Navigating Difficult Conversations as a Project Consultant

Even with a strong rapport, project consultants will inevitably face difficult conversations with clients over disagreements, unmet expectations, or other tensions. Navigating these talks skillfully preserves trust while resolving issues.

In this guide, we explore strategies for successfully navigating tense client conversations. In the end, we will provide some real-life scenarios from which you can learn and directly apply them in your consulting business.

Listen Actively to Grasp Their Perspective

When temperatures rise, the instinct is to focus on rebutting points. However, consultants should first seek full comprehension of the client’s experience through active listening. Feel free to consult our other article on how mastering active listening can enhance your project management skills.

For a deeper discussion on the art of navigating difficult client conversations with emotional intelligence, tune into the Apple podcast episode "How to Have Difficult Conversations with Clients so that They Get the Results They Are Looking For" from management experts at Confessions of a DEI Pro, by Ashanti Bentil-Dhue.

Demonstrate Empathy for Their Position

Difficult conversations become less confrontational when the consultant expresses empathy toward the client’s viewpoint from the outset. Phrases like “I understand why you would feel frustrated by those circumstances” demonstrate emotional intelligence…

Ask Clarifying Questions About Needs

Insights often emerge when asking the client clarifying questions about the needs or interests underlying their position. This shifts the discussion away from hardened stances and towards possibility…

Use “I” Statements to Own Your Perspective

Consultants further reduce defensiveness by using “I” statements to express their own viewpoints. For example, “I felt concerned about risk when I proposed that timeline” keeps the focus on respective experiences…

Jointly Brainstorm Solutions

Shifting the dialogue from grievances to possibilities opens the door to collaborative resolution. Invite the client to brainstorm solutions that could address all parties’ essential needs identified earlier…

Redirect Focus Towards Shared Goals

If tension persists, refocusing on shared goals and good intent can reset the tone. Remind the client of the project’s positive aims and emphasize your joint commitment despite current differences…

Demonstrate Confidence in Eventual Alignment

Projecting quiet confidence that common ground can be found calms emotions and creates space for clarity. Affirm that by applying concerted effort, you believe a mutually agreeable way forward exists…

Take a Break to Cool Down

If tensions flare out of control, politely suggest taking a short break. This pause gives both parties time to reflect calmly, dissipate frustration, and re-center. Set a time to restart the dialogue after maybe 20 minutes.

Use any break to contemplate the most constructive question or affirmation you could offer when resuming the talk. Jot notes if helpful so you can re-engage tactfully.

Frame Requests as Explorations

When disagreements center on the client rejecting consultant recommendations, reframe the next steps as an invitation to explore, not an imposition of your agenda.

For example, “Would you be open to us collaboratively assessing this option a bit more?” comes across as far less confrontational than dictating they must implement the solution immediately.

difficult conversations
During difficult conversations, listen actively to grasp their perspective

Look for A third Alternative

Rather than forcing the client to choose between two polar opposite paths, brainstorm entirely new possibilities. What third option might incorporate elements that address unmet needs on both sides? Redirect energy toward exploring uncharted compromises rather than arguing established positions.

Clarify Next Steps Before Closing

Before concluding any difficult conversation, summarize the agreed-upon next steps to prevent further misunderstanding. Also, state how and when you will reconnect to confirm progress on those next steps.

Closing by reestablishing alignment solidifies that the conversation achieved constructive outcomes despite challenges.

Here are 10 real-life examples of navigating difficult conversations as a consultant

EXAMPLE 1: Budget Constraint Tensions

When the client communicates frustration over your proposed solution exceeding their budget constraints, avoid debating the validity of your costs. Instead, use empathy and clarifying questions:

I understand feeling stretched when facing budget restrictions. Help me understand what aspects of the proposal don’t align with your budget and why those parameters exist?

This demonstrates that you take their concerns seriously while shifting to a collaborative resolution.

EXAMPLE 2: Priority Misalignment

If the client insists on new functionality you consider out of scope, address tensions by inviting exploration of their underlying needs:

“I want to ensure we find solutions that allow you to achieve your growth goals. What specific challenges are you hoping new functionality will address?”

Then brainstorm alternative options on how those needs might be met through collaboration.

EXAMPLE 3: Disagreement Over Risks

When you and the client have different risk tolerances regarding a path forward, use “I” statements to express your own perspective:

“I felt hesitation about the accelerated timeline because, in my experience, I’ve seen that pace cause quality issues later…Let’s talk through how we could prevent that.”

This frames your view non-confrontationally, allowing earnest dialogue on mitigating downsides.

EXAMPLE 4: Rejection of Your Key Recommendation

Having your main proposal rejected outright can feel like an affront, sparking defensiveness. Counter by refocusing on shared goals:

“We both want an optimal solution here. Let’s take a step back to find aspects of this option you feel could achieve our shared objectives, even if certain elements give pause.”

Then explore what specifically concerns them and how you might refine the idea to address apprehensions.

EXAMPLE 5: Perceived Failure After Significant Effort

Few moments are tougher than the client declaring your ambitious initiative is underdelivering after long hours invested. Set aside instincts to rationalize results. Instead, apologize for the difficulty this presents them. Ask clarifying questions to grasp exactly where they feel down versus expectations. Renew your dedication to getting outcomes back on track collaboratively.

EXAMPLE 6: Temporary Misalignment Due to External Circumstances

External volatility, like sudden leadership changes at their company, can create tension. Emphasize that your commitment to their success remains constant despite outside variability beyond either party’s control. Brainstorm what adjustments to recast the engagement would establish the best stability amidst the uncertainty.

EXAMPLE 7: Consultant Request Requiring Major Tradeoffs

When asking clients for concessions like more access, data, or executive time, expect tensions over the imposition this entails. Demonstrate that you understand the cost implications of what you request before explaining why certain inputs are vital for project health. Welcome any alternatives they see to relieve the burden.

Here are three additional real-life examples of difficult conversations as a consultant and strategies to resolve tensions:

EXAMPLE 8: A Failed Pilot Reflects Poorly on Both Sides

When a major proof-of-concept pilot that both parties poured significant resources into delivers underwhelming results, inevitable frustrations emerge. The client may question your expertise, and the consultant can become defensive.

Counter by stating, “I fully appreciate your disappointment. My team clearly didn't meet your expectations. I want to take ownership of that breakdown and understand from your perspective what major gaps emerged.”

Then pivot the dialogue towards learning what should be improved before extending the pilot, rather than assigning blame. Demonstrate confidence that, by working through this transparently, future efforts will thrive.

EXAMPLE 9: Consultant Underestimates Needed Level of Disruption

If organizational change resistance emerges more fiercely than expected, clients who face intensifying pressure from their teams understandably resent a consultant who seemingly glossed over the scale of disruption.

Address tensions by validating rather than arguing with their experiences on the ground. Commit to co-designing more effective adoption strategies that consider on-the-ground realities you previously failed to fully anticipate. Bring to bear your external expertise while integrating their critical internal perspective.

EXAMPLE 10: Executive Sponsor Unexpectedly Departs Mid-Project

Losing a major project champion unexpectedly through job change injects destabilizing uncertainty. Anxiety emerges on both sides over perceptions senior leaders may now view endeavors as untethered or speculative.

Combat uncertainty by doubling down on demonstrating unquestionable value. Proactively identify influential upcoming milestones and deliver exceptionally crisp, compelling materials that persuade remaining executives of tangible returns despite leadership transition. Offer to connect one-on-one with emerging decision-makers.

Navigating tense conversations is one of the most vital yet undertrained competencies for project consultants. By honing these crucial skills of de-escalation, conflict resolution, and expectation alignment during difficult dialogues, consultants can preserve productive client relationships even when tensions run high. This ability to steer through disagreement with emotional intelligence and solution focus pays dividends across the consulting journey.

For further techniques to augment your influence and effectiveness when consulting complex client initiatives, see our comprehensive guide on “Mastering the Essential Skills for Effective Project Management Consulting”. The guide compiles mission-critical competencies like communication, critical thinking, and stakeholder management that allow project consultants to deliver maximum value. With expertise across these areas, you can enhance trusted advisor relationships through conflict and controversy.

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