Seven Tips for Improving Communication in a Project Environment

June 24, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on communication in a project environment. As I prepared my thoughts ahead of the discussion, I noticed a few overarching themes popping up again and again.

In my career, I’ve been a part of hundreds of projects. Hands down, the most successful projects—the ones that are delivered on time, on budget, or just flat-out work—are the ones where project managers employ these seven tips for effective communication:

Tip 1 – Focus on the positive

Anyone who has ever gone to a meeting knows how easily productive conversation can turn into complaining. Thankfully, there is another way to communicate.

Jeremy Scrivens has made it his life’s work to help us communicate from a different frame of reference called Appreciative Inquiry. The secret is quite simple: always begin a conversation by focusing on what is working well in the current situation.

Jeremy once shared a story with me about a business owner who was about to lose his largest client because of some service disruptions. Using the technique of appreciative inquiry, the client was reminded how the business owner had not only provided exemplary service but, when necessary, had been willing to go beyond the contract to meet the client’s need. Listening to the story, I noticed the key element Jeremy wove through the narrative was that the client and the business owner were in a mutually-supportive relationship. They needed each other, both in good times and in bad times.

The Peace Corps has a motto, “Relationship before Service.” This perspective makes all our communication personal, and Appreciative Inquiry is a great tool to add to our toolbox.

Tip 2 – Be fully present when you are in a conversation

The trick here is something called Active Listening. Active Listening is a great discipline to cultivate, except most of us concentrate on leaning in and uncrossing our arms to show interest, rather than quieting our monkey mind and truly listening.

The trick I was taught—which, to be fair, I still forget to do sometimes—is to have at least a brief second of silence between when the other person says something and when you respond. It shows that you’ve taken the time to internalize what the other person is saying, rather than spending the entire time thinking about what you’re going to say next.

Tip 3 – Smile

Believe it or not, when you make a habit of smiling, people immediately feel safer with you. This makes them much more willing to listen or engage in what might be a difficult conversation.

Of course, there are times when a smile is inappropriate — context is important. But, in most cases, a smile signals two things to the person with whom you are speaking. First, it says that you are in a good mood, and second, that you are happy to see them. Most conversations go better when begun under those circumstances.

Tip 4 – Always assume bad behavior is situational rather than character-based until proven otherwise

While doing some research on thinking styles, I ran across an interesting reference. It stated that people who have low natural empathy almost always assume that any “bad behavior” on the part of another person is character-based. It’s easy to see how this assumption can quickly blow a small conflict out of proportion.

Discussions of empathy aside, we all need to recognize that a single occurrence of bad behavior can happen to anyone. Of course, if the behavior becomes chronic, then ignoring it is unfair to co-workers and staff members. In that case, the standard advice is to encourage better behavior with as little judgment as possible.

Tip 5 – When you are “telling,” be direct and provide context

Whenever you’re making a request of one of your people, setting or removing boundaries is critical. Specifically, you should always think through the request first and identify areas where uncertainties may (or definitely will) arise. Assuming they do, should the individual make an independent decision about what to do next?

Most people, millennials especially, appreciate having explicit permission to explore and solve problems on their own. The best solution is to empower your people to find their own path to the result, but offer to be a sounding board if they really are stuck.

Tip 6 – Don’t let the process be a barrier to communication

Every survey of project managers I’ve ever seen includes comments that the people they talk to don’t respect their process. And my first instinct is… of course they don’t! And they have absolutely no reason to.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s deal with the communication issue that is really on the table: how can you ask people to fill out paperwork that they see no value in? There are two solutions.

First, if there is an overarching business reason to complete the paperwork, always do it with them. This is never a waste of effort. I’ve had people tell me things while I sat in their office that they would never have written down. It’s also possible to gain insight into critical situations that the person you are speaking with is trying to avoid telling you about.

Second, get rid of the forms altogether. Focus on the paperwork that contains useful, forward-looking information that will actively help get the project done. Everyone will be happier, and there will be more time to have meaningful conversations with team members and stakeholders.

Tip 7 – Tailor your project communication plan to what your stakeholders need to know

Stakeholder and sponsor communication is something most people get wrong. In reality, the rules are quite simple:

  • Communicate information that informs people about issues they care about
  • Communicate in a format that is appropriate for the needs of your stakeholders and sponsors
  • Never escalate a problem without including a suggested solution and enough information to make it clear why you have reached this particular conclusion
  • Don’t’ waste your time filling out a communication plan. All that matters is that you communicate effectively

The best example of effective stakeholder communication I’ve ever come across was from a client in Australia. After reviewing a boilerplate communication plan, I asked her what she really intended to do (because I was 99% sure it wasn’t what she wrote). She agreed, then told me that her stakeholders were volunteer firemen in the outback. Her true plan was to post memos on the bulletin board at the pub where the firemen congregated because she knew they would actually be read there.

At the heart of these tips is a deliberate effort to make your team feel heard, respected, and safe. If you can accomplish that, you’re going to get far better results from your people. Time and time again, I’ve seen effective communication lead to greater collaboration, more creativity, and ultimately, increased productivity. When project managers focus less on managing the PROJECT and more on managing the PEOPLE, the project nearly takes care of itself.

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