Your words can be a powerful ally or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you use them. So, how often do you think deeply about what you are going to say before you say it?
Product managers, in particular, cannot afford to be careless in their speech.
After all, good product management demands leadership and requires frequent conversations with other teams as well as different external stakeholders. These are not casual conversations; instead, they have some urgency and gravity. The success or failure of the product may depend on how well the product manager communicates with others.
But mastering the art of effective communication is not easy. If you are not careful, your words can undermine your effectiveness and authority.
That is why PMs must root out responses that convey a negative attitude and shut down communication, hindering their progress as a team.
I am a former product manager myself and now, as the CEO of Aha!, I interact with hundreds of product teams every month. I have learned that successful product managers listen more than they talk, and show empathy for what the other person is experiencing.
When they respond, they are intentional about what they say — and do not say. To that end, here are ten common things that product managers should never say — as well as suggestions on what to say instead:
“That is above my pay grade/I don’t own that.”
These statements show more concern for company politics and titles than advancing the company’s strategy. Responsive companies need people who are unafraid to step in and take action in the moment, regardless of their position. Instead say: “That is a great point that you brought up. Let’s discuss it some more, and bring in so-and-so on this conversation.”
“I have no idea.”
While it shows humility to admit to not knowing an answer, you cannot leave it there. Product managers need to take ownership of the product and any questions surrounding it. If there is something they don’t know, they need to find the answer. Instead say: “That is a great question! Let me find that out for you.” (And then do it.)
“We should do it because our competitors are doing it.”
While it is important to monitor your competition, do not make your decisions based solely on what the competition is doing. They are following their own path and chances are, they are looking at the same feature and trying to figure out why their own customers are not using it. Instead, focus on your goals and the product roadmap that you have laid out. Instead say: “Let’s quickly analyze this and learn what our competitor might be after with this new feature.”
“Because I said so.”
It is admirable to stand your ground when you have a strong belief, but this response conveys an authoritarian, bullying approach to leadership. You may have the last word, but it completely shuts down communication with the other person. You want to help people understand the “why” behind your decision. Instead say: “Let me explain what I’m thinking here.”
“We need to focus on eliminating technical debt.”
Keeping tabs on your technical debt items is important, no doubt. But if you put the brakes on your innovative ideas to focus on a to-do list that will only repay past debt, your business can lose its forward momentum. Try a more measured approach to handling technical tasks while continuing to focus on your strategy. Instead say: “Let’s prioritize the most pressing items and balance them with adding new functionality.”
“That was not my fault.”
Product managers are in charge of everything that happens while they oversee the product. Even if you did not make the mistake, you should accept the responsibility, no matter how painful. This demonstrates leadership, and your team members will appreciate that you took the blame. Instead say: “That one is on me. I should have come up with a better plan. I apologize.”
“I will take a look at that next quarter.”
No, you probably won’t. Product managers should respond to requests with immediacy and avoid procrastination. Analyze requests as they come in because you will not have time to revisit them later. That means saying yea or nay quickly to features that do not align to your strategy. Instead say: “Can you tell me more about how this feature lines up with our strategy?” This gives the person an opportunity to reconsider their request.
“That customer is always complaining.”
PMs need to stay close to customers and see them as allies, not enemies – even when they hear bad news. Customers who take time to share their dissatisfaction are providing precious feedback. Product managers should explore customer complaints and respond in a timely manner. Instead say: “I think the customer may have a good argument here. I need to thank her for bringing it up.”
“To be perfectly honest…”
When people preface their thoughts with this phrase or its close relative, “honestly,” I wonder whether the person was entirely truthful with me in the past. Although it may seem innocent, this phrase makes you look dishonest and promotes mistrust among team members. Instead, start off by saying, “This is what I think.”
“It’s good enough.”
When you say this, you are not giving your best — you are simply giving up. Remember — you are responsible for the entire customer experience. A product that is just passable does not have much potential to win the hearts of your customers. You need to aim high with your standards and shoot for the best product and experience you can offer. Instead say: “This is not our best effort. I know we can do better than this.”
Product managers must juggle many different responsibilities in their day-to-day role. They must have deep product knowledge, yet a broad understanding of every task that must be completed before a product can go to market. For all of that to be possible, they must also be brilliant communicators.
Successful product managers know they can influence their whole team with their attitude and outlook. They do not allow their words to become a stumbling block.
Instead, they choose the best words to communicate — that illuminate an idea, explain a position, expand a thought, and ultimately, set the stage for success.
What other phrases do you think product managers should never say?