Blog: Having difficult conversations in the virtual world

Life @ Work

Having difficult conversations in the virtual world

Important conversations are the backbones of good management and leadership. Ideally, they need both parties to be engaged, safe, and committed in the dialogue.
Having difficult conversations in the virtual world

Difficult conversations are tough at the best of times. In the remote working world, they are feeling tougher. We miss human interaction; sharing the same physical space, eye-to-eye contact, and bumping into our colleagues around the office. In this article, we explore what is happening around important workplace conversations during this remote/hybrid working period, as well as provide some tips and mental frameworks that could help navigate the common challenges faced. It’s obvious that COVID is here for some time, and, given the experiences of the last year, workplaces will continue to evolve into hybrid blends of working. So, finding ways to improve these crucial conversations in a range of environments, is necessary.  

What really happened to our conversations when we went virtual?

Remote working has worked, primarily because we all had to do it! We quickly learned about the wonders of platforms like Zoom, and team meetings have sort of worked.  

We have also had more time for conversations, given we are not traveling. And more empathy and compassion have been evident for the most part (though how this is done maybe a bit hit and miss).

On the other side though, our workdays are 10-20 percent longer, there are high expectations around output, and managers are squeezed between their bosses and their people around the need for results. Many of us are missing face-to-face connections, including team get-togethers and the energy these bring. Many managers are missing the higher confidence they have by being able to “read the room” and their team(s).

However, as we further explore, there is more happening to us than we may realize, particularly around important conversations. We feel people are harder to “read” through screens. Also, in the virtual/hybrid world, we don’t get to observe people around the office. We miss out on connecting with people pre- or post-meeting or around the coffee pot. 

We don’t have the breaks we would have between meetings and we don’t get to do the “lunch thing” if we want to pass something by a “confidant”. And we don’t really know what is happening immediately around the other person in the space in which they are working.

And, most importantly, we are totally under-acknowledging the drain that the visual component of the virtual world is having on us as we spend our lives looking at people through our screens.  It is so much worse when looking at multiple faces on a screen at once (Sklar, Julia (2020)).

But we have been managing from a distance for centuries; letters and memos were replaced by phone calls and emails. Having difficult conversations remotely isn’t new. So, boiling things down, we have two primary issues at play: we crave human connection while we are feeling depleted from all the screen meetings.  

On one hand, we drive towards wanting that human connection – even if it is in virtual meetings where we really want more interaction, energy, and engagement. Yet, on the other hand, all this is depleting our energy without us really realizing it. The good news is that while this “balance” is challenging, it fundamentally does not present the need for new skills, just better honed interpersonal skills. When asked about the essential leadership qualities for COVID times, Katarina Berg, CHRO of Spotify shared the following at a recent People Matters TechHRSG conference (Sept ‘20).

“To be honest, it’s the same things as per normal times, but all this was put under more pressure and we need to accentuate.”

Meanwhile, cracks are starting to appear in the way managers and leaders are coping (Parker et. Al. (2020), Knight (2020)). Another way of looking at this is to consider that remote/hybrid working is putting more pressure on our existing people/leadership skills – which seem dependent on being in the same space.

How managers can overcome difficult conversations

Important conversations are the backbones of good management and leadership. Ideally, they need both parties to be engaged, safe, and committed in the dialogue. The following fundamental skills enable these healthy conversations:

Listening and noticing

  • Where is your focus during the conversation? Are you really focused on what the other person is saying, or are you too busy planning what you want to say?  
  • What are you noticing?

Asking good questions and being curious

  • If our questions are not working, we then need to find other questions that work. Little phrases like “tell me more …” can be very helpful.  
  • Curiosity can be your friend as it helps us remain open (Bungay Stanier, M. (2020)) - important when listening for the other person’s story.

Being clear on the purpose of the meeting/conversation

  • Are you clear about the reason for the conversation? Can you state it succinctly, in one sentence? If not, you may need to think about it more carefully and prepare more for the conversation. Can you state this purpose without placing the other person into a defensive position? Remember, good intentions are desirable but not sufficient.

Watching our assumptions

  • Are you aware of the pre-judgments you have made prior to having the conversation?  

Connecting with empathy

  • Empathy is essential to connecting. It is about the other person, finding different perspectives, being nonjudgmental, curious about the other person’s feelings and even acknowledging them and paying attention to what’s happening between you without minimizing or exaggerating emotions. It is not soft, fluffy stuff.

Self-awareness and self-management

  • It behooves us as managers to ensure we present ourselves for important conversations well prepared, with clarity of mind, grounded and with good energy, ready to focus on the other person. If our energy is depleted and we are rushing with back-to-back meetings, we miss being present for the conversation. Take time to care for yourself. Remember when you used to fly? Your oxygen mask needs to come first.   

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

  • As managers/leaders, we need to find strategies to manage our uncomfortable moments and not let them impact or bias our conversations. What is best for us may not be best for the other person.

Ongoing conversations that provide the foundation for difficult ones

Difficult conversations become even more difficult in the absence of two other regular, ongoing conversations in which managers and subordinates can establish a solid working relationship. The first one is about discussing how you both wish to work together. This is even more critical in the virtual/hybrid working environment.  

The other ongoing conversation is around continuous progress dialogues. Individual and mutual accountabilities can be revisited during these conversations while time given to ensure clarity – something that should never be assumed is clear.  

And finally

Slow down. Think about what the other person may need from you. 

Ask them. Do not assume you know what is best. Give yourself permission to be human and stop being hard on yourself. At the end of the day, the best way to approach important conversations is by being human, caring enough to ensure you are taking the necessary time, saying what you feel the issue is plainly and respectfully, asking them to tell you about how things are for them and listening. It is about respectful dialogue. And whether you are doing this conversation in person or virtually, all the above holds. 


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Topics: Life @ Work

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