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The Art of a Difficult Conversation

Two children ignoring each otherImplementing any kind of meaningful change in an organisation is rarely easy. Even the most successful project is likely to hit a rough patch now and again where something unwelcome and unexpected happens. Good risk management can minimise the problems, but even with this in place there can be unanticipated situations that hit us from the left-field.


Colin Powell is quoted as saying “Bad news is not like wine. It does not improve with age”.  In situations where problems occur, it’s crucial that we assess the impact, understand the available options, engage and communicate with our key stakeholders, sponsor or client. This can often be a difficult conversation – but much better to have a difficult conversation early than an awkward conversation later! Bringing issues to the table early allows us to discuss a range of options that might not be available if we hold fire until the fire burns out of control. The longer we wait, the more time we burn – and the options we have start to evaporate.


However, when working as an internal business analyst, or even when working for a vendor or managed service provider (MSP) delivering a solution for a client, situations can be complicated. Some environments can be politically charged, and there might be the perception that speaking openly can be rather career limiting. When working with an external client there may be the added risk of losing an entire series of contracts—which would not land well!


Yet, in most circumstances it is best for us to heed Colin Powell’s advice. A diplomatic, open and honest conversation now, while the news is fresh, is better than an awkward and embarrassing conversation in six months’ time when the situation has festered.


So how can we ensure that these conversations are fruitful? The following tips can be useful:


1. Analyse the stakeholder landscape: It’s important that we think about who we need to have the conversation with. Is it really the sponsor? Or are we better off having the conversation with the Programme Manager first, and then approaching the sponsor? There is no right or wrong answer, but it is worth considering who to approach (and, if multiple people need to be approached, consider the order). Knowing and understanding who has influence, interest and authority is key.


2. Choose your moment: If you see your colleague at 7 p.m. on a Friday in the parking lot, this probably isn’t the time to impart the news on them. Plan the conversation, and where necessary, booking time in the stakeholder’s diary can be useful.


3. Explain the cause – but be open, plain and clear: When delivering unexpected news, it is important to be open, plain and clear about the problem and its cause. This isn’t the time for “re-framing” or trying to make everything sound like an “opportunity.” If there’s a genuine problem, call it a problem. And be sure to avoid the blame game.


4. Offer options: As well as a problem, suggest potential options for resolving the issue. It isn’t necessary to have a definitive list, but it’s important that we’ve done enough thinking and analysis beforehand to provide some ways out of the situation. It may be necessary to meet for longer to generate other ideas, but coming to the table with a starting point can be useful.


5. Allow reflection: People react to bad news differently. Some stakeholders we encounter might need time to reflect before deciding on a course of action – and it’s important we don’t force them into a decision.


6. Flexibility is crucial: As BAs, vendors, MSPs or practitioners of change, we’re there to get the job done and to deliver value to our clients and stakeholders. Offering flexibility and bending our approach can go a long way. When crisis hits, being a purist or a slave to rigid frameworks and templates is not likely to win many friends.


7. Relationship and rapport: When working with a stakeholder for a period of time, it is normal to build a great working relationship with them. If you’ve already established credibility and rapport with them, it might be easier than you anticipate having the ‘difficult’ conversation! Investing time in understanding our stakeholder’s worldview and appreciating the challenges they face can pay dividends.


In summary: Open, diplomatic conversations held with rapport can help us pivot our projects at the crucial moment. Leaving bad news to fester is unlikely to get us the results we want!


How do you help approach difficult conversations? What are your experiences and tips? I’d love to hear from you. Please add a comment below.


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This post was brought to you by IBM for MSPs and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s PivotPoint. Dedicated to providing valuable insight from industry thought leaders, PivotPoint offers expertise to help you develop, differentiate and scale your business.


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1 thought on “The Art of a Difficult Conversation”

  1. Pingback: Avoiding the ‘Honeymoon Period’ When Procuring Solutions | Adrian Reed's blog

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