Product Sense


seek first to understand, then be understood

🌿 Sprouting Last updated on May 19th, 2021

It takes practice and patience to get out of your own head and understand the perspective of another person. It's one of the soft skills that's hard to learn by reading a book, and it's necessary to excel in product management.

The key to lifelong success in product management, in 2 words:

Understanding People


You don't need to just understand people. You also need to understand the context (organization) that they're operating in. That's why we've broken down this section as follows:

Understanding People – Understand how people think, what motivates them, and the games they play
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Understanding Organizations – Understand how organizations operate, and the incentives that drive behavior
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Understanding People

As a PM, you'll need to communicate with many different types of people – customers, developers, designers, marketing, sales, support, legal, finance, and probably a handful of other functions inside your company. If you want to get anything done, you need to understand a diverse set of perspectives.

Seek first to understand, then be understood
–Stephen Covey

This is the single most important principle for effective interpersonal communication. And most people suck at it.

Excerpt from 📖
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Seek first to understand involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives.

But empathy goes further than understanding – you need to resist judgement, recognize the emotions at play, and communicate that understand what they're feeling. Meet them where they are and make a connection.

The video below shows the difference between merely understanding and taking the time to connect.

Four Qualities of Empathy

  1. Seeing their perspective
  2. Not judging the other person
  3. Recognizing their emotions
  4. Communicating your understanding

In Domain Knowledge we talked about how important it is to spend time with customers. You'll want to understand how they think, and the reasons behind their behavior.

Listen to them with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply. Try to see the world as they see it before you ask them about that idea for a feature you have.

Try to understand the "why" behind their behaviors.

When spending time with customers:

  • Prioritize quality of insight over quantity of facts
  • Ask more “why” questions than “what”/”how” questions
  • Ask them how they’d react to certain scenarios, then ask them why...

And then use the “whys” to form a better product hypothesis.


Later, when you can present your own ideas clearly in the context of a deep understanding of the customer, you significantly increase the credibility of your ideas with other stakeholders.

This includes the people you'll work closely with to build the product – design and engineering. The better you can understand their needs and speak their respective languages, the more effective you'll be at working together.

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Understanding Organizations

As PM, you're responsible for the success of your product but depend on others to build and sell.

How can you make the biggest impact?

Try to get a feeling for how your organization works. Observe situations around the org, how decisions are made, and find out who's really calling the shots?

You'll want a basic understanding of:

  • the org structure (which may not be formally documented)
  • who works on what projects and who knows what information
  • the motivations and incentives does individual (and team)

This knowledge takes time to learn – it can be almost impossible to acquire without experience. This process can be sped up if organizational knowledge is widely shared, but that's not always the case.

Excerpt from 📖
Principles: Life and Work

In fact, it is much harder and much less efficient to work in an organization in which most people don't know what their colleagues are really thinking. Also, when people can't be totally open, they can't be themselves.

As Harvard developmental psychologist Bob Kegan likes to say, in most companies people are doing two jobs: their actual job and the job of managing others' impressions of how they're doing their job.

For us, that's terrible. We've found that bringing everything to the surface 1) removes the need to try and look good and 2) eliminates time required to guess what people are thinking. In doing so, it creates more meaningful work and more meaningful relationships.

Culture can determine how openly knowledge and opinions are shared and what types of work people decide to take on. There may be times where you don't quite understand the reasoning behind a decision. It can be helpful to ask:

  • is there any existing data that motivates this decision?
  • is there a strategic component underlying the decision?
  • what goals or objectives are at play, and are they putting the company (or something else) first?

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Some final words

on Empathy

Empathy is vital at all levels of decision making – from the smallest product details to big strategic decisions. It impacts almost every aspect of product management.

Excerpt from 💻
3 types of knowledge a product manager should seek

How much easier would it be for engineers, sales reps, marketers, and others to trust a product manager who understood from personal experience what works and what doesn’t work for users?

Empathy can be the most important skill for a product manager to develop, because it is what makes the difference between thinking you solved a customer/user problem and actually solving that problem.

Without it, you will find yourself skewing toward solving your own problem, not your customer’s problem. Among the very best ways to develop empathy is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and evaluate your product, learning its benefits and shortcomings.

Read Moreby B. Reeves and B. Gaines

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Otherwise, continue to the next section in Product Sense to learn about the importance of creativity, and how to create breakthrough ideas.