How to have Difficult Conversations Virtually
Unfortunately, difficult conversations are a staple of the working world and over the last two years they have become more and more frequent. The global pandemic has seen thousands furloughed and many others made redundant. Line managers and supervisors are often assigned the unenviable task of informing these unlucky employees of these distressing changes to their employment status. This is difficult enough when conducted face-to-face but has been further complicated by remote working and the restrictions put in place due to COVID-19. Virtual meetings have their own unique set of obstacles to overcome, from technical difficulties to an emotional disconnect or even, your cat staring menacingly at Sarah from accounts.
Never fear though, we at People Vision are here to help and we’ve put together 5 key steps that can make those difficult conversation that much easier.
First though, we thought it would be good to share some ‘horror stories’ of virtual meetings gone wrong to highlight how not to conduct yourself. We asked some clients to tell us about their experiences and we’ve listed the best or worst below:
A line manager informed an employee of their upcoming redundancy with his dog sitting on his lap, much like a Bond villain.
An employee once lit up a cigarette in this midst of a meeting.
In the middle of a disciplinary meeting, an employee feigned a heart attack to avoid an appropriate punishment.
These are some quite unique tales and highlight some pretty obvious things you should avoid in a virtual meeting: namely, anything you wouldn’t do in a face-to-face office meeting. Now, we’ll move on to what you should do, with our 5 Steps to Success.
Preparation of your message, your environment and your technology.
As the old adage goes, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. This is the case with almost everything and virtual meetings that deal with difficult topics are no exception. There are three key areas that should make sure to prepare in advance of any meeting.
First up is the meeting itself or more specifically, its content. Identify the key points you want to get across as well as any supporting information that you feel it’s important for the recipient to know. To make sure you’re not left scrambling in the middle of your meeting, we recommend writing out a plan, then keeping this and any relevant notes on documents close to hand. Then, if you slip up or forget a minute detail it’s right there in front of you and you don’t have to leave the other participant staring at the wall for five minutes whilst you root around in your desk drawers.
Next up, your environment. Make sure you have a quiet and appropriate space ready for your meeting. A personal study or office would be ideal but not all of us have this luxury, so try get a room to yourself if you can. Just like the conference room in your office, this room should minimise distractions so no TV, no kids and unfortunately, no pets. This allows you to fully focus on not only on the meeting but also the person you have the meeting with. This shows that you’re listening, engaged and care about what they have to say.
Lastly, your technology. The last thing anyone wants is to be mid-speech and all of a sudden, the wi-fi cuts out and your left monologuing to a blank screen. To avoid this, it is worth testing your wi-fi connection in the room where you intend to have your meeting. Furthermore, you should ensure your device is fully charged or plugged in. To check everything is running smoothly, you may wish to have a practice meeting with a friendly colleague.
Accept that virtual is the only option.
In the past, HR would usually advise that meetings concerning sensitive topics, such as redundancy, be conducted face-to-face. However, with COVID-19, this is no longer possible and therefore, we have to adapt. We have to accept that virtual is the only option right now but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. In fact, in modern times the bulk of interaction and connections occur remotely and online. From texting and social media to Zoom and phone calls, we spend more time communicating virtually. Therefore, perhaps virtual meetings are the right way to have difficult conversation. They certainly have their benefits. For example, each participant is in their own space, a space that they feel comfortable in. Furthermore, the virtual barrier also allows each participant to have their own emotional space in which to digest and deal with troubling news, such as furlough. Ultimately, yes, virtual is the only option right now but maybe it’s also the right one.
Focus on the conversation and the facts.
In any meeting, it can be easy to get lost in small talk and forget about the purpose of the meeting. Whilst this can be easily resolved in a conference room, it’s somewhat harder over virtual means. Therefore, it’s vital you stay on track and keep both yourself and other participants focused on why you’re there. At the heart of this is the notion of being present, not just physically but mentally. This is always greatly helped by being prepared so we follow all the tips we’ve out lined earlier: set out a plan (i.e. an agenda), minimise distractions and make sure everything’s working properly. This should help you keep focused and prevent you getting side tracked.
Match your tempo and use active listening.
Technology can often make things feel like they’re going slowly. Lag and audio delays can make it seem like you’re getting nowhere. As a result, many people tend to rush things and start speaking quickly, which often creates misunderstandings and results in miscommunication. In meetings that deal with critical topics such as redundancy, clarity is of the utmost importance so this has to be avoided at all costs.
So, what do you do? Put simply, take it slow. We recommend using a ‘late night radio host’ voice that is both at a slow tempo and calm. Not only does this ensure that nothing is missed but it also prevents anything from escalating by keeping both you and other participants calm.
Another great tip is to allow time for other participant to digest and understand information. It can often come as a shock to learn of redundancy or being as these often are unexpected and have ramification in all areas of our lives. Therefore, it’s important to give participants time and let them come to terms with what you’ve just told them. Furthermore, make sure to check that they understand or have any questions at regular intervals just to ensure that all the information is getting across.
Lastly, make use of and showcase active listening. Rather than sitting back and allowing words to just wash over you, be engaged and consciously process and understand what is being said. This will help the conversation flow smoothly. However, sometimes just listening isn’t enough and you need to show that you’re listening. Do so through your body language, hand gestures and facial expressions. You can also try and maintain eye contact. This can be difficult in a virtual meeting but at least, look at the screen and focus on the person who is talking. This will make a world of difference in showing you’re engaged and care about what someone else has to say.
Confidently closing the conversation & planning next steps.
Last one, I promise. Close virtual meetings in the same manner you would close an in-meeting:
Summarise and re-cap what has been discussed and validate points other participants have raised.
Make sure they understand.
Check that they’re ok and point them towards any support they may need.
Don’t just say ‘alright’ and hang up.