13 Aug 5 ways to use tactful language in emotional settings
by Shane Howard
Throughout a technology project, a lot of people—and a lot of passionate opinions along with those people—get involved. This often makes for some emotional settings as disagreements, uncertainties, and roadblocks arise. And with 85 percent of employees dealing with conflicts in the workplace regularly, they don’t want more of it when they’re bringing in the outside consultant team. That’s why a consultant must develop the skill of tactful language to handle these situations with the most level-headed expertise.
When consultants arrange meetings with their clients, it’s good practice always to anticipate the potential reactions to the information you’ll be presenting and how you can be best prepared to handle those reactions. As your client gets more invested, emotion rises—but as the consultant, you must remain composed and professional throughout. Here are five strategic tips for staying in control with tactful language during emotional work settings:
1. Practice empathy.
Technology consultants often get a bad rap for being perhaps, too, well… technical. While it may be easy and seemingly more comfortable to get lost in a tunnel vision of technical requirements and specifications, the other half of your job and project role is sitting there waiting for you: consulting. By nature, consultant work is very human-focused and thus must be ready and willing to handle human emotions.
Consultants who practice effective empathy in their work make consistent efforts to understand and feel the pains their client is experiencing: what’s going on in their world, what pressures do they operate under, what frightens them about this project, what’s on the line for them? Good consultants consider all these factors throughout a project and communicate new information to the client with that understanding in mind. This helps you be clear, knowledgeable, and assuring to the client and, for the most part, avoid the sudden appearance of misunderstandings and surprises in your working relationship.
2. Be diplomatic.
As a consultant, sometimes your job is just to keep the peace between competing interests. You’ll find yourself fine-tuning your peacemaking diplomat skills in the process of discovering all the (sometimes conflicting) goals and pain points between each department of a client company.
To be a true diplomat in those tough conversations with your client stakeholders, practice phrasing things in a way that doesn’t sound defensive or critical of the client. Instead, explain in detail what is happening, what you’re proposing to address it, and what the end goals are. But don’t just spend the whole time talking to them. Half the job of a diplomatic consultant is just to listen well. Show your client that you’re actively listening to their concerns and hearing them.
3. Set the tone before the meeting.
You know those first few minutes when you walk into the client’s office, small talk, and wait for the real business discussion to begin with? Those few minutes can be crucial for setting the overall tone of the meeting.
Make sure you’re walking into the meeting with a positive air: have nice compliments to say at the ready and be friendly. Don’t rush into the business talk; just read the social cues and spend some time fostering a real human connection with the meeting attendees. This helps both you and the client let your guard down a bit and listen to each other more effectively when the tough news does hit later on. Even if you know you’re coming in bearing less than exciting news for the client, you don’t have to bookend it all in the gloom. Find the positive perspective, and frame the conversation with that lens.
4. Use the right mode of communication
Now, more than ever, we know that it’s not always possible or maybe even preferred to meet in-person. Sometimes, you need a different avenue than the classic face-to-face onsite meeting with a client. And thankfully, you have options.
- Emails: Great for routine updates and reports, but don’t expect to have effective conversations for more complicated topics over email.
- Video conference sessions: An engaging, video-on virtual meeting can be just as if not maybe even more effective than in-person. Both of you are equipped with your normal technology and work resources, so within seconds you can refer to and enhance the conversation with those documents while still maintaining the important element of visual body language cues.
- Telephone: Great for quicker communication and on-the-go updates. But be extra careful of your voice and tone here—they can’t see your face or other mannerisms that usually accommodate the conversation.
- Texts: Use text only for routine, quick inquiries.
- In-person: When possible, a great, reliable solution for clear communication. Just be sure you’re watching your demeanor and body language, as these can say much more than your words will at times.
5. Consider timing and culture
Another key to your tactful language armory is careful consideration of the timing and the culture. Overlooking these elements can come off as extremely inconsiderate or even rude at times.
For timing, think about the message or information you have to deliver, and decide what existing meeting it’s best suited for or if a new meeting needs to be set on the calendar books for it. For example, if it’s an important, involved conversation that only applies to some of the client team, a daily SCRUM call isn’t your perfect timing. Consider scheduling a new meeting for that kind of conversation.
On the culture front, you need to be sure you are attentive and adaptable to the varying cultural backgrounds of everyone on the client-side. For example, Eastern European cultures tend to be more candid and abrupt than American or Philippine personalities who would see that sort of tone as off-putting. As always, deliver your information with the receiver(s) in mind and boil it down to the most simple, basic form if you’re juggling multiple cultural backgrounds.
Engaging with clients during the tough, emotional moments isn’t always fun, but it’s part of the consultant job and, if done right, can be extremely rewarding. Find ways to be more tactful with your clients when the going gets tough, and you’ll discover potentially even more innovative solutions and long-lasting professional relationships.
Shane is the VP of Global Operations at Simplus. With his expertise in Professional Services, Operations, PMO, and Software Development and his experiences in partner, C-level, VP, and Director positions in a variety of industries, Shane thrives in operational excellence. He solves complex internal and client-facing problems with scalable solutions.