How Product Management is like a Crisis Hotline

Nearly seven weeks ago I started volunteering at a crisis hotline. We meet once a week for small group lectures and simulated crisis calls. 

Tomorrow’s simulation is with someone high-risk for suicide.

My urge to volunteer came with two colliding pain-points: a rocky relationship with a family member and not receiving a work promotion because I needed better "influence." For the vast majority of my life, relationships were something that just happened. Focus on your skills. Fuck your feelings.

And to be fair, this demanding focus landed me a high-paying job in Silicon Valley and positioned me well in Manhattan.

The twist with product management is that how you treat yourself will show up in your team and then your product.

During Week 5 of Training, I was nearly uncontrollable listening to a replicated call of a vulnerable 13 year-old. I questioned my fitness for the work and the Crisis Counselor asked me to consider my why. It was comical to plug in "get promoted."

Your intuition does not accidentally volunteer you to a hotline. After lifting weights, a type of "source of strength," my why arrived during a warm shower. Between the surges of emotion, which became soothing, like waves crashing against the shore, I realized that I needed to show myself how to treat others.

Your job as a Crisis Counselor is to unlock cognitive rigidity; to de-escalate a situation. You want the other person to feel heard. We use the same tools over-and-over: "it sounds like you feel [insert emotion] because [insert what they said]." And give attending responses like "mhmm." As a Product Manager, we nod our heads to acknowledge someone’s comment and we confirm our understanding by repeating back what they said.

As a Crisis Counselor, we never give advice and only co-create solutions when the caller is emotionally ready. When interviewing customers, as a Product Manager, we seek to understand their problem and only solution if the moment calls.

In meetings I no longer say "what does the team think?" Instead I ask "what do you think?" We are talking to individuals after all. And this treatment is working, I have seen my teammates' eyes light up when I say their name.

When someone asks a question, especially a tough one, I naturally want to blurt out an answer to dissipate the uneasiness. However, it is sometimes better for the emotion to linger. The reason is twofold: first I need time to think. Second, by letting the emotion linger, you tango with it, which demonstrates trust. Brené Brown refers to this as the "courage to walk alongside" others in her book Atlas of the Heart.

I prepare my mind and body for each hotline session like an athlete preparing for the championship game, like a candidate preparing for the interview. Greatness needs pressure. May I find strength in my why tomorrow.

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