Specialist insight

How to have difficult conversations remotely?

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The ability to have difficult conversations with your colleagues is one of the less pleasant parts of being a boss – but it’s a crucially important one. Here’s how to do it when you can’t be face to face

Nobody enjoys having difficult conversations – especially when they have to take place over a call or email, rather than in person. To help you tackle the task, we spoke to Sarah Rozenthuler, leadership consultant, chartered psychologist, and author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations: Seven strategies for talking about what matters most, for her advice.

Why do we find it so awkward to have difficult conversations?

They make our stomach churn! We worry about the potential damage a difficult conversation might have on our relationship if we ‘tell it how it is’.

We lack the know-how. Most of us have never been taught how to navigate a tricky conversation, so we either avoid them or make a mess of them.

We fear other people’s reactions, as well as our own. What if the other person storms out? What if I lose my temper?

How is the situation made worse by being remote?

We miss out on the body language – arms folded, shoulders hunched, eye gaze averted – which gives us a lot of information about what’s really going on for the other person.

We don’t have a ‘safety check’ afterwards. When we walk out of a meeting room, we can ask our colleague, “How do you think that went?” Not having this same opportunity to talk through how a meeting went can leave us feeling more insecure.

We can feel more isolated looking at a screen rather than being in the presence of a real person. This impacts on our self-belief and our self-confidence so we hold off saying things that we’d be able to say in person.

Why is it important to have them anyway?

We might need to clear the air and rebuild a relationship after a difficult incident.

We might need to give a colleague some feedback, particularly if they have a blind spot that is persistently getting them into trouble.

We might need to bring something to an end – an outdated project or a working relationship that has run its course.

All these issues, left unattended, are an emotional drain. They annoy us and drain our energy unless we lean into them and talk it through.

Which channel should I choose for difficult conversations?

There’s a time and place for each of them. Email enables you to gather your thoughts rather than risk ‘shooting from the hip’ or the lip. It also gives the other person chance to think things through before they respond.

Phone enables us to have fewer visual distractions and focus on the other person’s emotional tone, which can be hugely informative. We can hear in a person’s voice if they sound shaky, disappointed or angry. There’s less visual ‘data’ to manage so we can really tune in to what the essence of the situation is.

Video gives us valuable non-verbal cues such as seeing a frown, a smile or raised eyebrows. We can pick up on someone folding their arms, turning away or eyes starting to glaze over.

How should you initiate the conversation?

Sending something in writing is a good starting point. You can share what your intention is for the conversation, whether it’s to bring up something that really matters to you, get through an impasse or clear up a misunderstanding. It can be helpful to include what your intention isn’t (“I’m not wanting to stir up any trouble.”)

How long should it last?

It depends. Stay tuned to how engaged you feel and how energised (or not) the other person appears to be. For a meaty, meaningful topic, allow at least an hour. For giving someone some feedback, you might be able to cover the ground in 15 minutes.

How do you deal with very negative responses?

Listen, listen, listen. Reflect back what you’ve heard before you give your own opinion. “It seems like you’re saying…” is a simple phrase that can put out huge fires.

Validate the other person’s perspective. You can state that their point of view is legitimate without you having to agree with it: “It makes sense to me that you think that, given that…”

Show some empathy. Acknowledge difficult feelings such as anger or embarrassment to help settle them: “I can see you’re feeling…” Even saying, “I can see this is having a real impact on you” can help to build a bridge and keep the conversation going.

What’s the best way to finish it up?

Acknowledge that it’s been good to talk, even if it’s been difficult.
Summarise what you’ve heard to show that you’ve been listening. If you’ve reached a shared understanding, say what this is.

End with something positive, if you can, such as something you genuinely appreciate.

Thank them for their time and attention. State that the door is open for another conversation, if you sense there might be more to say.

Sarah Rozenthuler is the author of Powered by Purpose: Energise your people to do great work, published by FT publishing

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