Delivering Difficult Messages

Quick Thoughts

29 October 2014 • Written by Daniel Tong

In late October, Fiona Charles delivered a two-hour workshop to Assurity staff and clients on ‘Delivering Difficult Messages’. Attendee Daniel Tong describes how the workshop helped him to better understand how to approach delivering difficult messages.

Whether it is telling the business that the project is failing, your boss that you’re unsatisfied with your job or your team that they will have to work over the weekend, almost everyone has experienced the anxiety of giving unwelcome news.

It isn’t easy to know how the message will be received before the conversation has taken place, but – given some thought and the right tactics – it is possible to be more successful in delivering the message.

Fiona Charles started the workshop by telling the story of the Vasa, a Swedish warship built in the 17th century. This ship was set to be the greatest Swedish warship ever built, yet it capsized on its maiden voyage. The shipbuilders were aware of the issues around the design of the ship, but none of them were willing to deliver the king a difficult message.

The story of the Vasa has many parallels to large modern software projects that are ‘too big to fail’. The pressure to complete the project means that team members may be unwilling to point out stability issues to senior management. Overcoming the fear of communication is vital for project success.

Fiona introduced the Satir Interaction Model, which can be used to better understand a recipient’s response to your message and shows how you can tailor the conversation based on this. It is made up of four elements:

  • Intake – what information is absorbed by the receiver
  • Meaning – how the message is interpreted
  • Significance – how significant this interpretation is to the receiver
  • Response – how the receiver responds to the message

The Satir Interaction Model can be a really useful way to think about the interaction when having a difficult discussion. No matter how much planning is done, there is no way to know for sure how the recipient is going to react. Therefore, it is essential that you tailor your message based on the context and the recipient’s response.

The final part of the workshop was to role-play scenarios where a difficult message is being delivered. Despite a shortage of role-play volunteers, two scenarios were covered:

  • Telling your manager you’re unsatisfied with your job and you’re considering quitting
  • Advising management about an incompetent team member, even though the team member is a relative of the CEO

While both of the scenarios played out fairly positively, it was still useful to consider and discuss how the participants handled the conversations and different paths that these scenarios could have taken.

The main ideas from this component of the workshop were around planning and preparation before delivering the difficult message:

  • Knowing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it
  • Going in with expectations and knowing what you would like the person to do
  • Having supporting evidence to strongly back up your case

In addition to preparation before giving the message, it is important to evaluate the risks involved and to develop strategies to mitigate these risks. Try and find a balance between the risks to you if you give the message – and the risks to others if you don’t.

When delivering a difficult message, it is essential that the recipient has a complete understanding of what you’re trying to say. As testers, we are likely to have a different perspective on our products and projects and giving feedback to managers can be incredibly valuable for guiding decision making. Choosing the right approach to communicate these difficult messages will help create and maintain good relationships.

The slides for Fiona’s presentation can be found here and the complete webinar can be found on the EuroSTAR conference website here (registration required). 

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