My 6 top tips for having difficult conversations in the online world
As much of the world switches to an almost completely online way of working, many of us will be experiencing increased pressures both at home and in the workplace.
As much of the world switches to an almost completely online way of working, many of us will be experiencing increased pressures both at home and in the workplace. Spending more of our time in the online world can also amplify any difficulties or fractures that may already exist in our workplaces. The inability to read the nonverbal ques of our colleagues or clients can lead to an increase in the possibility of misunderstanding the intention of their words. Over my years as a mediator, I’ve picked up a few tips that may be useful for those of us now spending more of our time dealing with difficult conversation in the virtual world.
1. Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
Preparation is as important in the digital world as it is in the real world. If you think that your next video conferencing call has the potential to become challenging, spend a few minutes beforehand working on your strategy. What are your triggers/buttons? What do you want out of the conversation? Plan for your next conversation, but avoid scripting any dialogue. Take a step back. Years ago Google released a Gmail feature, which is designed to help prevent people from sending embarrassing late-night emails they might regret in the morning. When activated, the program forces a user to solve a series of math questions before allowing any message. I often think a version of this could be useful on all of our digital platforms.
2. Physically Set the Scene
I spend a long-time training mediators and negotiators to appreciate the importance of the small things in how to set a room up and the same goes for the virtual word. These small things matter both to how we perceive ourselves and how other perceive us, particularly when tensions are high. Get rid of as many distractions as possible. Lock your door; close your multiple browser windows; and turn your phone and smartwatch to silent or airplane mode. Think about your background, try not to take up more than a third of the screen and invest in a decent microphone headset and a webcam with a resolution of at least 1080p. The clearer we can make our own facial expressions and the closer we can make this to a real face to face experience, the more likely we are to cut down on misunderstandings.
2. Remember the 3 Conversations
Of all the books, on difficult conversations the one I keep returning to and referring my clients and students to is Difficult Conversations because of how insightful and useful it is. The authors talk about how difficult conversation can be deconstructed into 3 conversations: the ‘what happened" conversation (what do we believe was said and done); the "feelings" conversation (the emotional impact on everyone involved); and the "identity" conversation (what does this mean for everyone's opinion of themselves). Of all three of these elements I regularly find that the identity conversation is often more import than we give it credit for, and the one we spend the least time thinking about. One of my biggest takeaways from this book has always been the intention versus impact gap. The larger this gap the more difficult conversation can tend to be. To close this gap, we need to not just ask ourselves about the impact an action may have had on us, but also we need to check what assumptions we are making about what the other person may have actually intended.
In his brilliant Never Split the Difference book, Chris Voss has many great practical tips, which are not only useful in negotiations, but also in having difficult conversations. One of my favourites is his tip on mirroring. It's the simple repetition of the last three words or critical one to three words of what someone has just said. I find it simple, effective, and easy to remember. Most importantly, it allows the other person to feel genuinely listened to which is critical in any difficult conversation.
4. Don’t Forget the Nonverbal
The nonverbal still matters even in the online world. In video conferencing, the lens is the filter through which your movements will carry. Sit up straight (invest in a decent chair for home working); keep your hand movements to a minimum; and focus on your breathing and your facial expressions. How we talk to ourselves in our inner voice gets reflected in our faces, so if your inner voice becomes faster and louder then slow it down and make it quieter. Research by the University of Cambridge found that when nervous, people tend to comfort themselves by engaging in a range of face-touching behaviours, so focus on closing your mouth and keeping the corners of your lips slightly upturned, raise your eyebrows slightly upward, and nod your head periodically to reinforce that you hearing as well as listening.
Stephen Covey said, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." If we are honest, many of us are just waiting to talk most of the time when we are listening to others. This can be even truer when we are having difficult conversations. Slow things down, ask open ended questions, be aware of the time gap depending on the quality of your Wi-Fi connection, and if you really need to, drop the video to give yourself the best opportunity to listen and to be listened to.
6. Look after Yourself
Get yourself in the right frame of mind for a difficult conversation. Listen to some decent music (Ludovico Einaudi is a personal favourite), or spend some time using a mindfulness app such as Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer.
Enda is a Programme Director with the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute part of the Queen's Management School at Queen’s University Belfast. He has been involved with conflict resolution for almost 20 years and delivers negotiation and mediation training to companies and organisations both nationally and internationally.