Remote Work

How To Have Hard Conversations on a Remote Team

February 4, 2022

Human conversation has evolved to be most efficient when talking to a small group of people face-to-face in real-time. This evolution is most apparent when we look at the anxiety that comes with public speaking and all the other things that need to be adjusted just to make it work. Many employees never see each other in person, and discussion is done virtually through screens. Having serious, one-on-one conversations on complex topics can be challenging but necessary for managers and employers. Avoiding them can have severe knock-on consequences for both the individual and the company. Luckily, these discussions aren't an everyday occurrence, but they need to be dealt with when they arise. When you need to have difficult conversations with your remote staff, here are a few things that can help you.

Get In The Right Frame of Mind

Harvard Business Review reminds us that it’s crucial to check one's mindset before having a difficult conversation. While this refers to in-person conversations, the same applies to conversations that happen virtually. Being in the right frame of mind includes getting proper rest the night before the talk and putting aside one's emotional feelings towards the other person. Just like you have time to prepare yourself mentally, you should also offer the same prep time to the other person. Sending them a text through messaging or an email letting them know you want to discuss something with them one-on-one is an excellent way to deal with it. It's also vital that you schedule a time for this meeting to have a solid start and end period for it. If the other person needs to reschedule, you should also accept that fact.

A benefit of doing this remotely is that you can have notes about the situation nearby. Having one's thoughts in order doesn't necessarily mean keeping those thoughts in one's head. It's sometimes easier to write this down and figure out what you want to discuss with the person in point form. This approach also has the benefit of ensuring that the conversation doesn't wander and that it remains concise and to the point. These difficult meetings can torture someone if they have to deal with the situation over an extended period. It's also vital that these notes remain out of view of the camera. Don't try to script the meeting or write out long walls of text that you can read from. Use them as a guide to what you want to talk about.

Decide Whether You Want Video Or Not

Already, many people avoid having video on during meetings. LinkedIn mentions that 90% of the population multitasks during virtual meetings, making it in their best interests to have the camera off. For most meetings, this might be acceptable. Still, for one that deals with a thorny subject, you may want the other person to turn their camera on. Non-verbal cues can be a good indicator of someone’s feelings, even though their voice might not immediately make it obvious. Having video on helps you spot those cues and adjust your delivery to suit. It might be prudent to tell the other person you'd like them to speak candidly with you as well. Some Zoom backgrounds or blurred distance filters might make it hard to see if someone else is in the room with them. If the discussion is of a sensitive nature, it may be necessary to let them know beforehand, even if you intend to use video.

In your case, your self-view should be turned off. You won't have the benefit of seeing yourself speak if you were there in person, and that's why you should switch off your self-view, so it doesn't distract you from the other person's face. Because this is a sensitive topic, you should be paying full attention to the other person. It helps them know that you're not distracted by anything else while discussing the issue and underlines the seriousness of the topic. Do a video check before you start the call as well, so you don't waste time at the start of the meeting figuring out why your hardware doesn't work.

Start the Conversation

Many managers are well familiar with the "feedback sandwich" approach of delivering bad news. As The Balance Careers notes, the feedback sandwich approach starts with good news (praise), then inserts the feedback (bad news), and ends with more good news. Unfortunately, this approach is one of the worst ways to deal with bad news on a virtual platform. The feedback sandwich is likely to get the manager in a sticky situation and, at worst, will come off as unfeeling and flippant.

The better way of doing this is to give the employee your perspective on their contribution to the team. It would help if you weren’t taking it onto yourself to deliver the bad news on behalf of the company. Instead, you should be expressing your opinions as one person to another. The person on the other end will appreciate the openness and honesty in this type of approach for more than they would a feedback sandwich.

Closing the Conversation

When the conversation ends, both you and the other person should be clear as to how you both are moving beyond it. One of the best ways to do so (and to ensure the message lands) is to ask them what they understood by what you said. Allowing them to break it down into their own words empowers them to phrase it in a way that they can grasp and act on. However, it also allows you to see how well your communication of the problem was. If they don't catch what you're saying to them, you might need to approach the discussion differently. The aim of communication is that everyone understands what is meant. Closing the conversation with the assurance that this has happened can give you peace of mind.

Eating the Frog

There's a common productivity tactic known as "eating the frog," where a person chooses the most distasteful task they have to do and gets it done first. Sometimes, difficult discussions are the frog. Opening that conversation as soon as possible is the best approach. The longer a manager leaves a difficult discussion, the harder it gets to discuss the topic. Yet eventually, things come to a head, usually with significant backlash. The backlash will likely be less intense if the discussion happens early on. Sometimes, eating the frog is exactly what you need to do.

Say it like you mean it.

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