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Difficult conversations

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When I ask a room full of project managers how many have sufficient time and resources for the scope they are being asked to deliver, I’m greeted by a stony silence. The only movement in the room is hands being thrust deep into pockets or surreptitiously sat upon. 

It’s no secret that project managers need to be able to manage conflicting objectives. We juggle and adapt in a constantly changing world empowering our team to be effective and focused whilst responding to the inevitable issues that arise. It’s not surprising that research shows project managers operate at a higher-than-average level of stress. 

The project environment, fraught with its many tensions, is a place where the ability to navigate difficult conversations is an essential skill. You are probably already bringing many to mind: being grilled at the board meeting when more for less is being demanded from you, addressing poor performance of a team member, calling out unacceptable behaviour from colleagues, mediating opposing views between challenging stakeholders. The list goes on. 

Being mindful that the discomfort we may feel comes with the territory of project execution, and is experienced by many fellow professionals, encourages us to take control of the situation. We also know that one of the biggest blockers to clarity and pace on a project can be caused by badly held conversations. 

Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do about this which I will be exploring below: 

Take time to prepare for the conversation and don’t confuse preparation time with avoidance or obfuscation. Think about coming from a mindset of respect and clarity of purpose. Consider why you are feeling anxious about this conversation. Is that anxiety grounded in reality, or simply based on your assumptions and fears? Have you distinguished facts from interpretation and emotion and personal agendas?   
What is the conversation you want to have? How are you going to hold the other(s) with a sense of real respect and come away from the conversation with a mutual feeling of usefulness and value.  

What resources can you bring to the conversation? What are the facts and opinions? Can you distinguish between the interpretations, assumptions and judgement you may have made? What is true about the situation, are you exaggerating things in your mind?  

A 5-step conversation model can help us navigate the process. 

Step 1:  Set the permissions. Being respectful, ask the person concerned when the best time and environment is in which to have the conversation is. Be as clear as you can about the topic. “I need to have a conversation with you about your contribution to last week’s meeting; would this be a good time and place to speak about it?”  

Step 2: State the facts as clearly as you can. Ideally these are recent, clear to both of you and specific. “Yesterday, in that meeting, I heard you say “……” when we were discussing …”.   Check whether the other person also sees the facts in the same way. 

Step 3: State the impact of these facts. On you personally, on your relationship and on the situation. This is what happened, and this is how it made me feel. Notice that you are de-personalising this by stating what happened, not what they ‘did to you’. “When you said that, I felt confused and angry as I could not see the relevance at that point. I felt let down and lost some trust in your judgement. The meeting ended without us resolving the issue and this delayed the project by a week”. Clear, specific and owning the impact on you.   

Step 4: Listen, hear and understand their understanding of the situation.  Let them explain and really listen carefully to them when they do. Play back what you understand they are saying and what you sense they really mean so that they feel heard by you. Explain the impact of their story on you, and where it takes you both. Ensure they know you have really heard and understood what they are trying to say.   

Step 5: build a new possible way forward. This might mean a behaviour on their part, or it might mean a change in the way you relate to one another. If you can agree this between you it’s more likely to happen. “So, in future, if you don’t really understand the context or facts, you will check in with me first before criticising Peter. In addition, we will work with each other so that I can coach you on how to deal with your anger/frustration.”  You could agree how you will follow up the change and how you will together notice how things improve.  “After every meeting with Peter in future, let us check in together about how it went and how clear you were with him without getting angry.” 

Don’t forget to review how the conversation went for you so you can learn from it.  

Follow up 

Your relationship is likely to strengthen if you then follow up on a regular basis.  When you see the change you both want happening, feed back in a way that is not patronising. “I noticed that in the meeting with Peter today, you really listened to him, made sure you understood the facts before you gave your view and gave him some very constructive suggestions. Did you notice how he left the meeting so much more committed to doing what he needs to do?” 

Marion is looking forward to exploring this topic further at WiPM on 27th September.  


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  1. Sunchana Johnston
    Sunchana Johnston 10 September 2023, 10:14 AM

    I love this article, especially as it ends on a positive note. Project management is stressful, tempers can run high and people react differently. Having difficult conversations about performance is challenging. Thank you Marion for breaking it down into more manageable and humaine steps.