Difficult conversations are common in the world of a project manager due to the number of project stakeholders within and external to the project. Whether it’s negotiating a change request with the steering committee or having to conduct a performance review with an unruly team member, project managers are often at the front line of discussions that can turn heated. Being able to have helpful, resolvable conversations is a useful skill.
Dana Caspersen has done a great job distilling principles of conflict resolution into 17 easy-to-read chapters. The book provides bite-sized explanations and examples on each page that clearly differentiates good practice from bad and allows readers to use the prompts for their own situations.
While easy to dip into and understand, Changing the Conversation does suffer from a touch of glibness, however. One example is the way the chapters (principles) are set out:
Anti-principle: Hear attack. Ignore any additional information being offered.
Principle: Don’t hear attack. Listen for what is behind the words.
Simply pitting a principle and a negative (or in this case an anti-principle and its negative as a principle) is largely a redundant exercise. Perhaps Caspersen uses it as a form of emphasis and repetition, but I personally think it weakens the principle.
Different people will have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to conflict resolution but I think the chapter that will most assist project managers is the one on differentiating needs, interests and strategies.
“Conflicts start when the strategies we choose to try to meet our needs and interests stand in opposition to the strategies chosen by others,” Caspersen writes. This is really important for project managers to understand, particularly if the project is the strategy chosen to meet a need and interest and it stands in opposition to how stakeholders feel it should be met.
Another area project managers would do especially well to note is the principle that encourages readers to ‘figure out what’s happening, not whose fault it is’. Playing the blame game obscures the real issues of a conflict when what you really want is to understand those issues better and resolve them if possible.
In summary, Changing the Conversation makes a great reference book that project managers may be able to use to conduct exercises prior to potentially difficult conversations or even use to workshop stakeholder communications within a team.