How to handle difficult conversations in project management

At some time or another every project manager will have had to take a stand over the ownership of a project, the scope creep issues that might occur or indeed any of the other difficulties that can arise during the natural lifecycle of a project. They may need to challenge those individuals who are in power in order to take the most appropriate actions to bring the project to a successful conclusion. Difficult conversations are part of the life of a project manager whether they are conversations that must be had with project stakeholders or members of the project team, and this is certainly one place where project manager courses can help you.

It is the responsibility of the project manager to know when they need to exert their authority over a situation. They should also know how they should do this including taking into consideration any of the risk and following frustration that may occur as a result of having a difficult conversation. This is not a case of the project manager themselves being “difficult” but rather the subject of the conversation or the manner that the conversation has come about being something difficult. When these conversations are avoided, it gives the impression that everything is going well with the project, even though it isn’t, and this can cause problems later on in the project plan – things that might have an impact on the project budget, timescales, or both.

Plan your conversation

Whilst you cannot plan every aspect of a difficult conversation, it can be a good idea to write some notes that will help you to guide the conversation.

Consider what it is about the conversation that makes it difficult or even sensitive. Make sure that you have all of the important details to hand so that you do not forget anything or remember it incorrectly. Consider what you want to happen as a result of the conversation, what is the outcome that you need or would accept from this situation. Having an end goal for your conversation will help you to steer your way as you go along.

If the conversation relates to an issue surrounding performance, then obviously you want the person in question to remedy the problem. However, it is important that they do not feel criticised or upset that the problem has not already been resolved or that it has occurred in the first place. Be wary of apportioning blame for the issue. After all,  this will not help the situation and has the potential to make the person who you are talking to incredibly defensive, which will not be productive.

Rein in your emotions

You should consider your own feelings, negative feelings or high emotions will not help the situation either and have the potential to make it difficult for you to remain objective. Training for PMs will have taught you that communication is the single most important tool you have as a project manager so use your communication skills wisely and don’t forget to listen to what the other person has to say.


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