Project Communication and Your Emotions

Alex S. Brown, PMP IPMA-C

Communication is widely recognized as a critical skill for project managers. Our work depends on accurate, clear communication.

Project managers tend to be practical, fact-oriented people. When we speak, write, read, and listen, we focus on facts.

Every communication has an emotional context, though. Are you aware of that context? Are you intentionally using that context to create an emotional response in your audience?

Emotion changes people’s outlook on an facts. Changing our emotional state can have huge impact on our work and our lives. A person who is sad tends to see the problems and risks in the world. A person who is happy sees opportunities.

Often we see our emotions in terms of “good” or “bad” emotions. “The power of positive thinking” is an often-used phrase, and it implies that thinking positively will help you achieve results in your life. Thinking in a “negative” way will somehow hurt you or eliminate options.

What if we look at our emotions not as “good” or “bad”, but as another communication channel?

The factual channel is very important to project work. We make sure that our thoughts, ideas, and ideals are understood accurately, and that we understand the thoughts, ideas, and ideals of the people on our team.

Communication has an emotional channel, too. Look at movies, television, books, stories, and almost any form of fiction. Why do people consume media that they know is untrue? If people only wanted facts, there would be no place for fiction in our society. Instead, fiction is a huge industry in every nation of the world. We create stories in a dizzying array of formats, and we spend significant parts of our lives consuming those stories.

We enjoy those stories because of the emotional impact they have on us. These stories have a logical meaning as well, and they can help us learn or gain insight into a fact or idea. Often the best works of fiction will not only communicate an idea or fact, but they also make us feel a certain way about it.

Becoming Aware of the Emotional Channel

Our project communications also have an emotional impact. There is an emotional channel to all our communications, from the simple Gantt chart and status report to the most elaborate executive presentation.

Are you thinking about the emotional channel of your communications? If you believe that people’s emotions influence how they look at the factual information presented to them, you should be very concerned about the emotional impact of your communications. If your sponsor is upset, he or she will read your status report in a very different way than if he or she is happy.

When speaking or writing about your project, think about the emotions that you feel. We all experience different emotions at different times. It is natural for human beings to share that emotional information, especially in face-to-face meetings. Our tone of voice, body language, and word choice all communicate subtle cues about how we are feeling.

I have been in many status meetings where a project manager reads a list of accomplishment after accomplishment, but in a dull, bored tone. Inevitably the conversation in that meeting turns to a question, “What’s wrong?” The question might not come until the formal part of the meeting has ended, but someone will ask the project manager that question. Consciously or not, the project manager was sharing his emotional state during that status meeting. Along with the factual list of accomplishments, he was sharing a feeling of boredom.

People in the room reacted. They wanted to know, “Why is he bored? These facts are something to feel joy and a sense of accomplishment about. Why doesn’t he project those feelings along with the facts?” As caring human beings, we want to know why he feels this way.

People will ask, “What is wrong?” for many different reasons. A project sponsor might be concerned that the project manager does not actually believe in the list of accomplishments. The emotional channel of any communication can be a way for us to verify the facts we hear.

A team member might know that the factual accomplishments are correct, but might be concerned that something else in the project manager’s life has changed his emotional state. Perhaps a personal issue is taking a toll in the project manager’s life.

As social creatures, we want to know about each other’s emotional state. We know that emotion affects our productivity and our ability to work together. Ignoring an emotional reaction can cause the reaction to build in intensity, eventually hurting our ability to function as a team. Consciously or unconsciously, we find ways to communicate our emotions to each other.

The Emotional Channel Is Always Present

The question is not whether you are communicating emotion. Everyone does. Even written communications have an emotional context. Professional writers know and exploit this fact. If a writer wants to show that a character is happy, then he or she might describe a scene of a barn and a field as follows:

“John saw the sun shine brightly over the newly-painted red barn. The yellow corn was high and heavy on the stalks. John could feel the green stalks reaching up to soak up the sun’s rays.”

To create a more dark atmosphere, the writer would focus on different aspects of the same scene, and use different adjectives:

“The bright sun made John wince. His eye was drawn to the blood-red doors of the barn, and the darkness inside. He knew that the green stalks of corn, so full of life now, would be soon cut and taken into that barn for storage.”

Project communication does not use the flowery words of fiction, but every word that we choose has an emotional impact. In business language, “downsizing” became “rightsizing” as a way to create a more positive term for the process of “thinning the corporate herd.” There is no way to talk or write about “job elimination” or “cuts” without invoking an emotional reaction in people. We have to pick one of the many phrases available to us to communicate the facts of the situation, and that word choice says something to the listener or reader about our emotional state.

Become Aware of Your Emotional Messages

The key to successful communication is not to try to eliminate the emotional channel, but to become aware of it. When we try to communicate facts to other human beings, we are also communicating emotion. It is not a “good” or a “bad” emotion, and it is not “good” or “bad” for business. It is part of normal human life.

Before preparing for a face-to-face meeting, or before hitting “send” on your next e-mail, imagine the person receiving your communication.

  • What words have you chosen?
  • What is your body language saying?
  • What tone of voice are you using?
  • What emotion do you want to project?
  • What emotional reaction do you want your audience to have?
  • Are your words, body language, and voice giving a consistent, emotional message?

Too often project managers forget to ask these kinds of questions, and focus instead on the facts and figures.

Personal Reflections

As I wrote this piece, I thought about my emotional reactions. I am exploring a new topic, and I feel somewhat uncertain. I feel vulnerable sharing these ideas.

My hope is to make you, the reader, feel open. I want to share that feeling of vulnerability. I chose to talk about “we” and “you”, to help encourage a sympathetic response in you, the reader. I mixed project management terms like “communication” with emotional language to encourage you to think about your own emotions. I hope it worked.

It is not easy to write with emotional self-awareness, and it is even harder to speak with emotional self-awareness. To be a great project manager, though, it is often necessary to do difficult things. Recognize your own emotions and the emotional channel in your next project communication.