Project Management Institute

Fight empathically



In projects, where people who do not know each other very well, have to cooperate intensely, deliver results quickly, and accept a certain level of pressure, conflicts happen more often than in functional, day to day work. In order to communicate effectively, it is important to understand how behavior and feelings during a conflict relate to the individual needs of the people involved and how to read and address one's own needs, as well as the needs of others, allowing oneself to tailor one's communication style to exactly these individual and often invisible factors of human communication.

Keywords: Leadership, communication, values, feelings and needs, trust and honesty, fight empathically


When it comes to leadership, one of the questions is: What do we think about leadership in a project context? This includes the following questions:

  •    To which extent is a project manager also a “leader?”
  •    Which competencies should an effective leader have?
  •    In leadership, which behaviors do we consider ineffective or inappropriate?

(in the session, the people would now give their inputs on these questions)

What Does PMI Say About Leadership?

This is what the Project Management Institute's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) says about the components of leadership and what each term means.

  •    Leadership: Focusing the effects of a team toward a common goal
  •    Team building: Helping the team, bound by a common purpose, to work with each other
  •    Motivation: Providing maximum satisfaction to what people value most
  •    Communication: Be aware of communication styles of others and adapt to their needs
  •    Influencing: Sharing power and relying on interpersonal skills
  •    Decision making: Command, consultation, consensus, coin flip (random)
  •    Political and cultural awareness: Consider differences and needs of diverse cultures
  •    Negotiation: Conferring with parties toward reaching an agreement
  •    Trust building: Be open, honest, reliable, and choose to trust
  •    Conflict management: Adapt personal conflict management style to different situations
  •    Coaching: Recognize potential through empowerment and development

It is very important to question oneself – and get feedback from others – on which leadership skills need to be further developed, in order to grow as a leader in one's project management role.


As leadership has something to do with “helping people cooperate,” this includes being aware of the different needs for communication, as well as the types and methods of communication. But how much time do people invest in thinking about communications needs? Do they know all the stakeholders they should involve?

Questions that might be raised in the context of communication might be:

  •    Which types of communication do I know?
  •    How do I get any requirements regarding communication in my project?
  •    How would I create a communications and stakeholder management plan?
  •    How would these plans deal with the risk of possible conflicts?

(in the session, the people would be asked to give their inputs on these questions)

Types of communication in projects

Exhibit 1 – Types of communication in projects


Communication is done by people, and people are value-driven. As a consequence, it is very important to consider the different values – of a system as well as of an individual. Which types of values do we know?

  •    Social values
  •    Corporate values
  •    Shared values of a project team
  •    Personal values

(in the session, the people would be asked to give their inputs on these topics)


The people would now split into 4 groups and work on one of the following topics:

  •    Which feelings do I know that are uncomfortable?
  •    Which feelings do I know that are comfortable?
  •    Which needs do people have? What leads to conflicts in a project?

After that one of each group would present the results to the team.

Feelings and Needs

Our communication, thoughts, and feelings are closely and bi-directionally linked. Communication and thoughts create feelings – and feelings drive our thoughts and behavior. There are even parts of our body that are more or less active during a specific feeling.

Bodily maps of emotions: Activation increased or decreased when feeling each emotion

Exhibit 2 – Bodily maps of emotions: Activation increased or decreased when feeling each emotion

Positive feelings are linked to needs being fulfilled, while negative feelings relate to needs not being met. As a consequence, especially during a conflict where negative feelings are one of the main drivers of how one behaves, it is important to understand the needs of oneself as well as those of others.

Human needs might be clustered in three main areas, containing three sub-areas.

Self-expression – the ME
  •    Freedom
  •    Honesty
  •    Meaning
Connection – the WE
  •    Empathy
  •    Community
  •    Care
Well-being – the LIFE
  •    Order
  •    Safety
  •    Sustenance
Trust and Honesty

One need which is important for most of us is trust.

  •    How does trust develop?
  •    How can trust be harmed?

(in the session, the people would now give their inputs on these questions)

Trust can be seen like a table, that has four legs. Each leg stands for something.

BE OPEN. Say what you think. Show how you feel. Be transparent. Reveal. Uncover.

BE RELIABLE. Say what you are planning to do. And stick to that. Stick to your promises. Promise what you can deliver. Learn from mistakes.

BE HONEST. Stick to the truth. See and say things like they are. Be accurate. Stay factual.

CHOOSE TO TRUST. You have a choice. It will determine your quality of relationships and, in many ways, the quality of your life.

If one of the legs is missing, the table doesn't stand stable anymore. Especially the leg “choose to trust,” which might be understood as a “leap of faith,” which is often missing – especially in teams that don't know each other.

Trust is, as we see, closely linked to honesty and openness. In conflicts, it is very important not to confuse honesty or openness with feedback. In a conflict it is very important to make clear who one is talking about.

We often say “I would like to give you feedback.” But what we really want to do is express our own feelings and needs.

Feedback has something to do with learning. The person who receives feedback should have asked for it, in order to learn. Feedback should be a helpful contribution for others to learn and grow. It should be describing, specific, and behavior-focused. Feedback focuses on the person receiving it, so it is mandatory that this person really needs it.

Honesty and openness is something different, but often covered as feedback. Being honest and open in a conflict often means reacting on an irritation. It is the expression of a feeling, triggered by needs not met. And there is typically a request associated with it.

If we confuse feedback with honesty, we are telling the other what to do. But it is actually about ourselves – we are expressing our own needs and feelings. The request is just the last piece. And it might be answered with a “no.”

Fight Empathically

As we are feelings-driven, which relate to our needs; and as we are different by nature, including our needs, there are several important things to consider when fighting with someone.

Differentiating My Own View From Facts

Make clear what you have heard and seen, not just what you think about it and how you feel.

Differentiating Needs and Feelings

Look into how you feel and make it specific. Anger, guilt, and shame are, not specific feelings. They are a mixture of others, but which ones apply to your current situation? Also, look into the feelings of others and make sure that you really “see” their points of view.

Separate that from the needs which have been harmed, resulting in the specific uncomfortable feeling(s).

Knowing My Own needs

Understand what your own “profile of needs” looks like and which needs were not met during the conflict situation.

Knowing Others' needs

Try to figure out, by simply asking or guessing, what others' needs are.

Make a Request with Empathy – For Yourself and Others

By expressing your feelings and needs, it is easy to make a request that is acceptable for the other person or persons involved.

Unsuccessful requests…

  •    Are vague, abstract (“never,”“always”…)
  •    Are requests for a need
  •    Talk about characteristics
  •    Say what should NOT happen

Successful requests…

  •    Are concrete
  •    Are doable
  •    Relate to now
  •    Allow a “no”

Example: When I hear you say AAA (observation), I feel BBB (feeling). This is because I need CCC (need). Please give or do DDD (request).

A “no” does not mean that the conversation has ended, it is actually the invitation to move on. Behind a “no” for one thing, there are ten “yeses” for other requests.

By considering your own needs and expressing them, you are giving empathy to yourself, which makes you stay calm and helps prevent the conflict from escalating. By considering the needs of others, both parties keep their eye level, allowing to continue the conversation with respect.

The profile of needs

Knowing your own “profile of needs” helps stay in an empathetic connection with yourself during a conflict. Knowing types of needs of others helps address those needs as well.

As a last piece, the participants are given the possibility to create a “profile of needs” themselves, while one person will be asked to do this with Daniel & have the profile analyzed & discussed in the group.


Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)—Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Rosenberg, M. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. Encintas, CA: Puddledancer Press.

Bodily maps of emotions / Activation increased or decreased when feeling each emotion, Lauri Nummenmaaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari and Jari K. Hietanen, J.K. (2013). ; Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science and Brain Research Unit, O. V. Lounasmaa Laboratory, School of Science, Aalto University, FI-00076, Espoo, Finland; Turku PET Centre, University of Turku, FI-20521, Turku, Finland; and Human Information Processing Laboratory, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere, FI-33014, Tampere, Finland

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Daniel Hendling
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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