

By clicking Get The Guide, I agree to get signed up for Magic Feedback's newsletter with customer feedback best practices.