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How to Have Difficult Conversations Virtually

How to Have Difficult Conversations Virtually RICHVINTAGE/GETTY IMAGES

As the psycholinguist Herb Clark has pointed out, human communication is optimized for small numbers of people to talk together face-to-face in real time. The further we get from this ideal situation, the more opportunities there are for communication to go awry.

And, yet, so many of us work with people who we never see in person because they (or we) work remotely, are in different offices, or in different parts of the world. This can make communication challenging. This is particularly true when the situation or topic of conversation is going to create stress for you, the other person, or both of you.

When you are trying to explore topics with your colleagues that are emotionally or conceptually difficult, it’s good to get as close to the ideal situation as possible. Being able to interact in real time lets people interrupt a speaker if they get confused or have trouble following the conversation. This coordinated negotiation is a hallmark of effective communication.

When a situation is emotionally challenging, visual contact is even more important. Facial expressions provide a lot of information about what people are feeling. Even fleeting changes in what people display, so-called micro-expressions, can provide useful information about people’s initial reactions to information. When you’re exchanging emails or texts, or even if you’re on the phone, you’re likely to miss momentary changes in people’s facial expressions — and the meaning they convey.

If you need to have what you expect to be a challenging conversation with someone, there are several things you can do.

Create a sense of co-presence. The more difficult the conversation you are having, the more you need to think about the technology you are using and how to make it as seamless as possible. You need to create a sense of co-presence, which is the ability to feel as though you can interact effectively with another person. For example, you might consider using a phone connection for voice and to reserve bandwidth for video if you do not have a great internet connection. Also try to keep the environment free from distraction so everyone can concentrate on the conversation itself. This is particularly important if you work in an open office environment.

Have eye contact, if possible. When having emotionally difficult conversations — particularly when delivering bad news — it’s best to be able to make eye contact with the person you are talking to and to present information in a sympathetic and caring manner. It can be difficult to use your facial expression and tone of voice to convey your attitude in virtual environments. Try to use technology like videoconferencing or Skype if you can’t get together.

Be specific. There are two kinds of distance created by virtual conversations. One is physical distance. The second is that the barriers to making a connection can increase the sense of distance between people in a conversation. Research on construal level theory points out that the more distant you are from something or someone socially or in time or space, the more abstractly you are likely to think about them. However, having difficult conversations often requires providing specific feedback not abstraction. This is particularly true when addressing problems with someone’s performance at work, where you need to give specific demonstrations of problems and particular actions that someone can take to fix the problem.

Take care to override the effects of distance and make your discussion as specific as possible. It can be helpful to take notes before a conversation so that you have particular examples to bolster your main points. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a conversation that does not help people to address the difficulties you have noticed.

Having difficult conversations is hard to do successfully under the best of circumstances. When you must have that conversation virtually, a little extra preparation can go a long way toward making the interaction feel more like it would if you were in the same place at the same time.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).

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