Mentalization in the Product World

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post written by Yogev Baron. Interested in collaborating on Product School’s blog? Email Gabriela Araujo at gaby(at)productschool.com

Did you ever try to actively focus on your thoughts, feelings or behavior? Did you ask yourself why you feel and behave in the way you currently do? Or, subsequently, why you believe in the things you so strongly believe in? In your work life, did you further think about how your customers feel, what their believes are or how they behave in specific situations? If you ever followed a similar train of thoughts, you decidedly made use of your mentalization capabilities.

So, What Exactly is mentalization?

The term ‘mentalization’ became apparent over the last 20 years based on the work of Peter Fonagy (1991). It incorporates two main pillars: The first pillar is known as self-observation, the initial ability of a person to recognize the existence of different mental states in other people and later, to correctly identify these states in order to interpret their behavior. Empathy builds up the second pillar. It encompasses the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and understand the actions, ideas, desires, and emotions that the person is experiencing (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2005). 

Studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between both pillars. They suggest that people who are capable of examining and evaluating their own behavior, thoughts and feelings have a higher ability of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. Furthermore, those people are more likely to define other people’s behavior with words and pictures (Joireman et al.,  2002; Boyraz & Waits, 2014).

Since the correlation between self-observation and empathy doesn’t implicate a cause-effect-relation, a clear understanding of the sequence of effects does not exist. Hence, it is still uncertain whether the first pillar, self-observation, affects and triggers the second pillar, empathy, or vice versa. Thus, if we want to work on our mentalization skills, we need to work on both pillars simultaneously.

How Can I Develop My Self-Observation and Empathetic Capabilities?

If you want to develop your self-observation capabilities, start with understanding your own self. Ask yourself specific questions during the day, like: how do I really feel when I am doing a specific task? Why do I carry out the task in this and not in another way? How does meeting a particular colleague make me feel? Practice this self-observation prism not only during work, but also in your leisure. Furthermore, try thinking about the linking points between both your precedential believes and experiences and your actual behavior. In doing so, you will detect certain patterns. Obtaining an awareness towards those patterns will help you understand yourself better. In the long run, your trained self-observation skills will provide you with the tools needed to notice patterns in other people as well. 

This brings us to the second pillar – developing your empathetic capabilities. In order to enhance your empathetic capabilities, you truly need to understand the people around you. Therefore, ask open questions about their personal background, former experiences and belief systems. Make sure to intently listen to their answers. Moreover, pay special attention to the person’s gestures. By noticing people’s overall behavior and reviewing it in a holistic way, you will be able to connect the dots between their experiences, believes and current behavior. Similar to the self-observation process, you will gradually start to notice certain patterns. Despite people’s uniqueness, you will start to realize that specific patterns unite particular kinds of people. Consequently, you will realize that people with similar believes and experiences will behave in a similar way.

Practicing self-observation and empathy is not an easy task. Just like any other skill, you need both time and motivation to become a master and to actively focus on yourself and others. However, think about the practicing process as training a muscle. In order to see actual results, you have to consistently train your muscle for a certain amount of time. This principle is directly applicable to the practice of self-observation and empathy. After training your mind for a while, you will notice a clear improvement in understanding yourself and the people around you. Moreover, you will stop being aware of practicing this analytical thinking method and start connecting the dots unconsciously. 

How Can I Apply My Mentalization Capabilities in the Product World?

There are two ways you can start applying your mentalization skills in the Product World. First, try to integrate them into the building process of a new feature for your customer. To begin with, ask yourself the following questions: Would I use this feature? Why would I use this feature? Do I have certain beliefs which make me use this feature? How would I feel if I would use this feature? Will I use this feature only in a specific case? Does my current behavior make me use the feature more often? This is only a selection of questions that you can ask yourself in the first step. By continuously revising these questions and training your self-observation prism, it will become easier to answer them in an honest and profound way. 

After answering the questions yourself, it is time for the customer’s opinion. Therefore, try to put yourself into your customer’s shoes and answer the same questions from your customer’s perspective. In doing so, you will notice a specific correlation between you and your customer’s supposed answers. It might well be that both answers differ since different customers obtain different values from every single feature.

a light bulb on a chalk board

Understanding the correlations doesn’t mean that you have to renounce usability testing or market research. If anything, revising both your own and your customer’s perspective will push you out of your comfort zone and confront you with the supposed desires and thinking patterns of your customer. The mentalization process will not only provide you with your customer’s perspective. In fact, you will further deepen your understanding of the particular values that the feature carries for different kinds of customers.

Secondly, try integrating your mentalization skills into the work with your colleagues. We are all aware that understanding your colleagues is indispensable for your work success. But how do we implement mentalization? Let’s for example take a look at one of your customer success colleagues (CSM). First of all, ask your colleague for one or, preferably, several meetings. In those meetings, try to understand their work routine, what a usual day in their profession looks like, how you as a Product Manager can integrate their work, how you can contribute to improving their work flow or how they feel when a customer is pushing them to develop a certain feature. Furthermore, join meetings that include both your CSM-colleagues and the customer. Pay regard to how your customer success colleagues interact with the customer. Also, be mindful of their body language and behavior and try to identify certain patterns. 

I would recommend to meet several colleagues from the same department to obtain a better and more holistic understanding of your colleagues’ work with the customers. Keep in mind that every person is different – different people are dealing with outside and inside influences in a completely divergent way. Thus, you should aspire to get input from as many colleagues as possible. This will enable you to better your understanding of their work. Furthermore, if you are facing a complicated work situation, you will be able to put it into the big picture by considering both their theoretical input and their successful behavioral patterns.

After getting to know the work of the CSM-team and identifying distinct behavioral patterns, try to detect differences in your work as a Product Manager and the CSM-team. Ask yourself what you would do in the same situation that your customer success colleague is facing. At the same time, focus on differentiating between your assumed approach and each of your colleague’s behavior. 

By practicing to identify your colleagues behavioral and strategic patterns, you will not only be able to identify differences between your supposed and their actual approaches. In fact, you will further get a sense of your own and their former experiences and believes that lead to the actual behavior and dealing strategies. Consistently and actively identifying those patterns, the former pieces of a puzzle will eventually become your intuition. Incessantly training your thinking patterns will enable your brain to effortlessly think in this specific way. At this point, the thinking process will occur unconsciously – you basically start to improve your intuition. 

In a state of intuition, you will be able to get a feeling of yourself and the persons around you despite knowing why and how you feel in a certain way. Nevertheless, recently appropriated thinking patterns as well as analytical thinking primarily happen in our conscious minds. With repetition and steadiness, they will begin to transition into our unconscious mind automatically. In his book “Think Fast Think Slow, 2011”, Daniel Kahneman states that as strong as your intuition might be, it is still limited to the laws of reality. In a place where consistency does not exist, it is impossible to learn. Therefore, intuitive expertise cannot be developed. 

Subsequently, in his article “Chess Playing Programs and the Problem of Complexity, 1958”, Allen Newell explains that chess players start seeing the chess pieces on the board in a different way after playing for several thousands of hours. By simply taking a short look at the board, they anticipate and, practically, see the next move. Allen compares this behavior to a person looking at someone’s face and intuitively remembering the person’s name. Simply put, Allen discerns that eventually, recognition will become intuition.

Recap

Mentalization incorporates two main pillars. The first pillar is self-observation – the ability to recognize the existence of different mental states in other people.  Subsequently, it involves the process of identifying these states in other people in order to interpret their behavior. The second pillar is empathy – the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and understand the actions, ideas, desires, and emotions that the person is experiencing. In order to develop your self-observation skills, you need to recognize the patterns between your former experiences, believes and behavior. Besides, enhancing your empathy skills will incorporate you recognizing other people’s experiences, believes and behavior. By practicing both skills, your analytical thinking will free up to your conscious mind and, with time and repetition, become your intuition.

As Product Managers, we can make use of our mentalization skills to improve our understanding of the stakeholders involved, and, eventually, ourselves. But most importantly, despite applying our recently learned skills, we should never stop considering our own fallacy. In certain situations, we might be quite wrong regarding our current intuitive judgement. Thus, we should never stop making decisions considering both our intuition and our conscious analytical conclusions. Stay humble and keep the following in mind: Intuition is ‘’nothing more and nothing less than recognition’’ (Newell, 1958).

Meet Yogev Baron

Yogev Baron is a Product Manager at RiskMethods. Currently, he leads both the growth-centered and mobile team. Yogev holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Business and Law with a specialization in entrepreneurship. His first and foremost aspiration is to bring as much added value to the world and influencing as many lives for the better as possible.

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