How to handle difficult workplace conversations online

Written by Tony Hughes

Having potentially difficult conversations at work, like discussing a pay rise, explaining deadline delays or going through performance reviews are hard to do successfully under normal circumstances. Now many of us are experiencing the additional communication challenges that remote working presents, we are faced with the added pressure of having these kinds of conversations virtually. Tony Hughes shares some advice and explains how some preparation in advance of a tough virtual discussion can really help to make the meeting feel more natural and improve the outcome.

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 and demeanour 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 around the difficult conversation they’re having, or to tick the task off a long to-do list. Whether this is agreeing to workload deadlines, 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.

Give feelings

Skilled communicators do talk about their emotions: 'I am happy to go ahead', 'I’m worried that this won’t work out' 'I’m pleased we are making progress' We can speculate as to why this behaviour is effective. Firstly, it can be used as a substitute for outright agreement or disagreement, as in the examples above. Secondly, it reveals something personal about ourselves which will probably engender trust. Finally, it is hard to argue with someone else’s emotions. If I say: 'I’m concerned that we won’t be able to achieve those deadlines', it is virtually impossible for the other side to say: 'No, you’re not'.

Avoid Defend/Attack spirals

Another Huthwaite observed behaviour is the Defend attack spiral. This is characterised by a progressively more intense series of defend or attack behaviours between two or more individuals. This happens when focus moves from the problem to the person and it ‘becomes personal’. Not surprisingly, Huthwaite research showed that skilled communicators avoid involvement in Defend/Attack Spirals. For illustration, a Defend/Attack Spiral could sound like this:

'We’ve used our project management software to agree on the final delivery date'

'No you haven’t. You’re just trying to sneak in tighter deadlines'

'Are you calling me a liar?'

'As a matter of fact, I am!'

This is quite a serious accusation but you get the point of how easily this could happen in an emotional, discussion where both parties are feeling pressure

Avoiding involvement in a Defend/Attack Spiral may prove difficult in the heat of the moment – it is often very hard to avoid using a particular behaviour. Over decades of training people in communications, we have found that it is easier to substitute another, more useful behaviour rather than try to avoid one that may cause problems. So, when confronted with an attack, try first to get to the reasons behind it:

'Could I just check something out? You say you used the project management software in your calculation. What period did you take into account and how did you factor it in?'

Once the cause for the attack is established you can start looking jointly for a solution:

'How about we both sit down and look at the figures and try to agree on how they should be used in the calculations?'

Avoid irritating verbal behaviours

As we have mentioned, 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 words and phrases. This means avoiding self-praising declarations by using words such as ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ when talking to people, e.g. "I think that's a very reasonable request" or "it's only fair that...". This can cause tension as these phrases 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.

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