Five steps towards handling a difficult conversation remotely

Handling difficult conversations remotely

Once upon a time, the idea of handling a difficult or sensitive conversation about redundancy, poor performance or conflict resolution, in any way other than in person, would have been considered poor etiquette. For some it would have been completely inappropriate.

But scoot forward a few years, and the explosion in virtual working and geographically dispersed teams has meant that in some scenarios, managers have no choice but to deliver bad news, or have tricky conversations, virtually.

While on the one extreme there have been cases of employees being ‘dumped’ by text message (there was a case of 2,000 workers at a personal injury claims company being ‘let go’ via text message); more commonly, managers are increasingly needing to manage performance of their teams remotely. This means having difficult conversations by phone or virtual meeting technology, instead of in person. For some, this can be extremely difficult and require a significant injection of courage; but there are certainly ways of making sure the conversation is effective, and reaches a positive resolution.

So here are our top five learnings on how to handle a tricky conversation remotely:

1. Be well prepared with a positive mindset
Successful virtual conversations require good planning. When the subject matter is tricky, it’s important that you have spent time preparing for the call so that discussion can run smoothly. Ask yourself a few key questions beforehand, such as what is the purpose of the meeting, what do you need to accomplish, and what would be the best possible outcome?

Entering the conversation with a positive mindset is also crucial, as conveying empathy and understanding virtually is often harder than in person. Be sure that you enter the discussion with a supportive purpose, and try to deal with any negative assumptions or judgements in your own mind before you speak. “A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as a just a normal conversation,” says Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate.

2. Know how to begin
Before going into a tricky virtual conversation, it’s helpful to have your opening prepared. It’s important that early on, your colleague has full understanding of your reason for the meeting.

Use language which is precise, but avoid phrases which might be intimidating or accusing. The opening should convey that this is a two-way conversation, in which both parties will have a chance to get their voice heard. So something like, “I’d like to talk about ____________ with you, but first I’d like to hear your point of view on the subject,” or “I have something I’d like to discuss with you which I think will help us work together more effectively”.

3. Plan but don’t script
Just as you might do with an interview via phone or web conference, jot down some key points that you need to make within the conversation. Keep your language simple, clear and direct, so that nothing can be misinterpreted. But avoid writing a script. Even if there’s no webcam, the other person will quickly pick up on the fact that your language is scripted, and this might make the conversation artificial and disjointed. If your colleague throws you off course with something you haven’t scripted for, this may leave you struggling to find the right words. Your strategy for the conversation should be to appear flexible, but to keep things on course, and make all the points you need to.

4. Be comfortable with silence
In a face-to-face meeting, silences can be filled with body language, or taking a sip of water, etc. In a virtual meeting, breaks in conversation can be more noticeable, but it’s important that you don’t rush to fill them. Silences can help to slow the pace of the conversation, which can often diffuse negative tensions. They can also allow your colleague time to think through and react to your comments; and for you it’s an opportunity to pause, listen, and ask the other person how they are feeling.

5. Be constructive
Generally speaking, any difficult conversation handled virtually is likely to put your ‘colleague’ in a difficult or unwelcome position. They may have known about the subject of the call, or it may be unexpected, but either way, the news is likely to mean taking something away from them. Try to add some balance to the situation by offering to give them something back. So for example, if you are reluctantly making someone redundant, say that you’ve already written them a positive letter of recommendation, or offer to put them in touch with a contact of yours. Always aim to find a solution or alternative.

There’s no denying that having difficult conversations remotely is often unpleasant and tricky, but for many they are now an intrinsic part of management. Do you have useful stories to share with us? After a difficult conversation it’s always useful to reflect, and analyse what went well and what could have gone better. If you have any learnings to share, we would love to hear below.

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