How to handle difficult remote conversations

It’s a challenge isn’t it?

Difficult conversations are hard enough when they happen face-to-face, or in remote conversations. But when you lose the physical and emotional communication cues of ‘in-person’ meetings the challenge of remote conversations is very real. Even more challenging when the conversation is around a sensitive or difficult subject with a team member.

The challenge of delivering bad news remotely

So how do you approach a colleague, employee or boss if you have to deliver uncomfortable news virtually, and still have a positive outcome?  How do you broach the subject of underperformance, challenging behaviour or redundancy with an employee while still showing support and understanding? It’s something more and more of us are now having to manage in this ‘new-normal’ world of remote communications.

The problem of miscommunication in remote conversations

When you don’t have the benefit of informal face-to-face communication, you miss the casual chances to chat and connect and the subtle signs that come with body language. Without this, it’s very common in virtual meetings to experience conflict and friction caused just by miscommunication. But when the situation is emotionally challenging, visual contact is even more important. Even though you can’t pick up on all the ‘hidden’ communication cues via a computer screen or over the phone, you can prepare in advance if you have a plan.

Don’t put difficult remote conversations off

Seeing the person in the office everyday is a visual reminder that the difficult conversation needs to be addressed. If they’re not physically there to prompt you it’s naturally very easy to put off speaking with them. So in the virtual workplace your problem conversation is ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ if you will.

Prepare in advance

Take time to prepare your conversation, have a plan of action on what needs to be discussed, gather your evidence, remain objective and have your goals in mind. Select your method of communication carefully, check whether bandwidth or technology could be a problem. Check the timing and whether the person will be able to speak privately without any interruptions.

Give them notice

Give them a heads up that you want to talk to them with an idea of what the subject to discuss is so that they can prepare too.

Choose your virtual medium carefully

Pick your communication channel carefully. Rule out just using email and use the phone if absolutely necessary, although it’s not ideal. As video is the nearest you will get to being there in person that’s the most obvious choice. And even though you won’t pick up on all the subtle physical communication cues, you will have eye contact and you will be able to check facial expressions. But be prepared to over communicate to avoid any miscommunication. The big benefit of video is that you can also see your own face, which is useful if you want to check your own facial expressions too.

Be specific

Remote communications suffer from both physical distance and also from a sense of emotional distance that comes naturally when you sit next to or opposite someone in a meeting. So it’s even more important to be crystal clear about what you want to talk about. Have a written plan to follow, with contingencies and take notes. That’s particularly important when addressing something like performance issues for example. During the conversation leave time for feedback and offer words of encouragement and show empathy and understanding and space for just listening.

Follow up your remote conversation

Follow up sooner and more frequently than you would following a meeting in person. People working remotely may feel like they are separate from the rest of the team and need extra support and reassurance during difficult situations.

Build strong relationships in a virtual world

If you’d like help to build fulfilling, productive and positive remote working relationships we can help with our virtual behaviour change programmes.

Business professionals now need to understand how to build fulfilling, productive and positive remote working relationships, especially if they are used to working in a face to face environment. Our blended programme ‘Build Strong Relationships in a Virtual World’ combines a unique mix of interactive webinar, remote 1-2-1 coaching and interactive 5 day rehearsal app. It delivers the practical tools to present an open, positive image of personal confidence in every interaction, comfortably engage people, build genuine rapport and cultivate stronger, lasting professional relationships.