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TPP #003: When things go wrong

TPP #003: When things go wrong


Today I’d like to talk about when things go wrong: 

  • How to amp up your empathy 
  • Adapting your communication 
  • The most important question to ask 

But first, a quick story about a time things went wrong for me. 

I had just started a new contract with an enterprise client. 

The team I was coaching had entered their yearly code freeze to fix bugs before the release. So, I volunteered myself for a (seemingly) simple project. All I had to do was organize tens of thousands of metadata files. The requirements were light and I had full access to all of the files. Plus I was talking to the project sponsor on a daily basis. 

But about two weeks later the email came. 

The project sponsor had emailed me, my boss, and various other people on the client side. 

She was unhappy with the work that I had produced. I was accused of billing fake time to the project. And she gave me a deadline. 

Handoff this work to someone else by the end of the week. 

Choose empathy over defensiveness

When things go wrong, it’s easy to get defensive. 

Instead, focus on how others are feeling: 

  • Acknowledge their frustration and anger as real 
  • Imagine a time when you were in their shoes and how you felt 
  • Consider other concerns or fears which may have been triggered 

And it doesn’t take that much to get people from “really angry” to just “angry.” 

Because people just want to have their feelings validated. 

So, use a simple observational format to understand and validate: 


Communicating under fire

Under normal circumstances, normal communication patterns are acceptable. 

But when things have gone – or are going – wrong, you need to adapt. That’s because people start getting anxious when things aren’t going well. And that happens faster than you think. 

Luckily, the changes are small but powerful: 

  • Increase the frequency of communication – If you’re used to checking in once a day, check in multiple times per day. 
  • Clarify any ambiguities – Assume they aren’t assuming what you’re assuming. In other words, clarify anything that might be confusing in your communication. 
  • Going to, Doing, Did – Explain what you’re going to do, what you’re currently doing, and what you did. 

The one question to move forward

Once tempers have calmed, people just want to move forward. 

That means there’s an opportunity to get to the heart of the problem. You can cut through the drama, hurt feelings, and frustration. But to get there, you have to take the high-road. 

And there’s a question that gets you there. 

This question is so effective, because it: 

  • Isn’t concerned with fault or blame 
  • Acknowledges that the problem is real 
  • Shows your interest in solving the problem 
  • Suggests a future where things are good again 
  • Constrains the next step to just one important thing 

But best of all – because they’ve been thinking about it too – everyone has an immediate answer to it. 

Getting back on track

Wrong is temporary

Things starting improving when I called the project sponsor on the phone. 

I empathized with her frustrations. We talked about downstream impacts and her concerns about deadlines. I apologized for not better communicating how the work fit into her plans. And we discussed a new approach for organizing the work. But most importantly, I asked her the question. 

Things started getting better when we had our “most important thing.”