My wife’s a fan of the Oprah Winfrey Show (yes, I’ve been known to watch it from time to time myself). A few days ago, my wife told me about a woman who was on the show. The woman was telling Oprah about her philosophy that people only ever have good intentions, even when they’re doing something that’s infuriating to you.
Somebody cut you off in traffic? Maybe they were trying to get home to a sick child. Somebody else tell you that you can’t take that training class you were promised earlier this year? Maybe those savings will let your office-mate keep his job. If you’re willing to look for them, you can usually find a possible good intention behind people’s actions. But why should I care about their reasons? I’m hacked off!
The speaker’s point wasn’t that we should be nice to other people because of their intentions. Instead, it was that we’d all be much happier if we assumed the best of others’ intentions. Rather than getting mad because Sally is out to get me, or Tom is just plain mean, or Jack is a jerk, you can be happy because they’re each trying to do something good. Sound a little too Bobby McFerrin? A little too “turn that frown upside down,” or “buck up little camper?” It certainly did to me.
But, given my rather nasty mood one day, I decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t make me feel any worse, plus it would get me brownie points at home. For the past week, whenever someone has done something that annoys me, I’ve looked for a possible reason why they did what they did (I’m not actually asking anybody why, just pondering possibilities). And it’s working.
For example, when I thought about why somebody was driving so fast, or tailgating me, or zipping in and out of traffic, I wondered who they were in such a hurry to see. That simple change of perspective made a huge difference in how I perceived their actions (and by proxy, them as people). And then I thought about the people I’d be in a hurry to see, which led me to think about my friends and family, not about the reckless driver.
Before you ask, “And this has what, exactly, to do with product management?,” (unless you already have), I’ll get to the point. In our work, we deal primarily with people, and dealing with people is hard. It’s easy to let someone else’s actions (or inactions) frustrate me. But now I have a tool to help me reduce that frustration. And more importantly for my customers, asking, “Why did she do/say that?” is a great way to discover the real requirements hiding just out of sight.
Go on … give it a try. Hopefully it’ll surprise you, too. And if not, I’m sure Oprah would love to hear from you!