From time to time, every Project Manager will find themselves managing difficult conversations. Because it is an important part of our role. But it’s one we’d rather not have. Then, of course, at the end of a hard day or week at work, you leave work. And again, you will have to face these types of conversations at home, with friends, and in social situations.
We all know a difficult conversation as soon as it gets started.
In fact, we mostly spot it in advance.
And this triggers adversarial or defensive reactions that just make the conversation more difficult still.
There are ways to plan and manage a difficult conversation to vastly increase the chances that it will go well. You want the other person to listen and participate constructively. You also want a good outcome. So, in this guide, I’ll offer you some practical techniques to give you confidence when you are managing difficult conversations.
This is the subject of Chapter 8 of my best-selling book, ‘How to Speak so People Listen’. Here, I offer you:
We need to understand what makes conversations difficult, and find ways to manage them effectively.
There are many facets to this, and we’ll look at them in the next section, on ‘what is a difficult conversation’. But I think the ‘why’ all boils down to one thing…
Please note, by the way, that conflict is not the same as ‘a fight’. Some people like to pick a fight. They do this to either:
I am assuming conflict is about things that matter to the parties. And it can be creative. Respectful conflict can resolve issues and identify alternatives. Most often, these things that matter are things:
No wonder we feel the stakes are high and fear losing the conflict.
As with all things, if you prepare for conflict and follow a sound process, you give yourself the best chance of success.
Strong emotions are the first thing that comes to mind in making a conversation difficult. This is usually because we know that there are important consequences to getting it right or wrong. As a result, one particularly strong emotion can dominate: fear.
This also gives us another contributing factor: uncertainty. The high stakes and emotions of a difficult conversation make it hard to predict what will happen.
And there’s another common factor: baggage. We pick up emotional and interpretational baggage along our journeys. These conflict with other people’s baggage.
Here are eight things that can lead to a difficult conversation:
Difficult conversations go wrong at two specific times:
Hold your difficult conversation when:
If you put it off for too long, you could:
Your basic turf options are: home, away, or neutral territory. Let’s look at each.
Calling people to your desk, or into your office shifts the balance of power to your side. Often this shift will unbalance the conversation, and make it hard for the other person to relax, and respond productively. Almost certainly, they will feel defensive from the start.
Likewise, going to where the other person is comfortable will make it easy for them. If you have prepared well, and are confident, this can be a very positive gesture. If not, you will feel at a disadvantage.
Often, your best approach will be to hold the meeting in a neutral place. The most common option is a meeting room. There, you can sit next to each other without the desk as a barrier. A good orientation is on two sides of a corner.
Here is a video on seating positions, from our sister YouTube channel, Management Courses…
Also consider somewhere like a hotel lobby or coffee shop. But you do need to consider the implications of this choice:
In complicated conversations, things that often seem like our priorities should not be. These are things like:
Take time in your preparation to think about what your priority really is. And keep that at the forefront of your mind throughout your preparation, and then during your difficult conversation. Maybe your priority is:
Often, in the heat of your difficult conversation, it will be easy to forget just how much the relationship matters. If that happens, you can easily slip into disrespectful language… or worse. And once that has happened, there may be no easy way back.
Before you enter into any difficult conversation, you need to know your range of acceptable outcomes. This should run from your ideal goal, down to your minimum acceptable outcome.
It’s vital to keep your goals realistic. If you set your expectations too high, it will make an already difficult conversation into a lost cause.
Take a long view of the issue you are dealing with. You will find managing difficult conversations easier if you prepare based on a sense of how things need to turn out in 6 months – or maybe even in 6 years. This will allow you to anticipate short-term problems and setbacks with equanimity.
Over the course of a long project management career, you’ll get them all: frustration, bitterness, arguments, blame, denial, tears.
You can’t control the other person’s responses. But you can foresee them, and prepare for them emotionally. That way, when they come, you’ll be able to deal with them effectively. We’ll look at controlling your own emotional responses later in this article.
Just one (sometimes small) step up from a difficult conversation is Conflict.
We have lots of great resources to help you;
And it’s not always bad.
But, often, it is.
It can be stressful, harm productivity, spoil working relationships, and lead to damaging behaviors.
And fixing it is down to you…
As with every challenging task, you’ll find managing difficult conversations easier if you have a clear process to follow.
This process will help you to:
The seven step process for a difficult conversation that I describe in ‘How to Speak so People Listen’ is:
Having a process is all very well. In fact, it’s very useful. But for managing difficult conversations, what you also need are some practical tips.
A deep dialogue requires intent listening. Don’t worry about what you will say next – turn over your whole self to hearing what the other person says. If you find your mind wandering from your focus on them, bring it back.
When they stop speaking, you’ll need time to frame your response. Take the time you need. Be comfortable with silence
Communication makes up around 80 percent of the work of any manager and leader.
This makes listening your single most important skill. So in this course, we’ll look at why this is true, and seek to understand what listening really is.
But at the core of this powerful course, we’ll learn something nobody ever teaches at school – despite being so valuable… How to really listen.
And we’ll close by tackling the three main challenges every listener faces.
Adopt an attitude of curiosity. Be keen to learn what they think and how they feel about their own perceptions.
You may not agree with the way they see things, but what is 100 per cent true is that this is their experience. Be respectful of that.
Acknowledge what you have heard, and also their courage in speaking their truth. Too often conflict escalates for the simple reason that we don’t think the other person has heard and valued what we have been saying.
Perhaps the most important need for a human being is to be heard.
‘You make a good point, but…’
See how that feels.
The ‘but’ pretty much negates everything you’ve just said. Instead, try:
‘You make a good point, and…’
This quote – taken from the film Papillon – is one of my favorites. It’s a crucial thing to remember during a difficult conversation.
Bad news doesn’t keep. Don’t pretend you can diminish its impact with small talk. Get on and say what you need to say. Be clear and precise, without being blunt and brutal.
But, giving feedback is a crucial part of your leadership role, as a Project Manager. As a result, we have valuable resources for you:
The hardest thing for most of us is nonetheless crucial: you need to stay in control of your emotional state.
So, a particular valuable area of study for project managers is that of Emotional Intelligence.
We also have a more in-depth article: Emotional Intelligence: The Secret to Being an Excellent Project Manager.
This is not about hiding your feelings; it is about being able to follow the process, to play your part fully, and stay respectful to the other person.
Here are some more tips:
If you start noticing yourself getting nervous, tense, or angry, try to focus on your breathing.
Pay attention to the air going into and out of your lungs. Feel it pass through your nose and down into your chest. Concentrate on breathing deeply, from your abdomen. This will distract your attention from the physical signs of emotion. So, it will help keep you calm and centered.
When you sit still, emotions get pent up, making you agitated. You start to fidget, and so betray a lack of confidence, annoyance, or upset.
Stand up. And walk around. Any movement will help to calm your emotional responses and activate the thinking part of your brain.
If you are sitting at a table, you may worry about suddenly standing up. So, you might say something like:
‘I need a bit of a stretch some. Do you mind if I get up and walk abound a bit?’
Remind yourself that the discomfort you are feeling, and any lack of confidence are temporary. Or maybe that your uncertainty can be countered by certainty in your preparation and competence.
Repeating some simple phrases in your head can have a big impact. That’s why telling yourself that things are going wrong, or that we are useless, can create such a big dip in your confidence.
Instead, try phrases like:
One way to dissipate a strong emotion is to analyze it. Give it a name. Think about what triggered it. Recognize it as a temporary guest.
If all else fails, suggest taking a break. If you are getting emotional, there’s a good chance the other person is too. So, they will probably also welcome a break.
If you need to, ask for a comfort break, or suggest getting a drink.
If I am absolutely honest (and why wouldn’t I be?) these attitudes to avoid reflect a difficult conversation from my past that went badly.
I came up with a list of fifteen things (and memory is not what it used to be). And these are probably just the ones that rang most true when I sat down to write this!
Have you had experience managing difficult conversations? If you have, please share your thoughts with our community, below. We love hearing from you and will reply to every comment.
Most of these come under the category of ‘miscellaneous, but related’:
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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