Having Difficult Conversations, Virtually: Why What’s Easiest is Rarely Best

Unleashed
9 min readMay 14, 2020

Insights on upping your virtual feedback game from Unleashed founder + CEO Anouk

A person gesturing in front of a computer screen
Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Last week, I took part in a webinar (hosted by our friends, The Happiness Index.) One of the topics was ‘how to have difficult conversations, virtually’ and during the webinar, The Happiness Index’s Co-Founder and Head of Global Happiness, Matt Phelan, shared some brilliant insights into ‘emotional deficit’ — how, right now, people are looking to their work relationships more than ever to fulfil our very human need for connection, given that we’re unable to see our loved ones in person. Their data is clear: for people to be productive, the emotional deficit needs to be reduced. Happier people are more productive, and employees, quite rightly, are calling for more feedback than ever to help with that sense of feeling connected to others around them.

This desire for more feedback is consistent with what we have heard from clients that we work with at Unleashed.

It made me think about how we tackle difficult conversations (and feedback in particular) at the moment, given the current emotional void and the challenges of virtual communication. I think our perceptions need to shift and our approaches need to adapt, quickly.

I’ve noticed some changes in behaviour as a result of living in this new, virtual world and frankly some of the things deemed to be acceptable right now (by virtue of not seeing people all the time), are actually very far from it!

I find it all fascinating… Join me for a few minutes and I’ll tell you all about it.

Feedback, Feedback and More Feedback

Unleashed created a survey that many businesses we know have used to better understand their teams’ engagement while working remotely. The lowest score WITHOUT EXCEPTION demonstrates that people are feeling less productive because they are not receiving enough feedback.

When we are working remotely, to feel connected and productive, feedback is MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER!

However, as with everything in the People and Culture world, the ‘how’ is a huge part of the ‘what’ and a big chunk of the ‘how’ is being dictated to us at the moment!

People remember how we make them feel, not what we say; that’s possibly not surprising given how we communicate. Non-verbal cues are a significant part of our communication (55%) then comes our tone and voice (38%) and the words we use are only catering for 7% of the mix. Someone understanding your words is just a tiny part of the puzzle and with non-verbal cues, tone and voice being harder to portray virtually, there’s a real chance that the person you’re communicating with is left with just that; words…

We’re currently giving feedback in a world where the softness on our faces is distorted and our ability to really connect (to look someone in the eyes to show them that we are giving them this feedback because we care) is put in jeopardy. People cannot effectively take into consideration your full communicativeness; they can’t see it, they can’t ‘feel’ it. (Also, let’s face it, demand has made internet connections prone to being super glitchy and the frozen screen always seems to happen at the very worst moment!)

Giving Feedback in a Virtual World

If something didn’t go, or isn’t going, quite as well as it should be and you want to let someone know in order to coach them, nurture their progress and help them develop (remember that positive intent I mentioned!) then be mindful of the following…

For most people, giving someone feedback is hard because of a concern for the ongoing relationship we’ll have with that person. From a neuroscientific perspective we all have 5 needs and with ‘relatedness’ being one. Relationships are crucial — this is why it matters so much.

When feedback is given face-to-face, it’s trickier to deliver because there’s a perceived risk to the ongoing relationship. By comparison, anonymous feedback breeds more honest responses. This is because there’s (in theory) no risk to the ongoing relationship when the feedback itself is ‘detached’ from the person giving it.

Giving feedback virtually can lull us into a false sense of security where that concept of detachment is concerned. The perceived risk to the ongoing relationship that would otherwise drive us to act with due care and concern, is somewhat mitigated by both the lack of all our communication translating via a video call and a sense of compartmentalisation; it can feel like that “relationship risk” applies only for a moment in time. It is potentially easier, in hitting that ‘end call/ leave meeting’ button, to also psychologically end the feedback conversation… video call over; feedback = done.

Not only do you feel ‘job done’ about it. You also feel that actually, they probably took it pretty well… Better than you thought they would, in fact…

This is because you might not feel the tension in the air when you’re in the moment of giving feedback and you will potentially miss the recipient’s non-verbal cues and definitely won’t bump into them in the office later that day. Consciously or not, it’s easier to paint your own mental image that for everyone involved, feedback is over and we’ve all moved on from it.

When you give negative/constructive/corrective feedback, it almost always elicits a threat response. That means, neuroscientifically, that the recipient goes into freeze, flight or fight mode. Our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for identifying threats and reacting to them) has been hijacked and our ability to use our cerebral cortex to process things calmly and rationally is taken away from us, in an instant. This means that the nodding of the other person’s head and the “ok, I understand,” could be genuine, or it could be the masked face of someone experiencing a threat response. And that is potentially just the first face of that response…

Consider this from the perspective of the person receiving the feedback.

Hearing something that is negative, constructive or corrective, is centred in being judged, assessed or confronted to a certain degree, potentially with information you’d otherwise rather have avoided hearing. In a virtual environment, you don’t necessarily have anyone to turn to afterwards, you’re not able to go for an impromptu walk to grab a coffee with a colleague or ask for a second opinion, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to move to another space where people are smiling, laughing, joking and distracting you.

Amygdala hijacks in a feedback context often evoke threat responses that are significantly stronger than you’d (objectively) expect, considering the trigger. Particularly if the feedback has evoked a strong emotional response, in the virtual context you’re much more likely to find yourself dealing with that response alone with your thoughts and with no stimulus to either distract from ruminating on the negative or to encourage some ‘self-chat’ (you know that “I need to pull myself together so people in the office don’t see me upset” kind of conversation with yourself? Well, that is genuine processing — it serves a real purpose in calming, regulating emotion and positively reframing).

As the ‘receiver’ of the feedback, you don’t have this at the moment. Instead you sit… Think… And potentially, get angry, or cry, or plan revenge with your own feedback! Following a threat response, we need to regain control of our amygdalas; the hijack is immediate, but getting back to a more rational state is not.

Closing the (Virtual) Feedback Loop

So, considering everything I’ve said so far, here are some ideas for making the feedback we need to give and receive more of right now, work better in a virtual context; something we’re calling ‘virtual courtesy.’

Easier is rarely best.

I don’t care which analogy is your favourite, don’t ‘rip the plaster off in one go’, or ‘drop the bomb and run’, because that plaster hurts and the bomb causes real devastation on the other side. Make sure that this is a two way conversation. Much better to approach it with curiosity and ask questions to discuss it. Making feedback a piece of news that you give rather than share to discuss reinforces (in a bad way), the power differential inherent in the manager/team member relationship.

Set an agenda!

The ease of ‘hopping on a google hangout’ isn’t an excuse for an ambush! Surprise is an amplifier; it can make good things better and negative things much worse. A feedback session shouldn’t be a surprise at the best of times; have you let them know that there’ll be some feedback involved ahead of time? Have you asked that person what you’d like them to consider or reflect upon before the catchup? Have you asked them if they have reflected on a thing that you’d like to discuss? If not, that’s a really good place to start.

Respect diaries.

Some people really love working from home — but this isn’t just ‘working from home.’ Home workers are usually able to go and grab breakfast, head out to meetings, go to the gym at lunchtime and kids are usually at school! This is working from home in lockdown, so it’s even more important to respect diaries and respect routine. If you need to give some feedback, do it at a time that you know works for them and isn’t going to stress them out (as best you can). Ensure that they have privacy (or headphones) — neither of you want someone overhearing in the background.

Loosen up!

We’d always advise that if you’re giving feedback in-person, you should be sitting in a way that makes it feel like a conversation with a person (rather than an interview or an interrogation.) Feedback is good, it’s normal and we need it — so why make it so imposing? If you’re putting your “feedback hat” on, it should be a comfortable sun hat — flexible and useful, keeping those harmful rays away and allowing you to see clearly. It shouldn’t be the top hat — all pomp and circumstance and all about procedure and ceremony, but serving no purpose whatsoever! (Yes, we’re using hat analogies!!) In more normal times, we’d be saying ‘go for a walk or grab a sofa at a coffee shop’ so think about how you can mimic that in a virtual context and be relaxed. Ditch formal clothes and the formal setting; take your laptop on the sofa with you, or out into your garden (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and maybe both agree beforehand to make a coffee/grab a drink so that you can mimic your ‘coffee shop chat’ in as many ways as possible.

Follow up. Follow up. Follow up.

It bears repeating…. FOLLOW UP! This is the most important step, given everything we know about threat responses. If you’ve delivered something tough and you understand that an initial reaction doesn’t have to be the lasting one, I suggest that you pick up on it again to discuss it further, after some time to reflect. This is massively important in any context. Managed expectation and feedback are core building blocks of effective manager relationships; it’s crucial to ensure your positive intention is understood and you are proactively revisiting feedback… your relationships will become stronger through this, not weaker!

And another thing… :).. less specific to feedback but generally on virtual difficult conversations…

Difficult conversations are called difficult conversations for a reason. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can range from talking about incredibly personal things such as mental health, to giving negative/constructive/corrective feedback (pick your preferred label!), dismissing someone, or discussing furloughing or redundancies.

Difficult conversations require mastery to really nail; even for those who are well-practised, they’re still not straightforward. Pretending they are, doesn’t help anybody. But actually moving up a gear and embracing difficult conversations requires a shift in perspective; you need to actively lean into the uncomfortability.

This ‘leaning in’ can only happen once you, as the ‘giver’ of the information, recognise that in that ‘giving’ role, you are in the privileged position of being able to make that conversation better, or worse. Owning that position with positive intent is a true marker of a good leader.

And what’s most interesting about all of this? It’s the fact that all difficult conversations have one thing (and one thing only!) in common: any tactic that makes the conversation easier for the manager is likely to make it much harder for the individual.

If you apply the principles discussed above in relation to virtual feedback conversations (after all, these are a type of difficult conversation), then this should make any type of difficult conversation better for everyone involved both in the short term and in the long term.

So there we have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings on all things virtual feedback and connection. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it (in a way that tops up my emotional deficit please!)

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