Difficult Virtual Conversations: 5 Tips To Help Make It Easier – Michael Grinder & Associates

Difficult Virtual Conversations: 5 Tips to Help Make It Easier

Having a difficult conversation can be rough — and can feel even rougher when it’s virtual. When do you make eye contact? When do you look away? And is it possible to even have a difficult conversation virtually?

In this video, Michael Grinder, the pioneer of nonverbal communication, gives you five tips to make difficult virtual conversations easier on you — and the other person. If you’ve wondered how to have a challenging conversation over Zoom, you’ll want to check out this video.

Difficult Virtual Conversations: 5 Tips to Help Make It Easier

Just want the tips? Here you go:

  1. Pay attention to what you do with your eyes. Despite what you may read from other sources, it’s not recommend to make eye contact the entire time.
  2. Have something you can look at (and the other person can also see) that physically represents the volatile information — don’t screen share. For instance, if you were referencing a performance report, you could print it it, show it on your iPad — or even use a different computer screen. If you both look at the same information at the same time, your emotion and the recipient’s emotions stay down.
  3. Ensure the physical representation of the bad news is somewhere to your side, so you have to turn your head to see it. Lining up the bad news with your face associates you with the bad news.
  4. Look at the physical representation of the bad news — not directly at the other person. Make sure that the other person follows your eyes.
  5. Once you’ve delivered the bad news (and you were able, with your gestures and focus, to separate yourself from bad news), you can be empathetic and make eye contact again.

Read the modified transcript to “Difficult Virtual Conversations: 5 Tips to Help Make It Easier” below.

Michael Grinder here.

I’ve written books on how to have a successful difficult conversation in person. We live in a different age right now — which of those skills that we know work are transferable into digital difficult conversations?

We’re going to give you five skills that you can walk away with that absolutely work — both in person and through the digital age that we live in.

So here you are, you have to have a difficult conversation with someone and you have content that is really, really volatile. What do you do?

This may sound funny, but be careful of doing your screen sharing because when you do you’re looking at them and they’re looking at you and you’re making eye contact.

What’s the alternative?

Tip #1: Know where to look (hint: don’t make eye contact yet)

The first rule of how to take care of yourself and the other person is where do you look.

Take the information that you’ve sent the person, print it out if you want, or put it on an iPad, but in either case, it has to be external from the screen.


Because this is what we know. If I look at someone and I break bad news, the emotion goes up higher. If I look at the same information but it’s visually represented, my emotion and the recipient’s emotions stay down. So that’s why you’ve got to have external representation of that difficult content.

Now, let’s pretend for some reason, I have it printed out. The person that I’m talking with, his name is Frank. This is a record of all the goal-setting we’ve had for the last six quarters and it has not improved. For me to say, “It has not improved!” absolutely is going to increase my emotions and his, I’m not going to be comfortable, he’s not going to be comfortable.

I’m the boss, I’ve got to be objective. I’ve got to get Frank to understand how to look at what he has done.


Tip #2: Represent the bad news with something external both people can see

Because number two, in addition to where you put your eyes when you have something that is external, Frank is really talking to himself. It’s his performance, it’s not between me and him, it’s his performance.

So number two, use that printout to make sure you’re clear about, “Frank, it looks like we have to let you go.”

But let me be real honest, if you don’t have at least a year of quarterly evaluations, that’s on you. This should not be a surprise to Frank. This should be something that you both understand was coming.

Tip #3: Get the bad news off to the side

Point three, you have the information it’s visual now, where do you put it? So important, you line up the visual directly with you, you are going to be associated in his mind and in your own mind as being the bearer of the bad news.

Point number three, get it off to the side. What a difference it makes.

Tip #4: Look at the bad news — not the other person

You got the bad news off to the side. You don’t want them to be looking at you as the bearer of it. You have to remember number four, what to do with your own eyes.

Because if I look at you with my eyes and I gesture with my hand, which one do you follow? Where my eyes are, where my hand is? Come on, make sure you always look at the bad news so it’s separated from you, the messenger.

Tip #5: Separate the job from empathy

You have your skills down, you know exactly what you want to do for the first four. Number five is the big one.

You have to understand you are a boss. You have to be clear about what is the purpose of this interaction. We want to make sure that Frank understands it’s him with him.

At the same time, you’ve got to show empathy. The Harvard Business Review says, we’ve got to make eye contact. You have to indicate empathy.

The question is when though? See, if I finish all of my negative information and it’s done, now as a boss and as someone who’s looked at his performance we’re clear about that.

Now I can show the empathy. Don’t mix up showing the empathy when you’re doing your job. Otherwise, Frank is going to be confused.

Be clear with him because you’re clear with yourself.

You have all of these five let’s summarize what they are:

  1. Make sure you know what to do with your eyes. In fact, that’s going to be part of all five of the ingredients for how to have an effective virtual difficult conversation.
  2. Have a physical representation of the volatile information, it can be a printout, it can be on an iPad, it could even be on a different screen — but they have to be able to see you looking at that screen.
  3. Get it off to the side. What a difference it makes.
  4. Make sure that they follow your eyes, not your hand gesture.
  5. Once you’ve had the bad news delivered, you’ve separated yourself from bad news, now you can be empathetic. Make eye contact, wish him well in terms of what’s going to happen. When your head hits the pillow tonight, you’ll sleep better. You are doing both your job and you’re being a human being.

Michael Grinder, five skills that are going to help you have virtual difficult conversations.

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