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Four tips for navigating challenging conversations

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Conversation 01

Working effectively on a project requires hundreds of conversations. Not all of these are going to be easy or pleasant. Customer expectations need to be managed and the team needs to find its feet. Many heated exchanges may be had about scope, quality, timelines, budget, resources etc. Team members represent diverse cultures, values and languages.

Negotiating a way forward, giving feedback and delivering bad news is often necessary, but not easy.

What makes these conversations difficult?

Think of a conversation that you typically find challenging. When you examine it, you will probably find that, first, there is a lot at stake; second, there are opposing opinions; and third, there are strong emotions. For example, if you need to tell your client that you’ve hit a major roadblock and the project will be delayed, it will turn out to be a challenging conversation – especially if your client has a strong emotional reaction and suggests a solution that you know isn’t possible.

The emotional component

Humans aren’t as rational and logical as we like to think. When we become overly emotional, we lose the ability to think clearly, to make rational decisions and to draw conclusions. Unfortunately, we’re often emotionally triggered even before a conversation begins.

If we’re not able to manage our emotions effectively, they will narrow our focus and prevent us from getting to the root of the problem. They might even influence us not to give feedback to someone even if we have a great deal to say. We simply avoid or delay the conversation because we find it too unpleasant.

But when difficult topics aren’t openly discussed, they can mushroom under the surface and lead to dysfunctional team behaviour. So, to approach challenging conversations in the best way, I would recommend you do the following:

1. Build self‑awareness

Becoming aware of the conversations you tend to find most challenging, and understanding why, is fundamental. That’s because you can only really change a pattern or a behaviour that you are aware of.

Take time to reflect on current and past projects. What types of conversations are most challenging for you? In which situations do they typically arise? What makes them challenging? How do you feel entering into them? How do they usually unfold?

Simply write down your observations and see if you can identify some traps that you usually fall into.

2. Prepare for the conversation

Set aside time to prepare and think through why you are having the conversation, what you perceive the problem to be and what your preferred outcome is. How would you like your working relationship with your counterpart to be and what kind of mindset would you like to show up with? Also think about the facts and tangible examples that you want to present to your counterpart. Then turn the tables and consider how the other person sees the problem and what they might want from the conversation.

By considering your counterpart’s perspective, you will be more perceptive during the conversation and less likely to be caught off guard.

3. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

If you enter the conversation with an agenda to first be understood and to get your points across, the effectiveness of the conversation will be limited. An open and curious attitude, where you suspend your judgements, listen and ask lots of open questions, will get you much further.

The goal of the conversation should be to collaborate and to openly discuss the issue before a conclusion is reached. Don’t feel you need to have thought through the entire solution in advance. You can also improve the atmosphere by speaking in person and by sitting down rather than standing up. When it’s your turn to express your viewpoint, be honest and name the real issue. Don’t minimise it. You have to agree what the problem is before you can solve it.

Be mindful, however, not to get confrontational, accusatory or to speak down to the other person.

4. Respond rather than react

It’s important to keep your emotions in check during the conversation, as they may otherwise highjack it and derail you. If the conversation goes as smoothly as you have planned, staying calm and clear‑headed will be easy enough. It’s much more difficult if your counterpart throws in a wildcard, starts to accuse you of something or makes you feel uncomfortable. If that happens, just stay quiet for a moment. Breathe as deeply and slowly as you can to slow down your heart rate and stay connected to the rational part of your brain.

The goal in any conversation is to consciously respond to what is being said rather than lashing out. Don’t let yourself get provoked.

Silence can be very powerful. Five seconds may feel like an eternity. But it works. Not only does it send a strong message to your counterpart, it’s also an effective way to help you manage your own emotions. If your counterpart’s behaviour is unacceptable, for instance if they belittle you, then you need to call it out and express how you are experiencing their behaviour. Not that easy, but necessary.

A longer version of this article appears in the winter 2021 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

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