It’s rarely going to be an experience to relish. However, holding a difficult conversation is an opportunity to flex your core project management skills in leadership and communication and address issues that can result in improved relationships and positive outcomes.
For project professionals, in dealing with various internal and external stakeholders, there are a variety of circumstances where the need for a challenging conversation may arise: from having to give feedback to a team member about a performance issue to dealing with a client about a cost or product issue, to perhaps feeling you would benefit from a discussion with your boss about a decision you disagree with or that was made without your input.
Regardless of the scenario, there are steps practitioners can take – and skills they need to put into action – to make those inevitable tough conversations a useful and successful process.
What makes a conversation difficult or sensitive?
Susanne Madsen, project leadership coach and author of The Power of Project Leadership, explains that conversations become tricky when there is something at stake. “We worry about getting them wrong. We could end up hurting the other person’s feelings if feeding back on performance to a staff member and damage the relationship, or in the case of a client, it could result in a deal or money being withdrawn.”
In other words, there is a danger something could be lost, so treading carefully is necessary. With this in mind (and playing to a project professional’s strengths) setting out a plan and getting prepared is essential.
Plan what you want to say and be clear in your mind about the outcome you want to achieve, advises Madsen. Not doing this risks the conversation being derailed by other concerns (or personal agendas) and no resolution being reached, which may mean you will have to revisit the issue again later down the line.
For example, highlights Madsen, if you are trying to address a performance issue, the desired outcome is for your team member to remedy the problem, not for them to feel criticised or upset while the issue goes unresolved. Setting your sights on the end goal will help you structure a framework for dialogue that’s purposeful, keeps you on track and gives you maximum chance of achieving a successful outcome.
Linked into that point, this is also a good time to tune into your emotional intelligence and empathy skills so you can stand back and see the issue from the other person’s perspective. Recognise that using an accusatory tone or being disrespectful will result in defensive behaviour and is not constructive.
Also be aware of negative feelings or high emotions you may be harbouring. If the subject being broached is one that has ramifications for you personally or feels sensitive (for example, a boss has undermined you) any feelings or resentment/anger need to be put to one side, so the conversation isn’t a reactive one that quickly spirals into ‘battle’ mode, which will severely compromise your professionalism and the outcome.
Honest expression without blame
One powerful and popular model for constructive dialogue to consider is non-violent communication, explains Madsen. A component of that, according to Marshall Rosenberg, who formulated the framework is: “Knowing how to ask for what you want, how to hear others even in disagreement, and how to move forward towards solutions that work for all.”
That involves expressing yourself honestly, but without criticism or blame; stating what you want, without demanding; as well as listening with empathy – and having body language that is congruent with that approach.
Being specific will help steer the conversation in the right direction too, especially if you are addressing performance issues. Aim to be clear about how the other person can improve, give examples and offer support, says Madsen.
“And make sure the dialogue is two-way; it’s very important to allow the other person to have their say.”
The last aspect to think about is where to have the conversation. Holding it in the middle of an open-plan office where everything can be overheard may feel like a public attack if you are delivering feedback or could compromise confidentiality in the case of other sensitive issues. So, arrange to meet in a private or at least semi-private space.
Once the conversation has taken place, it’s not necessarily the end of the process. It may be useful to take the time to reflect on aspects that went well or less well, so lessons can be learned and techniques improved before the next tricky conversation.
All that’s left to say before you take on the challenge of a difficult conversation is to take heart and… breathe.
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