Managing Difficult Dialogues in the Virtual World


The world has changed and so are the ways we manage our performance conversations. Now more than ever it is imperative to be connected, have the right balance between outcome & empathy and provide sharp, timely and actionable feedback. 

Being in a digitally connected world, communication plays a salient role in deciding whether companies thrive or recede. The nature of our social interactions has been drastically changed and got restricted to just phone calls and virtual meetings. No doubt we have got upsides of working virtually, it has amplified the difficulties and gaps especially when it comes to crucial conversations.

First, let’s talk about some of the challenges  as a result of the virtual world

  • No casual collisions – Before the pandemic, small talks, coffee breaks were a ritual for all of us. We chatted about our day at work and weekends, exchanged hellos in parking lots and cafeterias, and used to bump into each other in the hallways. We’ve lost those small encounters while working virtually. While all of this has now been limited to a screen, this has impacted the way we build our relationships and trust with people. 

  • Measuring output – Moving to a virtual world has made it tough for managers to measure outcome and effort. It is an entirely new world and everyone on this planet is learning how to deal with it. To measure productivity is challenging. 

  • Pandemic stress  –  People are going through a lot right now since we are in the midst of a pandemic. Staying indoors, coping with difficulties around them, and losing loved ones has a negative influence on their mental health and has made them sensitive to critical discussions. We cannot foresee what the other person is going through or how they will react, making it difficult to provide tough feedback.

How can we overcome difficult dialogues?

  • Be prepared

This is not a type of conversation you would want to have offhandedly. Always get into a crucial conversation as prepared and aware as possible. Prepare yourself with a clear set of dialogues, think of what you’re going to say so as to anticipate other’s reaction. Think of some possible questions other people might ask and have your answers prepared. The more you’ll prepare yourself for the conversation, the easier it will be to stay even-tempered and deliver solid feedback.

  • Manage emotions

Your conversation should be professional and fact-based and not filled with emotions, so don’t let your emotions take control over your delivery or take your discussion off-track. It is acceptable to feel emotional during difficult discussions when two people work closely together but it is really important to step back and remove the relationship from the equation. Talk about the problem clearly, focus on the real examples, offer solutions, and ask for opinions.  The more you’ll keep your emotions in control, the better you will focus on the objective of the conversation.

  • Have a cheat sheet 

Preparing a cheat sheet can help you stick to the objective of the conversation. Get your facts clear, collect evidence and review them beforehand. Create an objective statement and break that down into 3 parts – “What seems to be a problem?”, “how it is impacting the team” and “what I’d like to achieve through this conversation”. Once you’ve determined your objective, you can take notes of critical areas to focus on, a set of dialogues you can utilise, and so on.

  • Connect with Empathy.

It is hard to underestimate the value of empathy during such times. It is best to listen. Creating space for our colleagues to share their individual experiences is really important, which we often forget to do. Ask questions like “What are your thoughts on all of this?” or “Is there anything I should be aware of that has lately influenced your behaviour?”. Share your own experiences, be empathetic and use dialogues like “Help me understand”, “I feel you”, “I want to help” can make the conversations easy and help people to connect better.

  • Be clear and specific with everything.

We are already facing physical barriers in our conversations and would not want any psychological barriers to making our conversations impossible. Having difficult dialogues requires clarity in everything – goals, feedback, expectations, conversations etc. Give honest and comprehensive comments, and make it clear why you’re having the discussion. Use solid examples while reviewing the performance so the person understands you’re not just stretching things up. 

  • Be aware of your language

Whatever you say during a crucial conversation matters. The tone and language you use to decide whether the person will take that in a constructive or negative way. Explain the problem to them calmly, be open and warm, and also talk about the possible outcomes you’d like to see. For instance, If dealing with poor performance, talk about what it would look like if he had a good performance. Having this encouraging tone in your dialogues can give employees something solid to work towards.

  • Stay Connected

One of the most crucial things is to build trust with your colleagues, peers and manager. We all would agree that developing trust is a tough task to do especially in the current environment, but this is and always will be the first step. One must have daily meetings, emails or calls just to stay connected.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic and it is noticeable that providing tough feedback and having crucial conversations have become strenuous and fraught with obstacles. We’ve already looked at a number of strategies to overcome the difficult dialogues and now is the time to make a few changes to ensure that our critical conversations are crisp and honest and are infused with preparedness, awareness and compassion.

Author – Shruti Kher, Assistant Vice President People Success, Urban Company

Shruti Kher is a seasoned and well-rounded HR professional with expertise in HR business partnering, talent management and organization development across start-ups,manufacturing, FMCG  and BFSI  firms in India and Nepal.  She is currently  the Assistant Vice President, People development at Urban Company. She holds a Master degree from MDI gurgaon and Economics (Hons) degree from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University. She started off her career in Sales and after a stint of 4 years moved to Human resources. In her free time, she likes to read, binge watch on netflix  and enjoys travelling. 

1 comment

  1. ravi kumar baid July 5, 2021 8:11 am  Reply

    Being specific and staying away from emotive comments. Looking at the future rather then the past – helps

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