5 Creative Approaches to Difficult Conversations at a Distance

5 Creative Approaches to Difficult Conversations at a Distance

From time to time, uncomfortable situations will likely arise in your career—you’ll have difficult conversations and you need to know how to handle them. Some interactions will feel more difficult than others, and a lot depends upon the interpersonal relationships you’ve built with your colleagues, supervisor, and others.

The prospect of opening up difficult conversations often makes even the most experienced pros among us uneasy. Like any challenge, there are ways to effectively prepare and troubleshoot.

It’s critical for employees as well as managers to know how to bridge communication gaps, navigate remote team conflict, and resolve any interpersonal issues.

Here are tips on five common difficult conversations that you’ll likely run into at least once (if not a dozen times) in your career:

1. Handle the negotiation.

Before accepting a new role, most of us are inclined to negotiate—and it feels socially acceptable to do so. If you haven’t landed a new gig, however, it might not feel like the “right time” to initiate a negotiation. Rather than staying silent on the matter, allow yourself to consider angling for what you want. Is it a raise? More vacation days? A new title or the chance to head up a big project?

If it matters to you, start preparing. Gather evidence showing why you deserve what you’re requesting. Do some research on what exists in your industry and determine your BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement). If your employer doesn’t approve another week of vacation, for example, have a second option (working more flexible hours) ready, and a concrete reason for the ask. That way, you’ll know you’re exploring all options rather than merely settling for less.

2. Sniff out snark.

Unless someone is overtly offensive toward you, it can be challenging to determine if antagonism or pessimism is intended to be taken personally. Regardless, it’s not fun to feel as if you’re on the receiving end of snark, whether it’s delivered privately or more publicly with teammates present.

If another person’s tone or behavior is making you uncomfortable, however, you must address it. When the incessant barking of your neighbor’s dog disturbs you, you speak to them before calling the police, right? (In the interest of preserving a peaceful environment, I’m hoping that you do.)

Same goes here. Before bringing a superior into things, set up a video call with the suspected snarker, as visual cues matter a lot in these high stakes conversations. Emphasize your commitment to building trust within a positive working relationship. Then share your feelings in a forthright but controlled manner, using “When you [do this action], I feel [disrespected, undermined, etc.].” Your counterpart may apologize immediately, perhaps not even having realized his or her transgression.  

3. Deal with a possible scene-stealer.

The actions of someone taking credit are often insidious; you usually won’t know your footprint has been “erased” until you’re in a position where defensiveness seems unprofessional. For example, after spending hours on a presentation, your colleague (or worse, your boss) omits any reference to your work. In situations where someone else might be deliberately taking credit for your contributions, you’ve got to speak up. It’s best to do it as soon as possible, while erring on the side of diplomacy.

You may not wish to interrupt an online client presentation to call out the fact that your name is missing from a title slide, but you can follow up with questions denoting your involvement. “As we prepared this presentation, Robyn and I examined…” goes a long way to elegantly conveying your role without attracting any negative attention. Afterwards, the onus is on you to open a dialogue in either a text-based chat (better for keeping a record of the conversation) or a phone call.

Allow the “offender” to apologize for his or her unintentional oversight; if they deny any wrongdoing, express your feelings and respectfully confirm that it won’t happen again. If needed, at this point you can and should bring a supervisor into the conversation.

4. Solicit honest feedback.

While it’d be wonderful to hear others praise our work all day long, it’s likely that we’re not doing a fabulous job all of the time. In situations where constructive criticism would help you in your job, you very well might be the one who has to draw it out of others. Setting up a one-on-one chat with your colleagues is the first step; framing the discussion with openers such as, “I’m looking for your honest opinion on my managerial style, or, “I’d love to know how you think I/the team handled the latest project, and how we can improve,” go a long way.

Assure your colleague that this is a safe space where openness is valued. Emphasize that this is an important move in growing as a professional and making progress as a team. Understand that on your part, listening is going to be key here; take lots of notes, and ask for clarification wherever needed. Fully grasping their perspective will make their feedback more meaningful and actionable for you.

5. Resolve conflict between team members.

“Mediator” might not be on your resume, but it’s a role you could find yourself playing. Wherever there are human beings working alongside one another—even remotely—there will inevitably be occasional misunderstandings, disagreements, or other interpersonal issues. Maybe you’re not directly involved in a conflict, but as a bystander, you believe you should approach your teammates.

In the spirit of preserving a healthy company culture, set up a Google Hangout or Slack call, and come prepared to lead the discussion. Having a third person in the mix helps significantly in dispute resolutions, where a neutral actor can shift the dynamic from adversarial posturing to a more collegial approach.

Your leadership may help solve an overlooked problem or unpack a miscommunication before it leads to toxicity in your team. Having that kind of personal strength and ability to make a positive impact makes you an asset to any organization; your colleagues (and company leaders) will take notice.

By Kristi DePaul | Categories: Work Remotely

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