Why interpersonal communication matters

As soon as a new project begins, it can happen that tasks are not completed correctly or incompletely, that employees talk past each other or that misunderstandings arise. This is often the result of a lack of communication, or more precisely, interpersonal communication, which is of particular importance in a project. Its importance, the challenges associated with it and tips will be discussed in the following. But what is communication actually?
Communication is the exchange of information between a sender and a receiver. This information can be transmitted not only verbally, but also non-verbally. Non-verbal communication includes gestures and facial expressions, the tone of voice that conveys feelings, as well as closeness and distance. For example, the supervisor would pat the employee on the shoulder, but the employee would not pat the supervisor, which is also a form of non-verbal interpersonal communication and shows that communication defines the interpersonal relationship.
A group of people sitting together and talking.


Importance of communication in project management

Communication is omnipresent and particularly important for the success of a project. A team can consist of many personalities and the project manager has to reconcile all these personalities. 
To explain the process of communication simply, models such as Paul Watzlawik's or Shannon and Weaver's sender-receiver model are often used. In these, communication is depicted as the sender having the intention to send something. They encode it in speech, writing or body language and send it as a signal to the receiver. The receiver decodes the signal and reacts to it, which can lead to disruptions in the communication. For example, the sender may use the wrong words so that the receiver understands something other than what was actually said.
Another model that shows the importance of correct communication is the four-sided model by Friedemann Schulz von Thun. According to this, a statement can be evaluated on four levels and disturbances arise when the sender and receiver interpret the levels differently. One side is self-revealing, with which the sender only wants to reveal certain things. The relationship side is about how the sender relates to the receiver and what the receiver thinks of them. The factual side is about pure data and facts. And the appeal side says what the sender wants to achieve. So, there are many different levels on which something can be meant and on which something can be misunderstood. This again shows how important good interpersonal communication is and that statements should be formulated as precisely as possible.

The role of communication in monitoring and controlling projects and project success

A project is also about communicating goals, progress and responsibilities to ensure project success. All persons responsible for the project's success must be provided with all important information. Only when everyone has the right information, the right decisions can be made. This way, the employees are enthusiastic about the project, stay motivated and there is no high turnover. This also includes regular meetings and agreements among each other. Especially in relation to the stakeholders, communication is very important. This is why we will come back to it later. 
With the help of a matrix, you can find out at what intervals you inform whom. This helps you keep track of who needs to be informed, when, about what and in what form. In this way, everyone is regularly kept up to date and the project can be completed successfully.

Challenges in communication in project management

There are several challenges that can arise in the course of a project. One of them is clearly poor communication. Misunderstandings can occur, you don't understand what the other person is trying to achieve, sometimes you don't see the common goal, or the roles are not clearly defined. Are you talking to the boss, a colleague or an acquaintance? In addition, people are often adept at presenting themselves differently in order to influence perceptions. This can be done through ambiguity or irony, perhaps out of fear of rejection or to save face when ideas are not well received. These behaviours can lead to misunderstandings as it is often difficult for recipients to see behind the façade.
One approach could be to orient communication to the communication style of Friedemann Schulz von Thun. Schulz von Thun emphasises that there is no such thing as one communication style. Therefore, it is always necessary to consider the context of the situation, including the previous history and the relationship to each other. The personality of the counterpart also plays a role, as a different style of communication and interaction may be required depending on the personality.

Overcoming language barriers and cultural differences

Project management often involves multicultural teams, composed of people from different cultures, religions and countries, working locally or globally. These teams are particularly valuable because the team members bring different skills and ideas to the table. 
When working together in these teams, it is therefore particularly important to break down differences, overcome language barriers and respect other cultures. Especially as a project manager or in management, it is important to be open to different cultures, because it is important, for example, that all religious holidays are accepted. 
Not everyone speaks the language very well, some members are native speakers, others are not. Therefore, it is an advantage to plan a preparation time for meetings, i.e., announce them early enough so that everyone can prepare for the meeting; native speakers can be asked to take a back seat to give everyone a fair chance. In order to achieve a project goal, it is important to work together and not against each other. Therefore, native speakers can also act as mentors or offer language courses.
As a team, team-building measures can also be carried out or intercultural skills can be promoted through training, as individual staff members can be sensitised and reflect on how they deal with the issue.

Conflict management and conflict resolution

When conflicting expectations, values or stress levels of two or more people clash, conflicts can arise that are exacerbated by possible emotions. Such conflicts can affect the productivity of the team and lead to delays in projects. As a result, products and services may not be delivered on time and the company may lose customers.
Conflicts can also arise when individual interests are put aside in order to avoid conflicts. This can lead to dissatisfaction and has a high potential for conflict. It is important to recognize and resolve conflicts before they escalate and lead to even worse situations. Dealing with conflicts openly is particularly important.
There are various models that can help to understand and resolve conflicts. One of them is the iceberg model. It shows that about 80 per cent of our communication takes place below the surface, i.e., is not visible. This includes feelings, thoughts and opinions, but above all the relationship level. The remaining 20 per cent concern our superficial factual level. The model shows that most communication takes place non-verbally and below the surface. Therefore, it is important to be aware of this and to pay attention to it. Conflicts on the relationship level can go deeper because more emotions are involved. For example, disappointed expectations or role conflicts can arise when the boss expects something that cannot be fulfilled. The Johari window can be helpful in role conflicts because it shows how the team perceives a person and how one can reflect on oneself by comparing the self-image with the external image. In general, it is important to know the role of each person, as the way of communicating can be different depending on the role. You might tell the boss less about your weekend than your colleagues in the same office. 
Conflicts on the factual level can arise, among other things, due to misleading information. It is advisable to always ask if something has not been understood and to work with feedback if necessary.
It is also beneficial to plan the conflict resolution meeting carefully. A fixed date should be agreed, and a framework should be set. At the beginning of the conversation, the goals should be clarified. Each party should be given sufficient time to present their point of view. It is important to listen actively and ask questions without interrupting the other party. Both parties should be willing to compromise and seek a solution together. If this is not possible internally, a mediator can be brought in to ensure that all parties remain on the level of the issue.

Dealing with stakeholders and their needs

Interpersonal communication between stakeholders and the company is important to involve and motivate them. In this way, the project goal can be achieved together and successfully. This is because the stakeholders can have a significant impact on the project through their influence, to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, they should receive the most important information at the right time. What influence they have, what information they need and how often they should be informed is determined by the stakeholder analysis. Through it, the company finds out how important the stakeholders are. The most important ones should be informed about changes as soon as possible. These can be, for example, time shifts. The amount and regularity of information then decreases with importance.

Tips for successful interpersonal communication in project management

So, there are many challenges when people communicate with each other. If you are aware of them, you can master them well. A few tips will help.

Clearly defined communication channels and guidelines

Communication channels offer a variety of ways for employees to communicate with each other and with clients or stakeholders. It is important to clearly define the target groups, as different groups have different communication needs.
When dealing with customers, the telephone offers a direct and personal contact that enables the building of a relationship. In addition, information and offers can also be sent via newsletters or emails to address customers. Emails are particularly efficient, time-saving, flexible and accessible from anywhere, which makes them suitable for low-priority customers and stakeholders.
For internal staff meetings, feedback, conflict resolution or passing on information to important stakeholders, face-to-face communication or, if necessary, the use of video calls is recommended. Gestures and facial expressions can be evaluated. Training on the correct interpretation of non-verbal communication could be helpful for managers.
It is also important to adapt to the situation and the person you are talking to. Should the conversation be conducted in passing or in private? Multitasking can lead to misunderstandings or the wrong tone, which can unintentionally leave negative impressions. Therefore, it is important to explain terms precisely, to repeat ambiguities in other words and to choose the right tone of voice. If the conversation is conducted in passing, this can also be reflected in the body language, e.g. through a lack of attention or an absent face. Such signals can lead to interpersonal misunderstandings and should be consciously perceived. The attitude towards the other person plays an important role. Taking time to respond to the other person shows a high degree of emotional intelligence. In this way, your own feelings and those of others can be properly identified, understood and influenced. It is important to put yourself in the other person's shoes and ask yourself how you would feel if you could just see their back and realise that their mind was elsewhere. Awareness of one's own feelings enables good cooperation.
For this reason, it is important to always choose the right time to communicate and to be aware that communication is a two-way exchange in which both sides have their say.

Active listening and understanding the other point of view

Communication is an exchange, so it is important to listen carefully to the other person. This is the only way to have a real exchange in which the other person's point of view can be understood and misunderstandings can be avoided.
By repeating what has been said in your own words, you have the opportunity to correct any mistakes and show interest at the same time. Gestures, facial expressions and posture can be very helpful. You should avoid folding your arms, as this could signal reluctance. An occasional nod, on the other hand, can be helpful.
If you make an effort to understand the other person's point of view, you can reach a result together that everyone is happy with. Even if the other person's point of view cannot be fully understood, a compromise should still be found. This is important for positive interpersonal communication as it shows respect.

Regular feedback rounds

In some situations, it is difficult to correctly assess one's own effect on others. Feedback can be very helpful here, as it gives feedback on the behaviour. How do others perceive the behaviour, how do they understand it and how do they experience it? Knowing how your behaviour is perceived by others can help you decide whether you want to appear that way to the outside world and, if necessary, improve your self-image. As mentioned earlier, the Johari window offers the opportunity to receive feedback and practice group dynamics. In this way, the self-image can be compared with the external image and at the same time the team can be strengthened by each individual becoming aware of their impact and being able to act accordingly.
Ideally, feedback is requested, i.e., the recipient is willing to hear something about themself. This shows that they are willing to learn, listen actively and ask for clarification. The feedback giver should try not to evaluate, but only describe what they observe. This way, the feedback receiver does not have to justify or defend themself. It is particularly helpful if the feedback giver starts with something positive, preferably with concrete situations, so that the statements are comprehensible. The recipient should not have to change their behaviour immediately but should have time to reflect on what has been said and draw conclusions from it. It is particularly important to follow these tips if a conflict has been going on for a long time. In such cases, a seemingly small problem can become bigger and bigger and cause unexpected emotions that make the situation even more difficult than it should be.
A special form of feedback is employee feedback. Things do not always go smoothly in the company and employees do not always have good days. Nevertheless, it is possible to review and evaluate the performance and skills of employees and then give them feedback. In this way, the performance of each employee can be improved by showing them what is going well and what could be improved. Ultimately, the company also benefits from this, as the potential of the team is increased and thus the project goals can be achieved. But also, the employees can give feedback to the managers, which enables them to improve their leadership skills.

Transparency and openness in dealing with problems and challenges

When project managers present their staff with a fait accompli, this can lead to conflicts. Therefore, it is important to explain decisions on problems and challenges in an open and transparent way. How did the problem arise and why is action necessary? If information is withheld, a reasonable decision cannot be made, and the employee may blame the company. It may also be that subcontractors are the reason for delays. When employees are involved in the process, they can work to solve the problem. It also shows appreciation, motivates and builds trust. 
A good example is Scrum, which works with feedback loops. There is an open approach to problems that can be solved immediately. At first glance, it may look like there are only problems, but because of the immediate solution, it is rather an advantage and thus ensures transparency and openness.


Interpersonal communication in a company takes place between many different actors, which everyone must be aware of before a conversation begins. Depending on the interlocutor, a different style of communication and interaction as well as a different medium must be chosen in order to avoid misunderstandings. If, despite planning, misunderstandings occur, such as in the integration of the multicultural team, it is advisable to make a fixed appointment to clear up possible misunderstandings. No matter how clear and unambiguous the communication, there is always the possibility of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Therefore, through active listening, questioning and rephrasing, one should try to exchange information correctly to ensure good communication and ultimately a good relationship.

Interpersonal communication - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Interpersonal communication

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