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How to manage a difficult conversation

Tackling problems directly with team members, management or clients

23 May 2019

Communication is a vital skill for an architect, whether in dealing with clients or fellow members of a practice. However efficient your project-management or interpersonal skills might be, there will always be times when a professional has to have a challenging and potentially awkward one-to-one conversation.

There is an art to handling these. Leadership coach Gordon Mackenzie explained at least week’s Future Leaders seminar on 'Leading Teams' that there are tried and tested techniques to make sure that a dialogue is effective and leads to a positive result.

One common such conversation is necessitated when a team member’s performance is poor. If you are in the position of having to address this, it is worth asking yourself some questions beforehand, such as: "Is this poor performance due to something I am doing wrong?"; and "Has the person in question been given a clear set of goals?"

Mackenzie states that there are three stages to a successful conversation. The first is to prompt a proper awareness of the problem in the person being spoken to. This requires a clear statement about a performance issue that will leave the team member in no doubt that there is a problem or situation that needs to be addressed.

This should not be approached tangentially – wrapped up in what Mackenzie calls ‘the feedback sandwich’ – but should be spelled out unambiguously without any circumlocution.

The next vital stage is acceptance on behalf of the team member, which means ensuring that the message has been received and understood. The conversation can then move to action, with responsibility confirmed and accepted, and a plan to resolve the situation.

Mackenzie provides a good example of how this might work in practice. "When you turned up late to the design meeting on Friday, it was the third time in a row": this clearly sets out the situation. "The impact was to disrupt proceedings: you missed important information crucial to your part in the project": an explanation of the impact.

"The consequence of this was us missing a milestone due to you not being able to submit the revised work on the project": a statement of the consequence. "This is not like you. Is there something going on that is impacting your performance? If not, what will you do to change this going forward?": this moves onto the action required.

These are principles to follow. But there are also techniques that are readily learnable – and which can be practised – to help get the message across. Being clear about what you wish to say in advance, lowering your voice and slowing down your speech all demonstrate seriousness. Making good eye contact and having relaxed body language is important, while leaning in suggests you are engaged.

In having a challenging conversation with colleague or client it is vital to ‘own’ the problem, and not resort to a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I’

One common temptation we are prone to in challenging conversations is to over-use the term ‘we’. Instead, you should own the problem: take responsibility by using ‘I’ instead. The more general ‘we’ dilutes responsibility, while use of the ‘I’ brings out the addressee's instinctive desire to empathise with a fellow human being.

The person you are talking to may be brought back on board by being asked what they think the consequences will be if the problem is not resolved; and asked how they might help to do so. If the message is kept positive and focused upon the practice’s overarching objectives and values, it will be difficult to argue with. This is a good approach to awkward conversations with more senior colleagues as well: a diplomatic tip for ‘upwards leadership’.

Stating facts and providing evidence rather than hearsay or opinion makes a problem indisputable. This is as true for conversations with external co-workers, clients and stakeholders of a project as it is for colleagues.

Whatever the techniques used, Mackenzie advises that the key is to isolate the real issue at the centre of the conversation, and not just talk about its symptoms. Difficult conversations need to find a cure for the malaise, not just offer a diagnosis.

Gordon Mackenzie will be hosting and presenting on ‘Leading Change’ at the third of this year’s Future Leaders events on 18 July 2019, at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, W1B 1AD.

Tickets are now on sale.

Thanks to Gordon Mackenzie, Founding Director, Performance First.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

Posted on 23 May 2019.

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