Communication Skills for Project Managers: Respectful Confrontation

Book Cover: Joe Weston - Respectful Confrontation

I teach Leadership in Georgetown University's Project Management Certificate Program. Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of working with another great group of committed students who were moving through the Spring intensive program. This cohort had a longer-than-usual discussion about preventable communication breakdowns, and asked me to share my experience: I have often met project managers whose skills ranged from very competent to exceptionally talented, that avoided difficult conversations until it was too late. The more experienced students suggested "cover your ass" techniques, but their suggestions still avoided what was perceived as confrontation.

As a co-founder and member of the Washington, DC Somatics Practice Group, I plan my DC travel around their monthly meetings, which I find educational and generative to my growth as a leader. As it happened, our February meeting fell right after my class at Georgetown, and a colleague invited Joe Weston, author of Mastering Respectful Confrontation, to share his work with us. I am familiar with other non-violent communication frameworks, and I have read (and recommend) Fierce Conversations, but I was only about 30 pages into Joe's book before our meeting began.

Respectful Confrontation is the belief that it is possible to stand in your power, speak your truth, hear the truth of others, and get your needs met in a way that won't harm you or others. Confrontation is nothing more than open-hearted engagement, and ultimately, the most effective way to avoid and resolve conflict.

Joe Weston
Author, Respectful Confrontation

For many, confrontation has a negative connotation that runs parallel to conflict, and should be avoided. Respectful Confrontation is a framework and set of practices to cultivate strength, flexibility, focus, and grounding -- the 4 pillars of true power. Joe teaches a 2-day workshop on Mastering Respectful Confrontation, and in two hours we went just below the surface. Having finished most of his book, I find it to be a great read, and hope to attend one of his workshops to experience the practices in community.

In the professional world, there are never enough resources to accomplish what everyone wants. As project managers, we hold the promise to manage the time, cost, and scope of a unique endeavor from start to finish. We do our stakeholders a great disservice by NOT standing in our power (as the appointed expert in managing this project), both hearing their truth and speaking the truth of the current reality, and ensuring that needs are met without harming others or ourselves.

On the Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog today, Judith E. Glaser calls for engaging confrontation with conversation:


Effective leadership, like a good marriage, hinges on how you deal with the tough stuff. But addressing and resolving conflicts requires enormous mental and emotional strength, which is why many of us try to avoid it. When confronted with a problem or dispute, we either move away (flee the scene, rely on others for resolution), move against (quietly using positional power to quell opposing arguments) or move toward (make nice, give in). This is natural. We instinctively want to avoid the risk of loss and social embarrassment, to stick with our points of view, to preserve relationships and the status quo.

But all three strategies are wrong-headed. When you fail to engage with a conflict, you can’t gather the input you need to find a workable solution. And it hurts your image as a leader. [...]

For project managers to lead effectively, they are called to be present, courageous, and to initiate the often challenging conversations required to create a new future. If you find yourself avoiding such difficult discussions, your professional toolbox would benefit from a framework like Respectful Confrontation.

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