Twelve Communication Secrets for Product Leaders, Part 1

or, Appraising the Elephant

Karl Sluis
7 min readAug 7, 2018

As a product leader, facilitating great team communication can make the difference between success and failure. When I consider the challenges that communication presents, I’m reminded of the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant:

Blind Men Appraising an Elephant, by Ohara Donshu, Edo Period

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an Elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said, “We must inspect it and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they felt about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, he said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, he said, “The Elephant is a pillar, like a tree-trunk.” The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “The Elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating, “The Elephant is that which is hard and smooth and like a spear.”

What can we learn from the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant?

It is hard to understand the world.

The world is so much bigger than us. It is novel and it is strange and we see it only incompletely.

It is hard to share your subjective understanding of the world.

We’re saddled with an eons-old system of ever-evolving words, a network of symbols pointing to other symbols, and this system is the only one we have to share our subjective fragment of reality.

With effort, the world can be understood and that understanding can be shared.

In spite of these difficulties, the blind men were only a few communication skills short of understanding what the Elephant really was. Through sharing, listening, and dialogue, we can assemble the pieces to create a better understanding of the world than we could have individually.

Product connects all functions of a team, from design to engineering, from customer experience to finance. Consider just some of the duties that fall under the wide umbrella of “product management”:

  • User research and market research
  • Team discussion and alignment
  • Vision and roadmaps
  • Metrics and measurement
  • Sprints and standups

Many of these duties involve extracting information from the outside world, packaging it, and then sharing it with your team. Many of these duties involve working together, through conversation, to reach a better understanding of the world. Communication sits at the heart of all these responsibilities.

A highly-simplified model of communication: communication starts with an idea (01). Two individuals (02) use some medium (03) as a vehicle to exchange the ideas within their minds.

Let’s go over three areas where I focus on making communication better for myself and my team: the reciprocal relationship between both individuals or groups, the mediums that we use, and the context that frames all communication. In this first post, I’ll discuss some tips for improving reciprocity in communication. In a second post, I’ll dive into my thoughts on mediums and context.

Great communication is reciprocal

Effective communication — communication that accurately coordinates the ideas inside our minds — demands a give and take between all groups or individuals involved. Sometimes we may speak, at other times we listen: frequently, we go back and forth between the two states as we work to understand one another.

Communication breaks down when we lose track of the fundamental relationship of exchange in effective communication. Note that not one of the blind men in our story was listening to any other. What can we do to avoid losing reciprocity while communicating?

Give your receipts

It’s helpful to give your receipts as an active listener. It may feel odd to repeat back what someone’s said to you, but believe me, there’s no better way to make absolutely sure that you understood what someone said than to try and spit it back out. Much like taking notes, there’s something about the process of reconfiguring something you’ve heard in your own terms, in your own mind, that makes it stick.

“Let me play that back to you to make sure that I understand…”

I have used this phrase countless times when learning about some new engineering term or technology. Sometimes I have very-nearly repeated what a patient teammate has said to me, word-for-word, to make sure that I’ve understood.

Get your receipts, too

It’s a simple and powerful way of ensuring that a listener understood what you’ve said: simply ask if they understand. Make it safe for them to follow up on details or to ask you to walk them through it, one more time. Here’s a phrase I say all the time:

“Does that make sense?”

It’s not a challenge; it’s an invitation to let me know that I didn’t do a good enough job communicating something and that it’s important for me to get it right. I’m especially fond of asking this question when I’m not 100% clear about my own thoughts: it’s better to try and communicate imperfectly than to not try at all. Kicking the explanation around often adds clarity.

Communicate your communication needs

When I first started on my crusade to improve communication, I thought “communicate everything all the time to everyone” was a great rule of thumb; I also thought that Slack was a great medium for team communication and that everyone should be available on it, at a moment’s notice.

What a dream for me! What a nightmare for my team.

Different human beings have different communication needs: some people may like digesting a bunch of emails, all at once, while others might like the old-fashioned charms of a phone call. Some may want to know about everything that’s going on while others will want to focus on their domains. Different roles and responsibilities also lend themselves to different communication needs: as a product leader, I’m voracious and love to have the most information I can get, as fast as I can get it. Other individual contributors need time and headspace to focus on delivering value.

Being sensitive to these needs is a hallmark of true excellence as a product leader. Proactively asking your team to communicate their individual communication needs? That’s a quick ask that pays dividends.

“I hate Slack, can you call me instead?”

That one sentence changed my working relationship with a teammate. Someone who seemed aloof and careless on Slack suddenly became responsive and focused when I learned how he preferred to communicate. I wish I had asked earlier.

Information flows freely in private

My most meaningful conversations have always taken place one-on-one: face-to-face is better, but phone calls and video chats usually work just as well.

“Let’s talk one-on-one.”

Even a group of three introduces a lot more social and contextual complexity to communication; two people, talking over a coffee, over a beer, or just over the internet can really get into the nitty-gritty problems that a team is facing. I don’t mean to suggest that you should try to get all the juicy gossip from your teammates behind closed doors; I only mean that people can feel more comfortable sharing their feelings when you remove some social pressures. If you see some team members in conflict, it helps to suggest that they talk one-on-one and figure things out.

Strive to be open and vulnerable

Here are two phrases guaranteed to open up your whole team to communicate more effectively:

“I don’t know.”

“I was wrong.”

It’s hard for anyone to be open and vulnerable, professionally and personally, and it can feel especially hard to be vulnerable in a leadership role. So long as you’re not confessing errors and cluelessness every day in front of your team, admitting that you don’t have all the answers, or that your answers are wrong from time to time, can uncork communication for your team. Other team members will feel more comfortable admitting their own confusion, while others will feel more comfortable offering their perspectives and thoughts.

My old colleague and friend David Hoffman taught me the power of these two phrases — he didn’t have to use them often, but when he did, I was always impressed that they increased his influence as a leader.

Walk a mile in their shoes

Finally, time spent walking a mile — even a few feet — in someone else’s shoes pays dividends, especially when it comes to effective communication. If you can get inside someone’s head, you know how to frame your ideas. You can demonstrate that you understand them and build trust. You can know what they know better than they may know it themselves. By way of example, even silly little observations like:

“Asynchronous functions, amiright?!”

have gone a long way in helping me build credibility with engineers. So spend a day answering tickets for the CX team. Spend a little time learning JavaScript or Sketch. Sit in on a sales call. Talk to your users. Do what your users do. You won’t regret it.

Ready to learn about mediums and context? Check out the second half of this post here.

Thanks for reading — let me know what you think! Catch me on Twitter or sign up for my mailing list to stay in touch! 🎉



Karl Sluis

Cities, mobility, and product leadership in New York City