13 tips to have better conversations about project issues

11 Apr 2022

Project and work issues happen, they are a fact of life. How we deal with them can make or break our reputation at work. No matter what level you are in a company you will need to talk about work or project issues. Don’t leave this important communication situation to chance. Make sure you consider these 13 tips to have better conversations about project issues

  • Don’t wait
  • Tell the people it impacts
  • Describe the issue from the audience’s perspective
  • Include the impact
  • Include time frames
  • Talk about long term impacts
  • Say if action is needed
  • Say what happens if you do nothing
  • Give options for what to do
  • Make a recommendation
  • If you don’t know what to do, ask
  • What will you do to stop it happening again
  • Ask what else they want to know

1. Don’t wait

The longer you take to tell someone about an issue the worse the outcome is likely to be. The sooner you tell them about an issue the greater the chances of being able to stop the issue fast. You may also help make the impact smaller. Not only that, but people get frustrated when they hear about issues a long time after the issue happened. It’s always best to tell people quickly.

2. Tell the people it impacts

We write issues in logs, we might tell our teams, and we usually tell the people who have to fix the issue. But the first people to tell about an issue are the people it impacts. When communicating about issues, make sure the audience includes the people it impacts.

3. Describe the issue from the audience’s perspective

We describe things from our own perspective. It’s natural to consider issues from our own view point and how the issue impacts us. But when talking to other people we need to consider their perspective too. If you’re describing an issue that impacts a customer, focus on how they will experience the impact.

4. Include the impact

All too often we talk about what caused an issue, or the steps that led to a problem. We also spend time talking about the issue and what is happening now. What we should focus on is the impact of the issue. Who does this impact? How does it impact them? And for how long? Focusing on the impact helps people see the significance and urgency of the issue. This in turn gets people thinking about what to do about the issue. The sooner you talk about the solution to an issue the faster the issue will be resolved.

5. Include time frames

Issues have time frames. They are not instantaneous events. The issue had or has a duration. The impact of the issue had a duration too. It may last 5 minutes or 5 years depending on the significance of the issue. And the work to fix or clean up after an issue takes time. The description of an issue should include these time frames.

6. Talk about long term impacts

Some issues have impacts that last far into the future. A bad client interaction is an issue on that moment. But the bad reviews they give you could impact your company for years to come. Even issues that are caught and fixed quickly can have longer term implications. Always consider the long term impacts of issues.

7. Say if action is needed

People often like to complain about problems. Talking about a problem or issue can make it seem easier to deal with. When you talk about a project issue make it clear if you need the audience to take an action or if you are just venting. People need to know what’s expected of them in a conversation. The sooner you make it clear you need something from them the better.

8. Say what happens if you do nothing

If you talk about an issue many people will start thinking about ways to fix it. Similarly, if we think something isn’t important we won’t always react to an issue. When talking about issues make sure you are clear what happens if nothing is done. Will the problem solve itself? In which case no one needs to do anything. Will the problem get catastrophically worse if no one does anything? In which case people need to know the consequences of doing nothing.

9. Give options for what to do

If you describe a problem to someone and want to ask for help, make sure you have some options for what to do. It is flattering when people ask us for help. But if it feels like we are being given a problem instead of being asked for advice the feeling is less good. Include options for what to do about an issue and the audience will appreciate it.

10. Make a recommendation

Having ideas for how to solve an issue is great. What’s even better is having a recommendation or a preferred option. If you describe an issue and give three options to fix it say which one you recommend. If you don’t you’re asking the other person to choose for you. Even if the final choice is theirs you can make it easier for them. Not only that, you can show your expertise by making an informed recommendation.

11. If you don’t know what to do, ask

We all have times when we don’t know what to do about an issue. When this happens we have choices. We could ignore the issue and hope it goes away. We can try to work out the solution for ourselves – knowing the longer it takes the worse the issue could get. Or we could as for help. IF you don’t know what to do, ask for help. And ask sooner rather than later. Feeling silly for asking is better than having to deal with an issue that’s grown even bigger because you didn’t ask.

12. What will you do to stop it happening again

Fixing issues is important. So is cleaning up the consequences of an issue. But don’t stop there. A critical and often overlooked step is to find a way to stop the issue happening again. The things you learn from an issue are valuable to your future self, and to other people. Take time to identify the causes, warning signs, and steps that led up to the issue. Then do what you need to do to reduce or remove the chance of those things happening again.

13. Ask what else they want to know

Descriptions of issues should be short. People impacted by issues want to get to the point fast, and get the issue resolved even faster. This means your communication must be brief. You don’t have time to go into the full history of an issue. But you also can’t be sure what your audience wants to know. Instead of guessing what detail they want, give a short update and then ask what else they’d like to know. If the audience has questions about the history or the details they can ask. If they don’t, well, being brief will save everyone some time.

 To learn more about these 13 tips to have better conversations about project issues, check out the short video series on my YouTube channel.