Difficult Conversations: How to Handle Them in Online Meetings

The ability to communicate and resolve issues online is a very new and novel concept to humans. According to renowned psycholinguist Herb Clark, human communication is most effective in real-time, face to face.

The further we stray from this ideal method, the more chances there are for miscommunications and misunderstandings. Especially in creative ventures and workplaces that require close collaboration.

Today, in times of social distancing and remote work opportunities, many of us have to navigate the choppy waters of virtual communication to work efficiently as a team. Many employees work with people who they rarely or never see in person as they work in different offices, neighbourhoods, or even countries.

This physical separation can complicate the process of communication. Particularly when the topic at hand focuses on creative output, design, or any other element that is subjective.

If you need to explore conceptually or emotionally challenging concepts with your colleagues or team, it’s a good idea to get as close to ideal communicative methods as you can. This means having an online meeting that preferably includes video.

The importance of virtual visual contact

Emotionally difficult conversations benefit from visual contact. Your facial expressions will tell other people how you are feeling, and if you can see their faces online, you’ll also be able to pick up how they are feeling about the topic at hand.

Even micro-expressions can provide you with valuable information about people’s reactions to your discussion. Virtual communication methods like email, instant messaging and phone calls don’t provide the same facial benefits.

Are you planning on having what you suspect will be a hard conversation with someone in an online meeting? The prospect might be so intimidating that you’re tempted to delay the conversation. However, the meeting does not need to be a difficult or uncomfortable experience.

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Here are several things you can do to ensure that the conversation remains diplomatic and allows all parties involved to get their points across.

Foster a sense of reassuring co-presence

The first thing you need to consider when anticipating a challenging online conversation is the technology you are using to hold the conversation.

Your choice of platform should make the discussion as seamless as possible, and you should also be able to use it to create a sense of co-presence during your meetings.

Co-presence refers to the feeling of effective interaction with other people. Including it in your meetings is vital to support the development of healthy resolutions.

Experts recommend using a phone connection for voice calls and reserving bandwidth for video if your internet connection is patchy. It’s also a good idea to keep your environment free from noise and distractions during online meetings so that everyone involved can concentrate on the topic at hand.

Encourage or instruct other participants in the conversation to eliminate distractions in their immediate environment.

Retain an element of privacy

If the difficult conversation is only relevant to one, two, or a few members of the team, you should address the matter as privately as possible using the richest medium at your disposal. A video call would be best, as the medium allows for facial expressions and tone of voice, both of which are important elements of communication.

Both elements are helpful when it comes to reducing the possibility of confusion or misinterpretation of your message, and you cannot convey either via email or text message.

As important as privacy is when having a difficult conversation in an online meeting is, it’s sometimes not possible to offer complete privacy. Depending on the nature of the topic, you may require an HR team member or a team leader to be present as a witness.

If a witness is going to be present, let the other participants know about this before or at the beginning of the meeting. If having a witness present is not possible, you can record the meeting for evidence of the discussion.

If you use software such as Google Calendar for meeting invitations, be careful about naming the meeting. Keep the meeting name neutral to help keep the conversation as private as possible.

Keep communication open

Whatever the medium you choose, make sure all participants in the meeting know that they can communicate openly. Open communication is an essential part of not damaging workplace and personal relationships, and of restoring balance.

You will foster greater respect and trust among the participants, your team, and your organisation if you encourage open communication.

Ensure virtual eye contact

It might not be possible to look someone directly in the eye while having a difficult conversation with them online, but you can simulate this environment. Emotionally challenging conversations—particularly those that involve the delivery of bad news—often go down smoother if you can make eye contact with the person you are speaking with.

This makes it easier for you to present information in a caring, diplomatic and sympathetic way.

Video conferencing platforms like Skype and Zoom will allow you to use your tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to convey your attitude in online meetings.

Dealing with difficult conversations online

Image: Pexels

Avoid communication barriers by being specific

Barriers such as physical distance, or in the case of online calls, perceptions of distance often hinder virtual conversations. Studies conducted on construal level theory have noted that the more distanced you are from someone, either socially or physically, the more abstractly you may think about them.

Having challenging conversations requires you to provide specific feedback, and abstractions may prevent you from doing so. It’s important to provide specific examples, goals, and pieces of information when having difficult discussions, particularly when you are addressing an employee’s work performance.

Offer them specific incidences of issues and concrete actions they can take to rectify your concerns.

Having a difficult conversation in an online meeting can make the other participant or participants feel anxious. Keeping that in mind, ensure you speak slowly and clearly, and include as much detail about the issue as possible.

By investing time in your online meeting and by being detailed, you can make sure you cover every aspect of the issue. By being detailed, open, and honest, you ensure the other participants really understand the point of the meeting.

Make notes before the meeting

It’s hard to be specific about challenging topics when you haven’t planned your discussion and written down your pain points ahead of time. It’s a good idea to make detailed notes before an online meeting to ensure that you have valid and specific examples at hand to support your primary points.

Without planning, you risk having a challenging conversation that simply doesn’t help in addressing your difficulties. Remember, preparation is the only aspect of the meeting that you ultimately have any control over.

Planning ahead allows you to present your topic of interest in a ‘third story’ perspective. If you are raising a difficult issue, it’s better to approach it as though you were a third person taking a neutral stance on the situation from the outside.

Your plans will enable you to describe the problem as a difference between your stories, and include both viewpoints as valid parts of the discussion. Being prepared will also help to convey to the other person you’re looking to resolve the situation together, and that you aren’t working against them or looking to pick a fight.

Avoid the what-if trap

You have no control over how the other participants respond or what they feel during the conversation. Worrying about their responses or feelings is not going to help you address the matter or help the meeting run smoothly. This doesn’t mean disregarding the other participants. Instead, it means you should not spend energy on thinking about 101 what-if scenarios.

By planning ahead for the online meeting, you can focus on what you are able to control. In addition to preparing what you want to discuss, you should think about the conversation’s most likely direction.

Try to predict what questions the participants will ask and what objections they might make to the topic at hand. This can help you prepare various responses to questions and objects that may arise during the conversation.

Prepare your contribution

You may find it helpful to write a basic script as part of your preparations for the online meeting. Include everything you want to say. It’s more important to get everything down than to spend a lot of time adjusting or editing what you write.

Once you have written everything down, read the script and then step away from it for a few minutes or a few hours. When you return to the script, read it aloud to yourself and pay attention to how it sounds. If you realise you need to make a few minor adjustments, now is the time to do it.

If you don’t feel comfortable having difficult conversations on camera yet, consider doing some practice before the meeting takes place. Read through the script enough times to speak without having to refer to it while talking.

Remember, it’s important to make eye contact. Open the app and record yourself as you speak. Watch the recording to find ways in which you could improve your delivery.

Prioritise problem-solving

It’s crucial to focus on solving problems during conversations about difficult topics. It’s no good to simply bring up your pain points and discuss how they present challenges and obstacles at length.

You and your meeting’s members need to creatively brainstorm resolutions that meet each side’s most pressing concerns, interests, and problems. The resolution you settle on should meet everyone’s needs to whatever extent is possible, and you should also focus on speaking about how to keep communication open as you move forward as a team.

However, before you and the other participants can start planning the way forward, you need to listen to what they have to say. After you open the discussion by presenting your pre-planned points, listen to the other participants’ feedback.

Pay attention to everyone’s perspective

Give them your undivided attention, take notes, acknowledge what is said by repeating or summarising the important points, and give active feedback. Don’t try to multitask while the other participants are talking. Don’t check your phone or read through emails or sign documents. The only writing you should do is note what the other participants say.

You may find this part of the conversation intimidating. Or you may find it helpful to maintain a sense of perspective during the meeting. Think back over your work experience, and you’re likely to remember having conversations that were just as difficult, if not more difficult. With that kind of perspective, the task at hand may seem much easier than it did before the meeting started.

When all participants in the meeting have had the chance to share their perspective on the issue at hand, you can encourage them to come to an agreement. Now’s the time to offer a potential solution to the matter.

If possible, encourage all participants to find a mutual solution through brainstorming. Doing this shows that you are not pushy and that you care about the other participants in the conversation.

It’s not enough to offer a solution without clarifying the details, defining goals, and determining a plan of action. Try to find actionable ways to achieve those goals.

In Summary

It’s never easy to have difficult conversations in a work context, especially when discussing creative concepts or work that opinions differ greatly on. In the remote working world, these challenges are exacerbated as you lose out on the impact of face-to-face communication.

Many things affect communications, from people struggling with a work/life balance, to adapting to changing routines and workflows. Tempers may flare and nerves are on edge, and communicating clearly and resolving conflicts has never been more important.

You can ensure that your online discussions go smoothly and result in beneficial resolutions by preparing your topic and your strategy to address the issue beforehand. Put in some effort to make the interaction feel similar to what it would if you were addressing it face-to-face.

Reassure the participants that you welcome and appreciate open conversation. Invite them to contribute to the conversation and pay attention when they speak. If possible, encourage them to participate in finding a way forward. You are far more likely to enjoy a meaningful and constructive meeting.

About the author

Karen Bradford is an editor with a passion for the written word, usually covering topics around productivity and employee engagement. When she’s not writing, you can find her playing puzzle games or challenging herself in an Escape Room.

Team 6Q

Team 6Q