Why Holding Difficult Conversations Virtually Is Never A Good Idea

Hello, I’m Nicola from The People Mentor and in today’s episode of the podcast, I want to talk about why holding difficult conversations virtually is never a good idea. 

Let’s face it; difficult conversations are challenging enough when you’re in the same room. Holding them virtually only increases the chances of communication going wrong, misunderstandings happening, and feelings getting hurt.  

In the last couple of years, we’ve all had countless Zoom meetings and Team meetings, and you’ve no doubt felt wiped out and frustrated afterwards.

Why is this?

Communication is complicated. We are hard-wired to look for cues to help us understand how another person feels, and you just don’t get them when you’re not face-to-face. 

In a face-to-face conversation, meaning, emotion, and information are conveyed in three different ways; the words someone uses, their tone of voice, and their body language. 

Words alone may be enough when you have a straightforward message to deliver with no difficult emotional element. 

So you might tell someone “ Sales are up 10% this month.’ 

If your tone of voice and facial expression stays neutral, you’re pretty much stating a fact. Words are enough to convey the message. 

However, if you say “ Sales are up 10% this month” in a serious tone of voice and you have a miserable facial expression, people will read it completely differently. Deliver it like this and it sounds like you’re not happy about it and looking for someone to blame. 

Communications research has shown that the words we use matter less than our tone of voice and body language when we’re delivering a message. 

This is a really important reason why holding difficult conversations virtually is never a good idea. 

The tone of voice and body language are incredibly hard to read when we’re communicating virtually. This makes it challenging when you have a difficult message to deliver, like telling someone they are underperforming. 

In this kind of conversation emotions can be high and tone of voice and body language will play an important role in how the other person responds. 

Then there’s the issue of the emotional energy it takes people to process things when they’re on camera. Think back to the pandemic when we suddenly had to get used to hours of daily Zoom or Teams meetings and our only option was speaking to friends and family online. 

It was a relief to have the technology that allowed us to stay connected, but being on camera so much was very tiring. 

The reason for that is being on camera requires so much visual focus. We’re trying to stay focused on whoever is speaking and trying to pick up on cues about their body language and other things. However, this intense focus robs us of our capacity to process complex information, such as taking things in during a difficult conversation. 

Face to face, there’s less chance of misinterpreting what someone is saying, and there’s more of a chance to convey empathy and understanding than there is in remote interactions. 

This often means that issues can be resolved faster and more easily. 

Even though my feeling is that holding difficult conversations virtually is never a good idea, what about when you don’t have much of a choice? 

Remote working adds another degree of difficulty to having this kind of conversation but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to achieve a good outcome. 

Here are my tips on things you should do when you have to have a difficult conversation virtually. 

The first thing is to get clear on why you need to have the conversation.

For example, if one of your team members isn’t performing well, do you want to have a conversation because you want to help them do better?

Or do you need to have a conversation that’s more geared towards them leaving the business because it’s better all around?

These are two very different conversations, so know the ‘why’ before you do anything. 

Next, outline the points you want to discuss, including the outcome you want and any key questions or messages you want to share. 

I think one of the benefits of remote conversations is that you can have all of your notes right in front of you, even if it’s post-it notes stuck around the edge of your screen. 

Just remember to not get so distracted by the notes that you don’t listen to what the other person has to say. 

When it comes to the timing of the conversation itself, just like in the face-to-face working environment, you need to schedule in time for the conversation. Don’t just call someone up and catch them unawares. 

Schedule the call in advance at a time when there’ll be privacy and no interruptions. 

Remember that this can be easier said than done when people are working remotely, but you don’t want to be having a difficult conversation with the other person’s partner or children in the room. 

When it comes to actually having the conversation, don’t fall into the trap of beating around the bush, making small talk, and then delivering the difficult message. 

It’s confusing for whoever is on the receiving end. 

In a remote work situation where it’s harder to read verbal and non-verbal cues, it’s better to be direct for clarity. 

The best thing to do is start the conversation off by giving your perspective. 

Using the poor performance example, you might say something like,

“ I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I feel like I need to tell you that the way you’re performing isn’t working for the team, and here’s why…”

You aren’t just getting angry, you are owning how you feel and sharing your observations. 

Then as the conversation progresses, remember to follow the usual rules of active listening and making sure you give the other person time to speak without interrupting. 

It can be harder during a virtual conversation to know when it’s okay to start speaking. The absence of those natural cues and the natural breaks in conversation, not to mention technical glitches, can make it harder for the conversation to be a two-way street. 

At the end of a conversation, check the other person’s perspective and understanding so you know that you’re both on the same page about the issue. 

If it seems like there’s something that’s been lost in translation, think about how you can improve clarity or be more specific. 

So thinking about communicating remotely, is holding difficult conversations virtually the absolute worst option?

Not necessarily. 

If you are tempted to avoid any face-to-face or visual contact altogether and just pick up the phone or type an email, think hard before you do it. 

When you’re having a conversation on the phone, you’re relying on your words and tone of voice to convey your message. There’s no body language to read or any other way of showing empathy or understanding. 

Email communications can be even worse. 

You’ve got no body language or tone of voice to rely on so whoever is receiving your message has to pretty much guess your meaning and intention. 

I know that I’ve been told in the past that my emails were too ‘business-like.’ It took me ages to get my head around the fact that you can convey your message with a human touch.

It’s often far better received that way too. 

So if you have a difficult message to deliver that might cause an emotional response, don’t pick up the phone or fire off an email.

Try where you can to meet someone in person. If that’s not possible because you’re in a different city or even a different country, having the conversation virtually, though not ideal, is the next best thing. 

The most important thing with difficult conversations is that you don’t put them off and hope that the issue will go away.

The longer you wait to have a discussion, whether virtual or not, can make it more complicated to resolve. 

Are you struggling with difficult conversations?

They can be a minefield, especially if you have to hold them remotely. 

I’ve got some free resources for managers on my website that I think you’ll find helpful, and if you want some more in-depth help and advice, why not think about becoming a member of my Women Leadership Club?

If this podcast has got you thinking about how you can navigate difficult conversations better, it could be exactly the thing you need. 

I call it a ‘roadmap to success’, where every month you get invaluable tips, online videos, training, and templates as well as weekly surgeries to talk about team issues, a monthly virtual training session, and access to an online community for support. 

I’ve spent over 33 years leading and managing teams, and when you sign up for this membership, you’ll get invaluable information and knowledge, as well as the benefit of my experience. 

If you want to develop your management and leadership skills and get on the fast track to team success, you can find out more about joining my great value membership and the amazing benefits that come with it here.

That’s all for today’s podcast, I do hope it’s given you some food for thought. 

Until next time, this is The People Mentor, signing off.

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