HomeHybrid WorkNavigating difficult conversations online vs in-person 

Navigating difficult conversations online vs in-person 

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Want to decode the unspoken cues hidden behind those webcam smiles? Learn to foster genuine connections through the screen, and build a team that thrives in the digital age.

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Communication plays an integral role in creating a happy, safe, and productive workforce. In fact, 86% of employees and executives say the lack of effective collaboration and communication are the main causes of workplace failures. 

With more workplaces now having to communicate effectively across different mediums – both online and in person – the importance of being able to navigate difficult conversations is not only growing but becoming increasingly more complex. In this article, Emma Serlin, CEO and Founder of London Speech Workshop looks at the differences between online and in-person communication and how we can still maintain effective collaboration online. 

Communicating online: the differences and challenges 

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. In my previous article, I wrote about how it’s important to remember to cultivate understanding, honesty and curiosity when you have to have a hard conversation. But in today’s working world, we also need to make sure we can communicate around difficult topics as effectively on Zoom or Teams as we do in person. 

No matter how the difficult conversation takes place, to do it well, you need to be able to understand your own perspective, be curious about the other person’s side of the story and be honest throughout the discussion so you can come to a good resolution. In a face-to-face environment, it is natural to use your body language to support both sharing your feelings and expressing empathy. However, when communicating online, there is a natural reduction in how we can use our non-verbal communication such as limited body language because you only have a small square to work with – or eye contact not being quite as real and connecting, all of which can make meetings and discussions feel a little harder to navigate. 

This means communicating virtually can lead to an added layer of awkwardness – from longer silences to struggling to read someone’s body language – and it can be difficult to uphold the natural conversation like we would if we were face-to-face. As an example, it’s harder to maintain eye contact and gauge how interested people are online, which can in turn lead to not being able to ‘read the room’ as well as face to face. And if you don’t feel confident you have people’s attention, it can make it significantly harder to maintain focus and engage with your team. 

How to still engage, virtually 

So, how do we get around this? First things first, we need to get the right setting. Even though you’re taking the call virtually, eyes are still on you. Start off by making sure the lighting allows you to be seen clearly on the screen, that the webcam is at eye level (so you’re not looking down, up or to the side when talking and listening), and that background noise levels are kept to a minimum.  

We know that concentrating and engaging can be much harder virtually, so minimising distractions for both you and your colleagues is best. Turn off or mute anything that might make a noise during the call: your phone, your instant messenger, your email.  

Avoid eating, chewing, or drinking from a bottle – all these are heightened distractions online. 

Maintaining eye contact 

As mentioned, one thing that’s hardest to replicate virtually, is strong eye contact. Good eye contact can help us come across as confident and allows us to gauge the attention of our listeners – but this can be tough when speaking virtually. Here, drag the participants’ window as close to the camera as possible, so when you look at them (and do look at them and not the lens, they can feel the difference) they’ll also then be able to see your eyes clearly. This way, you’re prioritising the listeners’ experience, as they will feel like you are giving them direct eye contact. 

The power of active listening 

When breaking bad news or having a difficult conversation, it’s important to remember the power of active listening when the other person is speaking. We all know what it’s like when you’re talking in a virtual meeting and you see another attendee looking at something off-screen, visibly distracted, their attention elsewhere. They may be listening, but their body language is telling you they’re not interested, throwing you off your own course. To avoid doing this to others, having engaged eyes is important. 

Always look at whoever is speaking, even if it’s to the left or right of the screen. Ensure your face is open and responsive. A grim set expression is sure to make the speaker feel stilted and worried about what you are thinking, whereas open, attentive, warm expressions will help them feel safe enough to really share.  

Finding facial warmth can be as simple as bringing some care or empathy to your face, which you can achieve by really looking attentively at them and listening deeply.  

When they see you looking at them, it shows them that you’re absorbing what they’re saying. Smiling and nodding also make a big difference and can help the recipient feel heard and respected.  

Remember your voice 

If you’re feeling nervous about speaking, it can be easy to hurry through what you planned to say. But that doesn’t treat your ideas with the respect they deserve, and if you’re told to repeat yourself or to ‘slow down’, you may lose your train of thought.  

On your video call, speak clearly at a conversational pace. Ensure that your sentences land, and your tone comes down at the end – to ensure that you come across with some gravitas and certainty. If you allow your voice to continually go up at the end, then it can seem like you are uncertain or not valuing what you are saying.  

If you feel like you’re talking too fast, use pauses. These don’t have to come exclusively at a punctuation point. Instead, you can think of them like phrasing in music. They can break up a long sentence, pull out and frame important words and bring melody to your speech. Try to keep your tone warm and authoritative but dynamic, placing particular emphasis on any phrases or words you deem important.  

Boosting employee collaboration 

There are still things you can do to boost employee collaboration through effective communication – whether you are online or in-person. Not only will this help with dealing with workplace conflict, but it will also help with streamlining internal communication within your business. 

First, it’s important to not avoid the issue at hand. If we continually try and sidestep conflict, then we are never asking the other person to share their side of things, and there is a danger the issue will grow. By avoiding arguments, we suppress our values – an arrangement that will only breed more misunderstanding, irritation, and resentment, and will see a drop in workplace productivity. 

But this doesn’t mean we should jump straight into it.  It’s always helpful to strategize. With online communication especially, you have the advantage of taking some time out before you begin a conversation. Ask yourself what your goal is and ensure your communication with your team aims to find out their goals – from there, you can align goals and work closer together. 

It’s also easy for introverts to get left behind in larger groups, and this can be heightened in a virtual world, where conversations can feel somewhat disjointed and unnatural. To keep team relationships strong and boost morale, the meeting chair should make sure that everyone has the opportunity to speak. Rather than addressing the whole group with a more general “what does everyone think about that idea?”, make a point of asking specific people for their ideas, then thank them for their insight before moving on. This makes everyone feel valued, confident, and supported. A powerful tool is the Talking Stick – which is an ancient Aboriginal tool – to support everyone to listen deeply to each other. The central idea is that everyone listens to whoever is holding the talking stick, and only when they have finished do they pass it on. It’s an incredibly powerful and empowering way to ensure everyone’s voice is valued and heard.  

A communication charter is also a hugely useful tool for teams, especially if you are working virtually. Taking time to establish what you would like from your team and manager in terms of communication, and then writing down what you are willing to commit to, is an exercise that can boost internal communication within your business. Here are some questions HR leaders can consider:  

  • What communication commitments would you like to have when in meetings to keep things feeling positive, robust, and effective? 
  • What social moments do you need to feel connected? 
  • What face-to-face meetings do you need to feel connected? 
  • Which communication modes would you like to use in which circumstances? 
  • Is there anything else that feels essential to you for staying connected when communicating virtually? 

When communicating virtually, you want to engage everyone and remain present yourself. When everyone is just a little square on the screen, it can be harder to navigate meetings, manage conflict and present your true self, but you can still win people over with these few, conscious steps.  

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