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How to have difficult conversations — remotely

Mar 13, 2020

Managers often dread talking to employees about performance problems, promotion denials, layoffs or other unpleasant topics. These conversations are hard enough to manage face-to-face, but the difficulties are compounded when you are required to have them remotely.

With remote work on the rise, more managers are dealing with this situation. The number of remote workers in the U.S. increased 159 percent from 2005 to 2017, according to a FlexJobs survey. Today, 3.5 percent of the population works remotely — and that doesn’t even count all the overseas workers and contractors many companies use. Remote work is also a viable option for many organizations in times of crisis, which can necessitate their own difficult conversations.

Even with all its advances, technology simply can’t replicate the benefits of a face-to-face conversation. You can’t avoid the limitations distance imposes, but you can do your best to compensate for them.

The problem: A technology disconnect

Human conversation developed in small, face-to-face groups and stayed that way for centuries before the telephone was invented in 1876. Our technology has evolved. But our way of relating to one another? Not so much.

Without thinking about it, we rely to a large extent on body language and facial expressions to understand one another. When conversing, most of us are able to adjust our words to the other person’s reactions in real time.

Missing these cues can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, especially when the topic of conversation is difficult or we’re delivering unpleasant news. Audio-only communications can blunt your ability to gauge whether the person you’re talking to is upset, confused or angry — or how strong those emotions are. And that person will miss important emotions in your own facial expressions, such as concern or empathy, which can help to de-escalate conflict and encourage meaningful conversation.

The solution: Compensate by overcommunicating

Because interpreting facial features is so important, video chat is the best solution when you must deliver difficult news or work through a tough matter without being in the same room. Though video still lacks the warmth of an in-person interaction, and you might miss subtle signs that someone is tense or nervous, at least you can see and respond to each other’s eyes and facial expressions. One caveat: Watch out for lag, which could cause crosstalk and heighten frustration.

If video chat is unavailable, you will need to settle for a phone call. In this case, take time before the meeting to consider the best words to get your points across. For example, if your goal is to help the person improve performance, reiterate your desire to “help” several times — more than you would in person.

Also be as specific as possible. Prepare by writing up talking points based on objective criteria. Clearly explain any remediation program you have in mind. Ask for feedback so that the person doesn’t feel pushed into a corner. Remember, you can’t pat them on the back, and they can’t see you smile, so offer words of encouragement whenever you can. Repeat your goals and expectations and get verbal agreement about them before the conversation ends.

Also make sure you document next steps or actions after the verbal agreement to ensure both parties are on the same page in terms of expectations.

Finally, follow up with the person sooner and more frequently than you would in person. Remote workers often feel like they aren’t full members of the team, and they need extra support and reassurance during difficult situations.


Jeffrey H. Wulf
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