Tonya Echols on Having Difficult Conversations in a Virtual Setting

Published: Nov 06, 2020



Huge numbers of people are working virtually now—so what happens when you need to have a challenging conversation with a fellow business professional who isn’t in the room with you? This was the subject of AMA’s Ask the Experts October 28 webcast, Having Difficult Conversations in a Virtual Setting. The program was part of AMA’s continuing Online Virtual Communication series which draws on the expertise of AMA faculty members.

The goal of the webcast was to provide participants with practical strategies and insights to help them prepare effectively for tough virtual conversations, as well as apply those strategies to the actual conversations and produce a positive result for everyone concerned.

The guest expert was executive coach and leadership consultant Tonya Echols. The discussion was moderated by Ask the Experts host and AMA learning solutions manager Dan Goeller.

Ms. Echols began by explaining, “Difficult conversations are any kinds of interactions in which you’re expecting or anticipating that there’s going to be some divergence of opinions or anticipated outcomes [and] different perspectives that could potentially create conflict.”

Mr. Goeller asked Echols to clarify the difference between difficult conversations and uncomfortable conversations.

“Uncomfortable conversations, in my opinion, tend to have more to do with your personal level of comfort with the topic, [and/or] with the person that you’re speaking with,” replied Echols. “It could just be something about that particular interaction that feels uncomfortable to you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a difficult conversation. You just may not feel completely in your comfort zone in having that kind of discussion.”

Goeller asked if difficult conversations can be easily avoided or if they’re a necessary evil.

“They can’t be avoided,” Echols stated, “but they don’t necessarily have to be negative. They can be—but they could just be something that’s going to take more effort or time. It could be that it’s just a challenging issue that may or may not have a source of more negative conflict associated with it.”

“When we get to the virtual setting, what are some challenges of having these difficult conversations?” inquired Goeller.

“At the core, a lot of it is similar [to in-person situations],” Echols observed. “A difficult conversation is going to be difficult no matter where it is, but there’s an additional element of challenge that comes from a virtual environment, because you’re just not in front of the person. Even though we’re looking at each other [via video], you lose a lot in translation, because you can’t see the full body language, and it’s still a little more distant. Depending on set-up, and how you’re engaging, it actually could feel even more distant than virtual [communication] may already appear to some people. So it’s really about understanding those additional dynamics that come from losing that physical connection.”

Goeller asked Echols to expand on what she meant by the “set-up” in having a difficult virtual conversation.

Echols emphasized the importance of having such conversations in a focused environment, saying, “This is the most significant change. You want to be very, very intentional about the environment you’re in, making sure it’s calm and quiet, just as you would if you were in person. Create as much personal space as possible. Additionally, your technology: Make sure your connection is really strong. Losing audio or losing video when you’re in the midst of having a challenging conversation is not conducive [to success], and will make the already challenging situation of being virtual even more so.” Echols went on to advise paying attention to the aesthetics of your virtual conversation set-up: The idea is to make both parties feel as much like they’re talking to each other in person as possible.

Additionally, it’s crucial to be clear on what you’re going to say before going into the conversation.

Echols also advised that if there are any documents needed during the conversation, you should have them visible onscreen rather than physically in front of you. That way, your focus can always be directed at the camera when you’re addressing the other person, allowing you to maintain eye contact. Avoid any situation where the camera set-up impairs the chance for the other person in the virtual conversation to look directly at you.

Goeller moved on to inquire about the actual, non-environmental preparation for the difficult conversation.

“Preparation is going to be key,” Echols emphasized. “You want to make sure you’re first creating the opportunity for self-reflection, that you understand your emotions. We are human, and you’re a human at work, too. Often, if you’re the one giving the feedback [e.g., about a missed deadline], you’ve probably heard it too [i.e., adversely affected by a similar situation].” In such an instance, Echols suggests you be honest with yourself about any anger you may be harboring about the situation, so you can then have as productive a discussion as possible—as opposed to one that is emotionally charged with old baggage.

“Beyond that, you want to make sure you’re clear on anything around compliance or regulations or legal issues, especially if you have union employees,” suggested Echols. She adds that if you’re the one conducting the conversation, make sure you connect with human resources or another authority to get relevant input, so you’re clear on what you can and can’t discuss with these employees, what may need to be documented, and what paths can’t be crossed. Make sure you’ve done your homework in advance. Also, stay as objective as possible.

The question of whether it’s helpful to have a “test” or “tryout” conversation with another person in advance of the actual discussion you’re preparing for was then explored.

“Role play is always a helpful opportunity, [and] another layer of preparation,” Echols responded, indicating that it’s a means of getting your responses ready for any eventuality if the conversation takes a turn you may not have anticipated. It can also help you be prepared in case the other person reacts very emotionally, or does not offer any input at all.

Echols recommended you make sure your role play is with someone who is not connected to the situation. Alternately, you could walk through a scenario of the conversation with an HR professional to get their input on how to respond to different reactions and situations.

In addition, make sure your supervisor is aware of the situation in advance, Echols said, in case the person with whom you’re having the difficult conversation goes to them in response to your discussion. Sometimes, difficult conversations get even messier if the person you’re addressing feels they’ve been wronged and they start to “get loud,” noted Echols.

Goeller then asked Echols to explore the experience of the conversation itself, asking, “Are there any particular strategies that are important when you’re having the difficult conversation?”

Emotional intelligence is key, according to Echols, who advised that it’s very important to come to the conversation aware of self-emotions, as well as those of the other person or persons with whom the conversation occurs.

“Show up with empathy and compassion,” Echols said, adding that whatever actions the other party may have taken up to that point came out of their own experience, and they were likely responding in a manner they thought best at that particular moment. “Most people don’t show up intending to create havoc,” she continued. “They may have other things going on in their lives that we don’t know about. So, we really want to start with listening. That’s where emotional intelligence, empathy and active listening come in.”

Echols further explained, “Also, be specific about exactly what happened, exactly the behaviors that occurred, and the outcomes that came out of that,” as opposed to relying on hearsay. “You want to make sure that the person has an opportunity to respond in a way that makes sense to them. Also make sure that you’re clear on the expectations that you’d like to happen, and the expectations going forward.”

The “going forward” piece is vital, Echols indicated: “You want to have a clear plan of action as to what the next steps are, and when you’re going to get together again.” She also advised co-creating the next steps with the other party or parties, as it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility, as opposed to feeling they were dictated to.

Is there anything else that is important to consider when implementing a difficult conversation in a virtual setting?

“The biggest piece for me when working in the virtual space is the follow-up,” said Echols, adding that any resources or information the other person may need must be made available to them. “Make sure you give them clear paths to move forward, [and] make sure they know they can feel comfortable coming back and talking to you. ‘Here’s how to contact me,’ or whatever.”

“Great points,” observed Goeller. “The whole idea of managing by walking around is taken away now, so being deliberate and purposeful with modes of [virtual] communication and ways to reach out is so critical.”

View the full program

Having Difficult Conversation in a Virtual Setting