How to handle difficult conversations effectively

How to handle difficult conversations effectively 14.02.2018 - Project managers have to conduct numerous conversations after a project has been completed. Some of them can be unpleasant, for example, if customers need to be informed that not all of their requirements could be met or if it is necessary to point out some mistakes to a member of the team.

It is important in these kinds of situations for project managers to find a happy medium to ensure that the conversation is conducted in an assertive way, whilst remaining polite and professional.

Different approaches

It is vital that project managers regard each conversation as an individual case and avoid using generic phrases.

When conducting these kinds of conversations, it can make a difference whether the person you are speaking with has been working in project management for a while or whether this person is a newcomer to the profession. Likewise, project managers should adopt a different approach when holding conversations with customers compared with when talking to a member of the team.

When leading the conversation, project managers should be very clear about who their counterpart is and modify the conversation accordingly.
Structuring the conversation

To ensure that you remain confident during difficult conversations and that you state your position effectively, it can be beneficial if you devise a rough plan before the conversation that includes all the points that need to be discussed. This plan helps the project manager to avoid straying off the point.

Who is leading the conversation?

Difficult conversations do not necessarily have to be led by the project manager. However, it is important for the project manager to decide who is responsible for the conversation and why. Is there a person who is better suited to hold the unpleasant conversation than the project manager? Is this person more likely to achieve the desired goals?

If the project manager can answer these questions positively, then this conversation should be delegated to the most appropriate person.

Choice of environment

As well as choosing the right person to conduct the difficult conversation, choosing the right environment can also play an important role. The environment in which the conversation is being held should be conducive to honest and purposeful discussion. Project mangers should ask themselves which type of surroundings they would personally find to be the best place to hold a difficult conversation.

Define the objectives first and foremost

The main issues should feature at the start of a difficult conversation. Even if it sounds paradoxical, it can be helpful to consider what you expect to achieve from the conversation. Why is this conversation taking place? What are the project manager’s goals?


Firstly, it is important to note who the partner in the conversation is going to be as this is the person with whom the course of the conversation will develop. The project manager should decide who the most appropriate person is to lead the conversation and where the conversation will ideally take place. During the conversation, the objectives held by the leader of the conversation should be stated at the beginning so that a solution can then be worked out together with the conversation partner.

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