We’ve all been there: Someone did or said something you or someone on your team does not agree with, and you’re the person who has to handle it. You actually don’t even want to handle it. Others know you don’t want to handle it. But it’s part of your job description to keep peace on your team—so you do what you can to make this conversation less awkward, edgy, tense, or even humiliating. But before you jump in, you’d better prepare, because these situations are never easy.

PMP Training – Resources (Intense)

So how do you assess a conversation to be sure you can handle it properly, especially when every individual perceives these exchanges differently? There is a lot that goes into any conversation—difficult or otherwise—but keep in mind that if you initiate the conversation, you’ll want to think through every possible argument, statement, or outcome before you even speak a word about it. Your assessment won’t always be correct, but dissecting the factors that will play into your conversation will help you to understand the situation and the other person (or people) better—and conduct it like a PM professional.

The Situation – Think It Through Before You Act

Every difficult conversation stems from an encounter, situation, or scenario. So think through it: What actually happened and why? Chances are, you will hear multiple stores about a situation, but you will never know what truly happened without fully hearing all parties involved. Hearing a couple of accounts of the story might help you to gain perspective, but it can also confuse or upset you. This means that in many cases, you might have to stay neutral in order to get to an outcome that will work for everyone involved. The best way to stay neutral—because you must—is to listen and not provide any opinions or additional accounts of the story. Gather information, formulate your own opinions privately, and do what you can to simply understand what has happened.

If you are a part of the situation, but you want to resolve it with a conversation, it might mean that you have to remove your personal or emotional attachment to the issue and try to resolve it peacefully. This will certainly be difficult and it will test your professionalism and workplace decorum, but you can do it. No matter what you do, keep in mind that we all have our own points of view and we want to be heard. Give time and space for everyone to share their feelings about the situation, and the conversation will be less difficult.

If it’s helpful, jot down the issues you’re seeing within the situation and break them down. For example, if the issue is that someone has missed a deadline, you might write these points down and use them as talking points later on:

  • The Issue: You missed a deadline by three days
  • The Impacts: Someone else on the team had to scramble to get their work done more quickly to make the final deadline. That person stayed late and came in early to get the work done. Upper management noticed it and is now questioning me [the project manager] about your reliability and accountability.
  • How I Feel: Disappointed, worried. I also feel bad for the person who made up for your issue. You should thank them.
  • Resolutions: You apologize to the person who made up time. We set up an internal schedule to review your work at least one day ahead of your deadlines.

Sometimes taking 5-10 minutes to think through your emotions and writing them down can help you to organize your thoughts—and possibly even find a resolution. Your personal example may be far more complicated than the above, but if you think through the issue, impacts, feelings, and resolutions, you will prepare yourself for a productive outcome.

The Other Person

There’s always a culprit, and you’ll have to handle that person, or people, with great care. Knowing the ins and outs of the situation before you approach this person about it is important, because you’ll want some sense of how this person will approach the actual conversation. We all handle these conversations differently, so you really won’t know how they react.

Before going into any conversation, think about your history with the person and try to understand, or even anticipate, how they may react to the conversation. Of course, you will offer them the opportunity to explain their point of view of the situation, but thinking through how it may go will help you to prepare for the conversation.

Also keep in mind that no one likes to be on the receiving end of a difficult conversation. You’ll have to think about how to lighten the blow and to truly understand the situation to make it feel less difficult. For instance: Why did he or she do it? What’s motivating her or him? And, Are you worried about your relationship? Will this conversation affect the way you interact from here on out? It could if you don’t handle the situation with care.

The bottom line is that you must approach this conversation with a level of empathy if you want to truly resolve it and uphold the relationship.

You (and Your Emotional State)

So, you’re probably scared. Or nervous. It’s totally normal. No one likes to call someone out. In fact, you might even be frustrated or annoyed that you even have to address the situation. Wouldn’t it just be easier to let it slide?

Absolutely not. Letting one difficult conversation slide will not only set a precedent for accepting poor behavior, it will prove you to be a coward. It’s not going to be easy to sit in front of someone and call them out for wrongdoing—but maybe you won’t handle it that way. You’ll address the issue head on and share your own concerns or feelings about it (without making it about you, of course).

So what is stopping you? Fear of hurting someone else, fear of destroying a relationship, fear of perpetuating a misunderstanding? That’s a whole lot of fear, and it’s completely normal to feel that way. You’re a human being, and if you care at all about others or how they perceive you, you will be scared to address an issue head on. But you have to set that fear aside by preparing yourself for the conversation, stepping up, and facing your fear (and the other person…and the issue).

The Outcomes

Before stepping into the conversation, you should think about what you’re hoping to get out of the conversation. Are you looking for an apology? A physical action to resolve the issue? Another meeting? Understanding exactly what you want from the situation will definitely help you to formulate an approach for the conversation—and hopefully ease your fear.

Also remember to think about how you will follow up on the outcomes. There is nothing worse than talking through an issue, coming to a mutual agreement, and dropping it. Very often, an issue won’t be fully resolved with just one conversation. If you truly own the issue—and its healthy resolution—you will commit yourself to following up on it regardless of how uncomfortable that may be. So, think through your ultimate outcome and a useful plan for how it can be rolled out. Maybe it will truly be one conversation. Maybe it will be a series of check-ins to discuss progress and feelings. Whatever you do, make it comfortable for everyone involved.

The Conversation

After you’ve taken some time to think about the situation, you’ll be ready to approach the conversation. Put your fears aside and don’t worry about being wrong. Remember, keep the other person’s feeling in mind, and handle it in a way that feels positive and productive.

The best way to conduct a difficult conversation is in an open, honest way. You’ll want to create a meeting atmosphere that promotes positive energy. Do whatever you can to avoid holding the meeting in your office or in a conference room. Go out for lunch or coffee—stay in a setting that feels neutral, and less daunting. The pressures of work can seep into situations like this and you want everyone’s full attention, so go offsite and speak freely.

Don’t Sweat It

Remember that you are at the heart of the anatomy of your difficult conversation. You can control the tone of the conversation if you approach the situation with the level of care it deserves. You’ll obviously never be able to control what the other person contributes to the conversation, but you can be calm, understanding, and resolute through a little bit of preparation.

Are you feeling prepared to conduct a difficult conversation? The next article in this series will touch on ways to handle the actual conversation with a level of comfort you never knew you could bring to the table.