IA Summit: Managing Difficult Conversations

Posted on: March 21, 2009

I am currently in Memphis enjoying the wonderful IA Summit for the second year in a row. My first order of business was taking Dan Brown’s workshop entitled “Managing Difficult Conversations”. My motivation for taking the workshop has been an increasing awareness that 10% of my job is IA/UX work and 90% is managing people and relationships, and in all honesty I am bad at 90% of my job. Although it was not immediately obvious to me, I was having trouble selling my ideas and facilitating collaboration. Also, at various jobs and from different people, I would constantly get comments about how I was coming off as too intense, too forceful, and too passionate. The situation came to a head when the boss at my latest company handed me “How to Win Friends & Influences People” by Dale Carnegie. It was pretty much a slap in the face of how 1) unaware I am of myself; 2) my inability to communicate properly; 3) my failure to facilitate open discussion. I have certainly done a lot of introspection since then, and I will continue to do so. The workshop really helped me jell a lot of things that were already floating around in my head, and also realize that it will take a few more years of work and practice to get truly good at this. I am however committed to working on improving myself. In hopes of helping others, and just spreading the EightShapes love, here are my notes from the session…

Part I

Best Practices

  • rephrase negative statements
    Example: “We don’t have the requirements so we can’t start” vs “Once you provide us with the requirements, we can get started”
  • rise above naysayers
  • always start with the good
  • openness over defensiveness
    Example: When someone is disagreeing with you, say “I think that’s a great idea. Perhaps we can talk about how it might work?”

Engage Your Audience

  • Personalize the message by saying someone’s name
    Example: “John, what do you think about this?”
  • Repeat the questions you’re asked
  • Position your questions for success
  • Use Humor


  • Know the situations, not just the people.
    People are facing pressures from others in the company, might be having problems with their personal life, and are generally situated in many layers of situations beyond the current one.
  • Listen and seek to understand
    Sometimes people just need to get something off their chest, so its helpful just to listen to them and comfort them with understanding
  • Don’t be quick to dismiss (even if you disagree)*
  • Respond with acknowledgment of situation/emotion

Lighten Up

  • Humor can be a powerful communication tool. When using humor: make it relevant; be on the lookout for material; prep and plan for jokes (don’t assume it will just come to you); when in doubt, point to yourself.

    If you are in a bad mood, feeling rushed, and are headed for a meeting, take 15 minutes before the meeting to do something to put yourself in a more positive mindset. Search for recipes, twitter, text, deep breathing, grab a snack, anything that will get out of that “zone”. Both your mind and body language will be effected and will help the meeting/discussion go smoother.

Part II

Improving your communication skills is really about introspection. If you are feeling anxious, annoyed, angry, look within yourself for the cause. Do you feel unappreciated? Not valued? Unheard? Try to get at the root cause of your problems, and figure out ways to help yourself through better communication with others. This is also a good time to learn about your own habits and characteristics, so that you can be more self-aware about your own communication patterns.

For IA’s, it is also important to understand that the deliverables are not the end product, they are there to help facilitate conversations, which in turn help make the product better. So its important to take a step back from the deliverables and understand that they are just one part of a process. When discussing deliverables, don’t look at it as a personal attack, but rather that they are doing their job of facilitating conversation and further thought. In fact, be prepared for challenges when presenting deliverables, as that is the whole point!

It is also important to understand the components of a conversation: at least 2 people, the message that is being communicated, the tool that is used to communicate the message, each person’s objective/agenda, personal perspectives, each individual’s habits and the skills that everyone uses to overcome the habits, the situation in which the conversation is taking place as well as all the external situations encompassing each individual.

When speaking with another person, it is important to understand their agenda – what drives them? what is their objective? This will help you use correct words/messages to persuade the other person.

It is also important to understand their communication habits (as well as your own). Some people prefer to converse exclusively via email, or phone, or in person. Utilize the method of communication that is most comfortable for the other person, even if it not the most convenient for you. This will put them at ease.

Part III


Below are some characteristics that Dan and Chris have found exist in people/clients/stakeholders, and some techniques on how to deal with them.

  • No Direction – the person can’t tell you what’s wrong
    Techniques: Ask good specific questions, be mindful of the goals of the conversation, understand that these people might be motivated by fear/anxiety. Say things like “help me understand”, “I want to help you succeed,” act dumb and ask them to talk through the problem, point out how the design already accomplishes goals.
  • Misdirected Passion – they feel strongly about the strangest things
    Techniques: Try to understand their perspective/agenda/passion, pick your battles, let them have their say, set expectations and explain context, do not avoid the problem. Say things like “these are really important points….
    let’s see how we can build that into design
    let’s concentrate on the agenda and address it at the next meeting
    i’ve set some time aside to discuss that
  • Inconsistent Messaging – they talk out of both sides of their mouth
    Techniques: Bite your tongue (don’t call them out on it, well yesterday you said this), pick your battles, capture messages in writing, recap the decisions made in the meeting, and validate the captured decisions. Our job here is to help them find out what they want.
  • Unwilling to admit ignorance – they get stuff wrong
    Your colleague or employee does not fully understand the project and produces a work that is off-track. Technique: Ask them to explain their thinking/rational, deflect responsibility onto the boss/client, avoid distractions by taking other work off their plate.
  • Other characteristic types not discussed in detail: no vision, no strength, no structure, not available, tunnel vision, prioritize reputation, poor communication skills, poor use of communication tools

Part IV


This part describes some of the situations that we are faced with, and how to deal with them.

  • Too Many People Involved – the size of the ‘stakeholder’ list is unwieldy and dramatically inhibiting progress
    Techniques: Identify the influencers/gatekeepers and speak directly to them, don’t ask quesions of the group, ask specific individuals, provide channels for individual feedback but publish for broader consumption
  • Poor Team Member Performance – the performance of one or several team members is jeopardizing the project success
    Techniques: first identify all of the positive aspects of the performance, avoid explicit or implicit personal attacks, coach don’t point, use positive language, express confidence in abilities, negotiation.
  • Defending Decisions – clarifying and rationalizing design choices when challenged
    Techniques: establish ‘common IA practices’ before design exercise, pick your battles, if supporting data isn’t there, explain the hypothesis, know your why’s, make sure stakeholders are on the ride for the whole way, help prioritize problems, show implications, focus on agreements – “we are not so far apart on this ..”

Other Situations: losing momentum, planning design, design reviews, defending progress, project failure, resolving conflict (internal and stakeholder.

Part V

Tricks of the Trade

  • telling a good story and aligning it with your audience
  • seeing other perspectives/agendas
  • picking your battles: know when to turn on the passion. Getting a product that has most of your ideas is already an improvement to the product, even if you don’t get everything in.
  • setting expectations/context – where you are in the project
  • setting action items – the are of what do we do now?
  • avoiding distractions, even if timely and relevant
  • deflecting responsibility to a third party (common enemy)
  • asking good questions
  • letting others be right
  • letting others have their say
  • encouraging discussion
  • finding out what stifles people – ppls mental blocks
  • channeling other people – such as good critics

1 Response to "IA Summit: Managing Difficult Conversations"

[…] Although any job will always have times when you might manage difficult conversations, many difficult conversations with clients can be avoided all together if there is a healthy amount […]

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Alla Zollers

I design products and services that just. make. sense.

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