Chapter 1: Empathy Is a Learnable Skill

Your time is too valuable to spend it creating things people don’t want.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, talking to people can save you months or years of frustrating, fruitless effort.

You might be afraid that talking to customers (or potential customers) will be a waste of time. That they will only tell you things you already know. Or, worse, that it will be awkward and you’ll accidentally offend people.

That’s okay.

But you also might be looking for new opportunities. You might be wondering why people cancel. You might be wondering how to get more people to buy. You might be trying to figure out which features to add next. And your data may not be giving you clear answers.

A spreadsheet of data can tell you what is happening, but it will never tell you why.

This is where adding customer interviews to your skillset can help.

This book will teach you how to deploy empathy in a specific, targeted, and structured way to pull opportunities out of customers that you and your competitors didn’t even realize were there. People will tell you things—useful, actionable things—that you never would have found before.

Even if you have never interviewed customers before.
Even if your company doesn’t exist yet.
Even if your company has been around for decades.
Even if you don’t think you have time for interviews and only talk

to customers in support or sales settings.
The skills you will learn can be used with potential customers,

former customers, current customers, clients, stakeholders, people you advise, and even in your personal life.

You will walk away from this book with a toolbox of repeatable processes that will allow you to find opportunities and moments of unexpected insight time and time again.

The opportunities you find can be used across any part of a business—from what to write on landing pages to which features to prioritize to what kind of pricing model to choose to who your real competitors are.

To find those opportunities, you will first learn a set of conversation techniques that will help you listen with empathy and intention. It’s okay if the ways of speaking presented in this book are unfamiliar to you. While it may come naturally to some, for many empathy is a learned skill.

But before you learn how to deploy empathy in customer interviews, let’s address a common objection. Interviewing customers may sound squishy and subjective. It may sound like a “nice to have” rather than a critical part of a business.

So don’t just take my word for it.

Writer Morgan Housel, one of the best business writers of our time, wrote in The Psychology of Money:

“In a world where intelligence is hyper competitive, and many previous technical skills have become automated, competitive advantages tilt toward nuanced and soft skills, like communication, empathy, and perhaps most of all, flexibility.”

Fortunately, anyone can learn the skills mentioned by Housel. According to Brené Brown, “Empathy is best understood as a learned skill, because being empathetic, or having the capacity to show empathy, is not a quality that is innate or intuitive.”


As defined by design strategist Indi Young in Practical Empathy, empathy is “about understanding how another person thinks, and acknowledging [their] reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding.”

In this context, empathy means entering the other person’s world and understanding that their decisions and actions make sense from their perspective. As put plainly by former FBI Chief Hostage Nego‐ tiator Chris Voss in Never Split the Difference, “The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand you agree with the other person’s ideas.”3 It is similar to the concept of “beginner’s mindset”: suspending your own preconceived notions before entering a situation to uncover new information that you would not have come across had you kept only your own ideas in mind. This suspension of judgment is critical for finding problems that you may not have realized existed.

Learning empathy alone—aside from applying it to product development, marketing, and business strategy—is also something that can make you a better leader. According to Brené Brown, “In the growing body of empathy research, we are finding that successful leaders often demonstrate high levels of empathy; that empathy is related to academic and professional success; that it can reduce aggression and prejudice and increase altruism.” 4

I encourage you to try these techniques with friends and family before talking to customers. With practice, the listening techniques and frameworks you’ll find in this book will become second nature.

It is worth taking a moment to differentiate between empathy, sympathy, and solution-based responses. For example, if someone says, “My boss yelled at me today!” a sympathetic response would be “I’m sorry that happened to you” (which creates distance between the original speaker and the person replying), and a solution response would be “You should get a new job,” which comes from a good place yet changes the subject away from the person’s experience. By contrast, an empathetic response might be “That really hurt you,” which encourages the person to expound on their experience. Regardless of your natural inclination, it is my belief that everyone is capable of adding empathetic responses and exploration paths to their communication toolbox.


Your customers (or potential customers) have a wealth of insights for you, and you just need to ask them.

When you understand the details of why and how someone embarks on a process, you can then see where opportunities may lie.

That awareness of more opportunities—from new products to marketing existing ones to strategy and more—is why more and more companies have integrated listening to customers directly into their decision-making processes.

Payment processor Stripe is a notable example. According to Stripe product manager Theodora Chu, “at Stripe, the very first question you’ll get for any product proposal is, ‘Who are the users, and what do they care about?” Stripe not only integrates customer research into the core of their decision-making, they also encourage entire teams—developers included—to interview customers directly.

I’ve had the privilege of being interviewed by their product managers, developers, and designers myself. Says Chu, “you’re expected to talk to users throughout your time at Stripe, regardless of function.”

You’ll read vignettes from Stripe’s customer research practices throughout this book, as well as examples from my own company, Geocodio, and from founders at different stages. What all of these companies have in common—from small side projects to one of the most admired technology companies in the world—is that customers are integrated into their decision-making and everyday work processes.

Unfortunately, actively listening to customers is a resource that many companies overlook. Many large businesses have research arms, yet they are often insulated from the rest of the company. There is substantial value in having developers, product managers, marketers, and other functions—besides researchers—interview and interact with customers. Companies that insulate research—or, worse, neglect it entirely—leave that valuable resource completely untapped to their own detriment.6 But that, in turn, creates an opportunity for competitors that are willing to do the work to understand customers.

You are therefore creating an advantage for your company just by having empathy for your customers and being open to listening to them.