by Lisa Dicker ’17 and Shane Hebel ’17
“That is a conversation that probably needs to happen in person.”
We can all think of myriad personal and professional conversations that fall into this category: Giving critical feedback to someone you manage; having a conversation with a family member about political views; talking a friend through the loss of a job; announcing big changes in company policy; onboarding a new employee and introducing them to their team; providing support for someone who has an ill loved one; introducing your parents to a new significant other. The list could go on and on. There are many moments in work and in life that prior to early 2020, you would have turned away from text, email, phone calls, or even video chats in favor of in-person communication. But over the last nine months, our ability to build, maintain, and provide support in relationships has been largely—and suddenly—restricted to doing so through technology.
While having challenging conversations, being supportive in tough moments, and delivering hard news through technological platforms requires a new skill set for many of us, there are already industries that have been built around exactly this intersection. We have over a decade of experience volunteering as virtual crisis counselors—including through Crisis Text Line, the Trevor Project, and the Distress Centres of Greater Toronto. Crisis counseling is largely conducted remotely, most prominently through phone and text services. During conversations with individuals contacting a crisis line, we as crisis counselors build a relationship, learn about someone’s story, and jointly plan steps forward to ensure their safety. We recognize that there are massive differences between crisis counseling and the wide variety of remote communications happening in personal and professional lives, but we have also found ourselves translating the skill set into our current world of remote communications with friends, family, and colleagues during the challenges of 2020.
We’ve distilled some of the best practices from our crisis counseling work that we’ve found most applicable to remote difficult conversations more broadly, in the hopes that these strategies are helpful for you as you navigate these new ways of working and interacting with each other.
Let go of the notion that effective difficult conversations are only possible in person.
When we started doing virtual crisis counseling, like many, we were holding onto the assumption that asynchronous text messages would feel hollow in comparison to our norm of having difficult conversations in person in our non-crisis counseling lives. We were skeptical of using remote mediums to build rapport, learn about a texter’s current situation, and de-escalate a crisis situation. Instead, we’ve both been amazed at the dynamism of a remote conversation and the ability to foster deep connections when deploying effective techniques.
Although this was a surprise to us, it shouldn’t have been: we’ve all been doing this for years without realizing it. We develop deep connections over phone calls, texts, instant messaging, social media platforms, dating apps, and video chats. Truthfully, a lot of times what holds us back in a mode other than in-person interactions is simply the idea that we can’t do it or it won’t be as meaningful. If you come into a conversation with preconceived ideas of how it’s going to go, you’ll likely prove yourself right. Adjust your mindset to allow for the possibility that these conversations can occur effectively through remote mediums.
Focus on and show up to the conversation, just as you would in person
Part of being effective in a remote conversation is fully being present in that conversation. Just like you wouldn’t answer a text in the middle of a one-on-one business meeting, important remote communications also demand your full focus. Not only will the lack of distraction signal to the other person that you are focused on them (as subtle as you think you may be, others can tell if you are multitasking, particularly on phone or video calls), but this also allows you to give your undivided attention to the flow of the conversation. Indeed, mentally jumping in and out of the conversation can negatively impact your ability to communicate. Even in asynchronous, remote communication, texting another friend back or checking Instagram will detract from your ability to navigate the conversation effectively. While multitasking may be fine in your average daily conversations, difficult conversations take more focus. Just consider how jarring it would be if you were watching a complex, intense movie, but you paused the movie every few minutes, watched a clip of something else, and then started watching the movie again. You would likely have difficulty tracking the storyline and subtleties of an intricate film.
As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t check an email or fold laundry during a similar conversation in person, don’t do it remotely, either. When we do crisis counseling shifts, we set ourselves up as if we were supporting a friend during a crisis, which, for us, both happens to be by sitting at a clean kitchen table typically with a hot beverage, some comfort food, and no distractions. If faced with a remote difficult conversation, consider setting yourself up for the conversation as if you were in person—clear off your desk and close everything but your video chat for that difficult work call; make a cup of tea and cozy up on your couch to talk to a friend having a hard time. In this way, you are not only resisting the urge to multitask, but also giving yourself the same mental cues you’d have in person by physically engaging the conversation in a similar manner.
The tempo of remote communication may feel slower, but don’t rush it
We tend to have less patience in a remote conversation than we do when in person. If you were in person, you may make it through drinks and appetizers before your friend who is venting about their boss pauses to take a breath. By contrast, if a friend texts you about their frustrating day at work, you may start offering advice after their first text explaining their day, which may only be a sentence or two long. Similarly, when scheduling a hard conversation with someone you manage, for an in person meeting you may schedule a full hour, but having that same conversation over Zoom you are more likely to feel the urge to get this call wrapped up. While an in-person work meeting may include rapport-building and casually checking in generally before diving into the specific topic at hand and next steps, over technology we are more apt to skip straight into the “action items” of the call. In doing so we may miss crucial moments to build the relationship or collect data on the context the person is operating within. Just think about how many happy hours or social engagements we’ve had this year that ended at the exact moment the Zoom call was supposed to wrap up. While we’d normally let things wrap up naturally and on whatever time frame makes sense, we wrap things up at the end of the “scheduled” time virtually. Or, if you used to spend a regular dinner or weekend afternoon with loved ones each week, think about how those full evenings or afternoons have translated into far shorter phone calls. Whether consciously or subconsciously, in remote communications we tend to have a “get to the point” feeling. In crisis counseling, we learn to resist this impulse and give the conversation a tempo more similar to the drinks/appetizer or full-hour meeting approach: Typically we exchange messages for 20 minutes or longer in order to fully understand what is going on before we move into safety planning. Try something similar—matching the pace and phases of a conversation to what you would expect in person. It may take longer than you expect. That’s okay.
Using active listening remotely is not only still important; it is essential
You cannot be a passive participant in a remote conversation. When you are having an in-person conversation, your body language can indicate that you are listening Although perhaps not the most effective way to have a conversation, you can stay largely silent while someone explains their thoughts, feelings, and problems to you, and still indicate that you are engaged. Remote communication largely takes this option away: If you stay silent, the conversation will end. Moreover, because you lack the physical context and cues you would get in person, active listening is crucial to your ability to truly understand the experience and perspective of the other person because the primary data you have about how they are thinking and feeling is what they tell you. Below we’ve summarized three information-gathering and de-escalation techniques that are integral to our crisis counseling work that we’ve found translatable to our personal and professional remote communications:
Summarize to check your understanding:
Paraphrasing by repeating back what was said to you in your own words confirms that you’re listening, helps you retain information, and has the bonus of allowing the other person to correct you if you’re getting it wrong or to add further details if your understanding is incomplete. Some illustrative examples:
- If your aunt starts texting you about politics you disagree with, instead of immediately pushing back with counterpoints, imagine first saying “What I hear you saying is that you care about A and B, and that you are worried about C.”
- If a supervisor calls you panicking about a funder deadline that was moved up, instead of jumping straight into a flurry of next steps, first confirm your clarity about the situation with “My understanding is that the funder deadline, which was previously in three weeks, is now in one week, and we still have X, Y, and Z to accomplish. Is that right?”
Express empathy through directly acknowledging feelings:
Typically, we shy away from sitting with hard emotions because it’s, well, hard. However, an acknowledgement of the actual feeling someone is going through, regardless of how negative, can be powerful because it makes the individual feel understood. Be careful of falling into the trap of downplaying emotions (i.e., saying “You sound upset.” when the person actually seems devastated). Often listeners fall into this trap because they think naming a less strong emotion will assist in de-escalating the speaker, but it is more likely to cause their feelings to actually escalate as they feel unheard and misunderstood.
- Acknowledging a story of someone feeling left out after finding out that their friends had Zoom game night without inviting them with something like, “It sounds like you feel isolated and not valued by those friends.”
- Acknowledging someone sharing how tired they feel juggling a full-time job and full-time family and childcare duties while working from home with something like, “I think anyone would feel overwhelmed with all of that going on.”
Ask thoughtful questions to better your understanding:
Thoughtful, open-ended questions can both indicate that you’re listening and give you invaluable additional information you may not have otherwise received, which is particularly important in remote communications when the only context and information you have is what they express to you. We naturally deformalize everything in remote communications—including our conversation flow. For instance, it is normal for a text conversation to go on for quite a while without a single question being asked or for someone on a Zoom call to only come off of mute to present their opinion. Indeed, remote communications often lapse into an exchange of statements rather than being an actual conversation. This is something to rethink in difficult conversations.
- When your friend is talking about a breakup and only describing events that happened, asking “Can you tell me a little more about how you’re feeling about everything?”
- When your family is discussing potential ways to see each other over the holidays, asking “What worries you most thinking about the holidays?”
If you present a proposal for action steps to improve performance of someone you manage, following up with “How is this plan landing for you?”
Don’t forget to close your conversation
An often overlooked aspect of remote conversations is how to close them. For instance, at the conclusion of a challenging in-person business meeting, you would typically discuss next steps, confirm the next meeting (if there will be one), and perhaps shake hands. Similarly, if you were providing support to a friend in person, you may say goodbye with a hug and a suggestion to meet for dinner the next night. But, in a remote setting, the meeting may just end after everyone has said their piece. A lack of an intention to close the conversation in a specific way can easily lead to a lack of closure. For instance, once one person signs off of a virtual work meeting, others tend to follow suit quickly even if there has not been a wrap-up to the conversations or clear next steps. And, in the virtual meeting world, there are fewer opportunities to informally check in post-meeting. What may have naturally been a quick side conversation as others collected their things to leave the room or a check-in while walking down the hall to grab coffee post-meeting does not exist in remote communication. The Zoom room closes and participants are on their own again. In asynchronous communication, like texting a friend, the conversation may simply amorphously conclude when one of you stops replying. Particularly in remote difficult conversations, closing the conversation with the same level of support and forethought for next steps that you would in person is key. In crisis counseling we use a combination of (1) summarizing the conversation, (2) identifying next steps (if any), and (3) affirmation or validation, and these can be mapped onto challenging remote conversations, as well.
Not every conversation will have next steps, in which case, we encourage you to still close the conversation with (1) a summary and (3) affirmation and validation. Just because there is not an action to take going forward doesn’t mean the conversation doesn’t require a conclusion (a common pitfall!). For instance, if you have had a hard conversation with a relative about politics you may (1) summarize the priorities and policy concerns you heard, and (3) thank them for sharing their candid views and feelings.
Having these sorts of conversations is never easy, and 2020 has thrown an additional wrench into them by forcing us to adapt by restricting many of these conversations to remote mediums. Though remote conversations may always feel different than in-person engagement, with practice and the use of appropriate techniques, they don’t have to be any less meaningful or effective.
Lisa Dicker ’17 is a Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program and a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. She holds a JD from Harvard Law School where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, and has served on teaching teams for Harvard Law School’s Negotiation Workshop, Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation’s executive education courses, and independent programs. Lisa volunteers as crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line. Read more about Lisa here.
Shane Hebel ’17 holds a JD from Harvard Law School, where he was a teaching assistant for the Negotiation Workshop and the Harvard Negotiation Institute and is an alum of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. He has over five years of crisis counseling experience, volunteering with Crisis Text Line, The Trevor Project, and Distress Centres of Greater Toronto. He is the Senior Manager of Strategy for the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center.