Constructive communication

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Communication is a big part of project management. 80% of project managers' time is spent on communication, which is considered a critical success factor in projects [1]. Project managers communicate with people such as stakeholders, team members, co-workers, clients, and business partners, and these communications are, for example, regarding projects and for making big decisions. These types of communications and when dealing with all kinds of people, conflicts are inevitable [2].

For managing conflicts in the right way, the communication has to be constructive and not destructive, as poor communication can make matters worse [3]. The majority of conflicts can be looked at as an opportunity for improvement [2]. Project managers that practice and learn to use constructive communication are more likely to transform conflicts into growth or improvement. In addition, they can build more robust and better relationships with their colleagues and understand them better. Moreover, by following the guidelines on constructive communication, project managers can resolve potential conflicts ahead of time and prevent miscommunication [3].

This article examines the importance of constructive communication, especially in dealing with conflicts during projects. Furthermore, relevant models and guidelines are provided that project managers can use in their work. Project managers need to master and keep practicing constructive communication. However, this type of communication is not just relevant within project management. It is useful for everyone willing to learn how to deal with conflicts constructively [4].


What is Constructive Communication?

Constructive communication is a powerful tool to use when dealing with conflicts and to prevent them from happening. This type of communication addresses the conflict positively and clearly between communicators. It builds understanding, provides sufficient detail for full awareness, and provides clear information. Furthermore, by using constructive communication, the goal is that both sides win by showing a respectful and cooperative attitude. Using constructive communication leaves room for others to share their side and be heard, to work together, and foster understanding [4].

Why Should Project Managers Use Constructive Communication?

Dealing with conflicts is usually something that project managers are not comfortable doing and try to avoid. However, people want constructive criticism from their project managers to evolve in their profession [5]. Additionally, most people want to do their best and become better in their careers. Project managers become more effective in managing their teams and resolving conflicts when they use constructive communication. When communication is destructive, people often become defensive because they feel threatened, resulting in less productive communication [3]. Project managers can significantly impact their co-workers by communicating and resolving conflicts with them in a constructive way. They can assist them in professional growth and enhance their performance. Using this technique, project managers show their co-workers that they and the organization care about employee development and respect them. Constructive communication can improve team relations and reduce tension within the team or between specific individuals [6].

Open-minded project managers tend to find it easier to use constructive communication, particularly if they can put their self-esteem aside and consider another's point of view. While project managers that are not as open-minded might find it difficult to adopt this technique, all project managers can and should learn to use constructive communication [2]. The ability to use this communication tool is essential to be a successful and respected project manager [5].

Models of Constructive Communication

There are different ways to approach constructive communication. This section goes over five different constructive communication models and demonstrates some of the resources and depth of what is known about this type of communication.

Centered Communication

This model of constructive communication is standard in the Healthcare profession. Doctors use this technique to approach their clients [7]. When using centered communication, project managers put aside their plan and approach the other person on the same level as he/her. What the other person says is equally important as the project manager's needs. Being open-minded is vital for this type of communication to work. Respect builds up when the project manager is open-minded and trust is increased. I-statements are an excellent way of structuring the conversation and share information [4].

Clean Communication

When using clean communication, project managers should avoid harsh and judgmental messages. In addition, you-statements should be avoided, as they tend to be overwhelming and are not constructive. Furthermore, project managers should keep the conversation on a positive note and be mindful of their body language [8].

Compassionate Listening

When project managers use compassionate listening, they emphasize understanding and finding compassion for the other person. The conversation should be a safe space for everyone to express their feelings. Project managers should accept all the emotions the other person has and not take them personally. Moreover, it is essential not to get defensive and get past the barriers of frustration [9].

Cooperative Communication

Communicating cooperatively can change relationships between project managers and team members, stakeholders, etc. There are seven points that project managers need to consider when using this communication type [10]:

  1. Listen. Be responsive and careful when listening [10].
  2. Their intentions should be clear [10].
  3. Have clear and complete expressions. I-statements are helpful [10].
  4. Use specific, action-oriented language [10].
  5. Ask questions open-endedly [10].
  6. Have the focus of the conversation on a positive node [10].
  7. Remember that it takes time to master cooperative communication, and project managers should learn from their mistakes [10].

Nonviolent Communication

The fifth and the last model is nonviolent communication, and it is the most popular type of constructive communication. This model comes from the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. Nonviolent communication uses requests instead of demands to avoid destructive communication. It is based on the premise that empathy and compassion are worthy in everyone. People only resort to aggression and negative actions when they do not identify more appropriate strategies to fulfill needs. Project managers should be responsible for their communication and communicate in a positive way instead of a negative way [4][11].

According to Marshall Rosenberg, there are four components of nonviolent communication:

  1. Observation. The separation of observation and evaluation is the first part to be considered. In other words, project managers must pay close attention to what affects their sense of well-being (i.e., what they see or hear) without making any evaluations. This component can help project managers express themselves by being honest and clear in their conversations [11].
  2. Feelings. Project managers need to be aware of how to differentiate feelings from thoughts. In addition, they need to know the difference between what they feel and what they think they are and how they think others will react to them. Everyone has feelings, and it is very beneficial for project managers to strengthen their sense of vocabulary, as it can be confusing. It can be easier for them to get in touch with others if they really know their feelings clearly. The vulnerability of project managers can contribute to conflict resolution [11].
  3. Needs. If project managers want to get their needs met, they have to express them correctly. Thus, they need to be aware not to express their needs through evaluations, images, and interpretations because people are more likely to take that as criticism. Moreover, project managers have to value their needs for others to do the same [11].
  4. Requests. The last part connects the first three components. If people's needs are not met, they express their frustration at what they observe, feel, and need by making a concrete request. They are asking for actions that can satisfy their needs. There are some important factors that project managers need to be aware of when making a request. They need to use positive language as people are more likely to resist negative ones. Furthermore, being clear when making a request and doing so on a positive note makes it more likely for project managers to get it [11].

How to Give Constructive Communication

It can be tricky to use constructive communication when dealing with conflicts. This section goes over how to prepare for constructive communication. In addition, guidelines and examples are given.


When project managers have to deal with conflicts, preparing in advance is an essential success factor. Such as, looking at all aspects of the problem, and deciding what results are desirable [12]. Below are three ways to prepare beforehand:

Figure 1: Preparation is vital for being successful in using constructive communication
  1. Prepare mentally. Being mentally prepared can benefit the conversation, and playing the conversation in the head beforehand is a good trick. Furthermore, project managers should list down questions that can help resolve the conflict. However, these questions have to be said constructively. Preparing conflict conversations can make it easier to be present in the conversation. Being present helps to receive the ideas coming from the other person and remain calm [12].
  2. Prepare all documents. It is crucial to gather all the relevant information needed to resolve the conflict. Having all the facts straight can help lead the conversation in the right way [12].
  3. Find an appropriate area. Conflict conversations should take place in a private room. It should be a safe place for everyone to express their feelings [12].

Guidelines and examples

I-Statements Instead of You-Statements

Using I-statements when dealing with conflicts is much more subtle than using you-statements. Project managers are not accusing or making assumptions about the other person's attitude or feelings when using I-statements [2]. You-statements communicate that the other person is responsible for the project manager's discomfort and pain, which shuts the door to understanding and turns discussions into conflict. I-statements can identify both impacts and problems regarding the conflict and make it easier to find a solution [4].

  • I-statement - Example of what to say:
- I find it frustrating when we send out the wrong file to our clients.
  • You-statement - Example of what not to say:
- You sent out the wrong file to our client.

Three points that can help project managers build their I-statements:

  1. Declare the feeling regarding the behavior from the other person and its consequences [2].
  2. Offer tangible, concrete examples of the effects of such behavior [2].
  3. State what kind of behavior is more acceptable in the future [2].

Be Clear and Specific

When solving a conflict or being on the receiving end, it is essential to be calm, clear, and specific. Doing so makes it possible to lead the conversation in a structured way and prevent misunderstandings from happening. Moreover, it is more likely to get all the information needed to solve the conflict where no one ends up getting hurt or feeling disrespected [2].

*Example of a clear and specific sentence:

- I am a little frustrated that you sent out the wrong file to our client as it can confuse him/her.

*Example of a sentence that is not clear and specific.

- You are confusing our client

Body Language Awareness

Communication is verbal, but it is also nonverbal, and both factors are vital in conversations. If the other person cannot read the body language, a big part of the conversation will be missing [13]. Additionally, it is crucial to pay attention to facial expressions, such as angry faces and rolling eyes. People are much more likely to feel threatened when project managers use angry faces and bad postures during conflicts [4].

Examples to be aware of:

- Facial expressions. As mentioned above, nonverbal communication is also important when communicating. Project managers should, for example, watch out for angry faces and clenching their teeth. It is important to have a relaxed and positive facial expression [4].
- Bad posture. Project managers should be relaxed and have an open body posture in all conversations, especially when dealing with conflicts. The other person will probably not buy what the project manager is saying if he has his arms and/or legs crossed during a conversation. Moreover, they should not use aggressive finger-pointing [13].
- Eye contact. The use of eye contact helps to indicate openness, interest, and energy transmission to the other person. Project managers should keep track of how long the other person has eye contact with them because the longer the eye contact lasts, the more interest and agreement the other person has [13].
- Attitude. Project managers should have a supportive and respectful attitude towards the other person [13].

Focus on the Problem

It is much more effective to focus on the problem and not the person. Then the person responsible is approached to find a solution to the problem. Having the focus of the conversation on the problem can prevent future problems and conflicts from occurring and not focus on blame [3].

*Example of a sentence focusing on the problem:

- Our client received an email with the wrong file

*Example of a sentence focusing on the person:

- You sent out the wrong file to our client

Focus on the Future

If the focus is on the past, the person is more likely to be defensive and hurt. Consequentially, it can increase the conflict rapidly. It is much more constructive to have a focus on the future. However, if it seems impossible to forget the past issue, it should be resolved first and then continue on the conflict with the future in mind [2].

Manage the Conversation with Facts

Conflicts can involve many feelings, but project managers should manage them with facts, not feelings. The facts should be presented in a structured manner and not in a negative way [2].

*Example of a sentence with facts:

- A wrong file was sent out to our client.

*Example of a sentence not with facts:

- Our client received an old version of our file, he/she should have received the newest one.

Complete Communication

When communications are complete, they include observations, feelings, thoughts, and needs/wants. Using these four elements helps to express all the information needed to help solve a conflict [14].

- Observations are neutral factual claims where no inferences or judgments are allowed [14].
- Feelings are an essential component in conversations. As mentioned before, problems should focus on facts, not feelings. However, project managers need to show feelings that describe their emotions, but in a right and constructive way [14].
- Thoughts are views, opinions, theories, and situational perceptions. Although thoughts do not have to be 100% true all the time, they show a personal side and understanding from the project manager [14].
- Needs or wants have to be expressed. People are not able to read project managers' minds. Therefore, they have to tell them what they want or what is required of them [14].

*Example of complete communication:

- I am going to schedule a meeting next week. I hope you can attend it. I need to go over some email tricks with the department. It would be great if everyone will attend.

*Example of incomplete communication:

- I hope you can attend the meeting next week.

The incomplete communication is not entirely incorrect. However, it can confuse the receiving person, and the project manager might not end up with a desirable result.

Emotions Under Control

It is normal to experience emotions during conflicts, and project managers need to have them under control. Communicating with anger is not constructive and will only make the situation worse. When emotions are not under control, regrettable things are likely to be said. On the other hand, when emotions are under control, the likelihood increases of finding a mutually acceptable solution. It also allows everyone to view the situation more objectively [15].

*Example of what to say when emotions begin to feel out of control:

- I feel like my emotions are getting the best of me. Let's take a coffee break, clear our minds and meet again after 5 minutes.
- Although we disagree now, we have a good partnership, and we will work this out.


Constructive communication comes with its limitations. It is not enough for project managers to read about constructive communication models and guidelines to use them successfully. When starting to use this communication technique, project managers will see how difficult it is to apply it during conflicts. Therefore, project managers might not resolve conflicts in a 100% constructive way in the beginning. However, it is essential to not lose faith in this technique as practice makes perfect [2][10].

Conflicts can involve all kinds of emotions that can get the best of people. Project managers must be aware of their emotions and focus on the problem. For a conversation to work, it takes at least two people. While project managers can apply their knowledge regarding constructive communication to the conversation, it is not certain that the other person is in the right state of mind for dealing with a conflict. The other person could be overly defensive and feel threatened, leading the conversation in the wrong direction [4].

All project managers are different where some might be open-minded, while others have a hard time viewing other people's opinions. However, as mentioned in the article, project managers need to be open-minded when using constructive communication correctly [5]. Therefore, the experience of using this communication tool can differ between project managers. Some project managers do not have to make a lot of changes on how they communicate, while others may need to attend workshops and educate themselves to be comfortable using this communication tool [4]. Furthermore, there is a risk that project managers take the easy way out and avoid conflicts. That is not an excellent strategy to follow, especially not as a project manager. Project managers need to know themselves well, prepare for all kinds of conflicts, and not be afraid of them [3].


This article demonstrates the importance of applying constructive communication to conversations regarding conflicts. Project managers spent a great deal of time communicating with others and often need to deal with conflicts. It depends on project managers how conflicts are resolved, and for them to be successful and respected at their work, mastering constructive communication is considered vital. First, project managers should educate themselves and learn all aspects of constructive communication. Read variations of articles, books, and/or attend workshops if possible. Second, when knowing what constructive communication is about and how this technique is applied, they should start putting their knowledge into practice, especially during conflicts. Those conversations tend to be the most complicated. Finally, after each conflict, project managers should evaluate what went well and what could have improved. By doing so, they can learn from their mistakes and practice and evolve in using constructive communication.

Annotated bibliography

* Joanie V. Connors. (2018). Nonviolent and Constructive Communication. In this paper, Joanie V. Connors writes about communication and goes over important skills and factors that determine how well it goes. The paper is not focused on project managers. However, all the information and guidance can benefit them. A quite big section focuses on constructive communication where she covers the models and 11 points of recommendations that help master these models. The structure of the paper is really clear and easy to follow. Examples are provided that can help earn a deeper understanding of some topics.

* A. Benko. (26.06.2018). Constructive Communication Skills in the Workplace. This article covers 7 important principles to be remembered when using constructive communication in the workplace. The principles are beneficial for all professions and positions of a workplace. Good examples of what to say and/or what not to say are shown in the article to help learn each principle better. Moreover, tips and tricks to help structure and master some principles are shown. The article is not long, well structured, and an easy read that can help project managers master these constructive communication principles.

* University of Glasgow. (N/A). Having a Constructive Communication. This article from the University of Glasgow provides guidance for managers on having constructive communication. The guidance covers a large area of constructive communication. It goes over stages of conversation, what to prepare before having constructive communication, and what important factors to consider. Furthermore, examples of questions for managers to ask are provided to help them become better at some factors. The guidance is very well structured and easy to follow.

* Marshall B. Rosenberg, Deepak Chopra. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships. PuddleDancer Press, 2015: This book is after Marshall Rosenberg and Deepak Chopra and is about nonviolent communication. Marshall Rosenberg developed the approach to nonviolent communication in the 1960s. The book provides a deep understanding of nonviolent communication through stories, examples, and role-plays. This book is an excellent read for everyone as it has great examples from all kinds of situations (i.e., professional, marriages and friendships).


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