Virtual communications – how to handle difficult workplace conversations online

Have potentially difficult conversation at work, like discussing a pay rise, explaining deadline delays or going through performance reviews are hard to do successfully under the very best of circumstances. 

Now many of us are faced with the additional challenges that remote working presents meaning you need to have these kinds of conversations virtually. A little preparation and advance thought about the direction of the discussion can really help to make the interaction feel more natural and improve your changes of a successful outcome.

Tony Hughes, CEO at Huthwaite International leading global provider of sales, negotiation and communication skills development, shares advice on how to handle difficult workplace conversations online.

Plan your communication airtime

Planning for a call can be an unpopular task, but taking a few minutes to think through the structure and purpose of your conversation can really help you to achieve your objectives – assuming you know what they are! Work out your primary, and also secondary objective as a fall back, so you will not have to rely on pressing for just one outcome if that becomes too difficult to resolve in one conversation.

Think about how you will show empathy

It can be difficult to observe someone’s body language over a virtual camera call so tone of voice is more easily interpreted. Listen carefully for clues to how the conversation is going from their tone and note that nerves tend to make the voice higher and this can be very noticeable – a warm drink may help to relax your vocal cords and deepen your voice. Smiling when you speak (if appropriate) will also help to relax you and the other person. If you need to get it all right first time, practice makes perfect. Practicing with a friend of colleague can help to produce the relaxed tone of voice necessary to sound sympathetic or authentic.

Active listening is essential

Listening is what separates skilled communicators from unskilled and using active listening is key to ensuring the conversation goes well. We demonstrate active listening by acknowledging statements. Acknowledging is not the same as supporting, by acknowledging we show we are listening but do not necessarily show agreement. Using phrases such as ‘I understand’, or paraphrasing statements show that we are aware of their opinion and their thoughts without necessarily agreeing with them. Taking care to allow people to fully express themselves, especially if they are agitated or excited, is key to defusing the situation.

If we must disagree with them, we should take care to make a positive statement before and after the disagreement. This means saying things like ‘I fully understand what you’re saying, and will do my best to help. However, I will need some time to investigate the situation. Let me come back to you in X time’.

Remember counter offers can be counterproductive 

Communicating online can bring a sense of urgency to get the conversation over with quickly, especially if people are not used to virtual communication methods. This unnecessary pressure can cause people to make hasty, often ill-considered counter offers or proposals in a bid to reach an agreement about the difficult conversation they’re having or to tick the task off our list. Whether this is agreeing to workloads for the week, or discussing a pay rise – rushing conversations and making hasty proposals can be counterproductive and may show you’re not really listening and intent on pushing your own agenda. Good communication is about listening and understanding the needs of others, whilst maintaining a strong stance.

Avoid irritating verbal behaviours 

Having a difficult conversation in the workplace is hard enough without the added complication and tensions that communicating virtually may present! Try to avoid adding to this by keeping the conversation free from irritating verbal behaviours. This means avoiding self-praising declarations by using words such as ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ when talking to people. This can cause tension as they can undermine the person you’re speaking to and may cause lasting damage to your relationship.

Other verbal behaviours such as telling someone you’re ‘being honest with them’ or ‘that you’re trying to be frank’, can indicate that you may not have been completely honest in the past, or that you may be suggesting your counterpart is being intentionally dishonest. Steer clear of this use of language. It can lead to tension and a breakdown in communication further down the line.

Remember to show emotion

Perhaps surprisingly, skilled communicators show their emotions and indicate how they are feeling towards a situation more than the average communicator. This skill is particularly important what dealing with a difficult online conversation. For example, phrases including ‘I am pleased we are making progress’ or ‘I’m worried that this won’t work out’, can be used as a substitute for an outright agreement or disagreement as it’s difficult to argue with someone else’s emotions. This verbal behaviour also reveals something personal, which is likely to encourage trust within a conversation. If someone expresses that they’re concerned a deadline won’t be achieved – it’s then difficult to retort with ‘no you’re not.’ When used in the right context, showing emotion is a highly effective way of deescalating confrontation.

Ensure you avoid defend/attack spirals 

Defend/attack verbal behaviour is when the focus shifts from the problem to the person and the conversation becomes personal. Skilled communicators avoid this behaviour during a difficult conversation, as it can generate frustration and end very negatively. Usually, involvement in a defend/attack spiral is a heat of the moment reaction and it can be tricky to avoid. Difficult conversations tend to be high pressure, so to avoid this behaviour communicators should aim to understand and resolve, rather than react. This allows the conversation to become open and a solution to be achieved harmoniously.

If you want to learn more about how Huthwaite International can help your team develop a highly effective virtual communications strategy visit: https://www.huthwaiteinternational.com/business-performance-solutions/delivery-options/virtual-learning

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