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8 Tips for Handling Difficult Emotions
By Ray W. Frohnhoefer

Back in April, we looked at 10 necessary skills for handling conflicts that occur during the course of a normal project. This article expands on one of those skills in particular – handling difficult emotions. And to further clarify, this is not directly about handling your emotions (though you need to do that as well!). As the Project Manager, you should remain calm and in control at all times. This is specifically about managing the emotions of others that are in conflict.

When conflict gets out of control and the two people or parties in conflict cannot resolve the situation without help, emotions can often set up a barrier to solving the issue at hand. You need to break down this barrier and defuse strong emotions in order to get on a solid path to resolution.

One important step is to gain an understanding of the parties in conflict. An assessment such as the Strengths Deployment Inventory® (SDI) can help you understand the positions and interests ahead of time. SDI has a real strength in the information provided about how people behave in conflict situations. But this understanding isn’t enough. You will need to have working sessions to effectively solve the problems and difficult emotions can stand in the way. As with other conflict resolution skills, these skills can aid in almost any situation that may be “compromised” by difficult emotions. This may include work such as requirements gathering, negotiations, and project situations.

These 8 tips can be used to effectively defuse difficult emotions before, during, and after these working sessions.

  1. Allow Opportunities to Vent

    Everyone wants to and deserves to be heard and understood. Sometimes it’s best to just let the parties in conflict vent a bit. If you think venting together will escalate the conflict, take the parties aside one at a time. As they “run out of steam”, you’ll have an opportunity to guide them to a mutually agreeable solution. At the same time, maintain an appropriate level of control. At some point, the venting needs to stop and the problem solving needs to begin. Let the parties know when it’s time to get back to the main issues at hand.

  2. Manage Your Reaction – Stay Neutral

    As you listen to the venting, be sure not to be drawn into the argument or issue. At this point, you may not be able to discern much useful information, but your neutrality helps you establish your role as a “trusted moderator” in the conflict. You want both parties to look to you as a guide to solving the problems.

  3. Use Active Listening

    As the emotional barriers come down, you will need to actively listen. This means that you need to:

    • Be self-aware: Set aside biases and judgments; be comfortable with the situation.
    • Demonstrate you are engaged through eye contact and acknowledgement.

    • Listen without obstacles: ask relevant questions plus rephrase (to assure understanding) and reframe (to remove emotional and negative content).

  4. Focus on Issues

    The emotional parties may try to blame each other or others. Keep them focused on the issues and not people. A focus on people only serves to heighten emotions again. This will prevent the “he said, she said” types of arguments from arising as well.

    Once the issue has been resolved, it may be appropriate to circle back privately and independently and figure out if there are processes or resources in the project organization which need to change.

  5. Clarify Using Appropriate Questions

    As you seek clarity on the issues, you will need to ask appropriate open-ended questions. What’s appropriate?

    Closed-ended questions (those that welcome a simple yes/no answer) focus on specific information and can defuse emotions: “Would you like things to be different?”

    Open-ended focus on feelings and broader exploration of issues: “How would you like things to be different?” Here is where you should focus most of your efforts.

    Please do avoid “why” questions as they can escalate emotions. Questions such as “Why do you want things to be different?” can open up the emotional rants again. Focus on finding the solution, not the cause at this point. When the conflict is resolved, you can go back and privately and independently consider the root cause if there is doubt the resolution will be less than permanent without this step.

  6. Reward Good Behavior

    This isn’t about tangible rewards, and you need to continue to appear neutral. But when the parties are behaving as expected, be sure to give a simple acknowledgement or compliment.

    “It’s really great to see you two working well together.”

    “Thank you for making that concession.”

  7. Negotiate a Win-Win

    Be sure that both parties understand you are working with them to find the win-win – a solution which will be satisfying to them both. Leaning away from this can cause fresh emotional outbursts, so be careful as you propose solutions.

  8. Provide Support and Reassurance

    Remain positive and neutral throughout the discussion. Let the parties know you are there to help them solve the problem. If the problem is complex, you may need to break the discussions down over several meetings. Let the parties know you are there in between and that you will continue to work with them to find a successful resolution.

Ray W. Frohnhoefer is a hands-on executive with strong project, program, and portfolio management skills; a methodologist; and a creative inventor and “intrapreneur”. His leadership qualities have enabled him to save companies millions of dollars by efficiently making complex decisions, solving complex problems, and getting things done, even under pressure. Ray is currently EDmin’s Senior Program Manager for the Student Success Dashboard, a Project Management Instructor at UCSD Extension and a member of PMI’s Chapter Member Advisory Group. As a PMI affiliate, Ray makes project management indispensible for business results. You can contact him at You can read more from Ray on his blog.

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