Discussing sensitive, emotionally-charged topics in the workplace isn’t easy even under the best conditions. In today’s world where a huge portion of the workforce is working remotely, those difficult conversations are even harder. Leaders and managers can’t—and shouldn’t—completely avoid these conversations, even in today’s world where a large number of meetings are purely virtual. After all, work needs to continue, employees need coaching, unacceptable behaviors must be addressed.
Difficult conversations are typically best conducted in a face-to-face environment. Humans are social in nature, and our spoken communication heavily relies on non-spoken visual cues from facial expressions. However, thanks to modern technology, many of our communications happen digitally—via text, email, chat, etc. These modes of mediated communication have become a staple of workplace conversations, replacing the proverbial water cooler.
That said, today’s technology is advanced enough so that we can continue to have face-to-face conversations, even when we’re miles apart. While it might feel comfortable or natural to send a text or Slack message, plenty of digital tools are available to managers. Here’s how they can make the most of these virtual face-to-face conversations, no matter how difficult they are.
Be Fully Prepared
When conducting conversations of any type, we often don’t plan out every single thing we’re going to say. And the nature of conversation is often meandering. We talk about a topic for a few minutes, then someone brings up another topic that shifts the focus of the conversation.
When conducting difficult conversations, though, it’s essential to stay on point. To stay focused, managers should write down and order the points they want to discuss. Sometimes an agenda might even be necessary so that the employee(s) come to the meeting focused on the topic on hand.
Acknowledge People’s Emotions
One of the main challenges we face today is employee morale. Not everyone is happy or comfortable working from home, and with a fragile economy, anxiety levels are at an all-time high. So when a manager says they need to have a conversation with a direct report, it’s only logical that they’d be nervous.
That’s why it’s a good idea to acknowledge employee’s feelings about the topic. By doing that, managers can demonstrate that they’re listening and understanding where the employee is coming from, as well as any outside factors that might be affecting the employee’s behavior or performance. Even if the conversation is centered around a desired behavior change, it’s important for managers to show they understand the employee’s perspective in order to gain their trust.
Remove All Distractions
Working remotely certainly has its challenges. Kids or spouses might interrupt. Phones might ring. Texts might be received. There’s a whole slew of things that can distract someone during a conversation.
Successfully managing a difficult conversation often relies on maintaining eye contact, though. That’s why it’s important for managers to give these conversations their full focus. Looking at other information or devices while the employee is talking sends the message that the manager really doesn’t care about the employee, or at least isn’t interested in having the conversation. Giving someone your undivided attention will go a long way to building trust and understanding with employees.
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