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Managing Tough Conversations in a Virtual World

Avoiding confrontation is a pretty common character trait.  Not many of us thrive on delivering tough feedback, difficult news, or unpleasant circumstances to people. It’s even more difficult when you’re having those tough conversations with friends, colleagues, and clients – people you care about and are invested in.

We now live in a world where our opportunities to “hide” are more prevalent than ever, adding to the innate tendency to avoid conflict.! Text, email, camera-less zoom, etc.  All of these opportunities make avoidance even easier.

Here are four tips that I give my team on how to have tough conversations. 

  1. BE PREPARED. Going into a difficult conversation without thoughtful talking points can make the conversation more cumbersome. Ensure your talking points can be backed up with examples, statistics, and specifics. Nothing is more awkward than delivering a tough conversation only to have the message challenged without any evidence to support the topic.
  2. MAKE EYE CONTACT. Whether you are in person or virtual, it’s so much easier to relate to someone when you can see emotion in their eyes. This is true whether you are on the receiving or giving end of a difficult conversation. Without eye contact, we can easily imagine or project emotion onto someone else, but looking face to face establishes the relational aspect of communication.
  3. TAKE TIME TO PROCESS. There are times when tough conversations happen unexpectedly. You might receive an email or phone call that catches you off-guard. Knee-jerk reactions can be toxic toward progress. When you find yourself in a position of unexpected turmoil, take a break to help check your emotional reaction from your objective reaction. This might mean that you go for a brisk walk, listen to some calming music or simply close your eyes and meditate for several minutes.  Before having a tough conversation, you should use a technique you find most effective for putting objectivity ahead of your emotional response.
  4. USE THE CRITICISM SANDWICH METHOD. This is a technique I learned from one of my teachers in elementary school. Delivering constructive feedback should be done in a compliment sandwich. This means, sharing a positive, then sharing a negative, and reinforcing a positive. This looks something like, “I appreciate your strong commitment to your client relationship. You seemed to be upset in your email response. I would like you to take more time to process your feelings before you respond next time. Thank you for caring so deeply about your client relationship.”

These four suggestions are not bound by specific time metrics. Sometimes you’ll have days and weeks to utilize them and other times you might find yourself with minutes to hours – but like everything else, the more you practice the stronger your muscle memory will be so they become reflexes.

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