How to Have a Difficult Conversation Virtually?
No one likes to give a client bad news, bring their expectations down to earth, or end a business relationship. Normally, difficult conversations take place face to face and are followed by a written confirmation of the discussion, the aim being to avoid any misunderstanding between you and your client. But these are nothing if not unusual times! In the context of a pandemic, when face-to-face meetings are more limited, how do you have a difficult conversation virtually? Here are a few suggestions:
Prior to the Conversation
- Change your mindset: Whether difficult conversations take place virtually or otherwise, they tend to make us anxious, upset or frustrated. The reason is quite simple: the majority of us perceive them negatively. But why not put a positive spin on these conversations? For example, instead of thinking, “My client will be disappointed since the expected results are unlikely”, think, “This discussion is an opportunity to offer alternatives”.
- Create a sense of co-presence: This means using technology to recreate a setting that comes closest to a face-to-face conversation. In this respect, videoconferencing seems to be the ideal technological tool. Also, make sure that your Internet connection is working properly (sufficient bandwidth) and that you are familiar with the videoconferencing software you will be using.
- Favour technologies that allow you to have eye contact: Similarly, videoconferencing should be favoured over telephone or audio calls on a digital platform. Videoconferencing allows you to see the other person’s non-verbal language and to deliver your message in a more empathetic way using the tone of your voice and facial expressions.
- Get ready for the difficult conversation: Make a list of the facts on which your opinion or position is based. Also, anticipate the questions your client may ask you. Next, note the critical points your client needs to retain from the conversation and adequately identify the purpose of the conversation. Information technology can create a sense of distance between people. This leads to more general or abstract discussions. Difficult conversations need to be clear, direct and transparent. They often require concrete feedback illustrated with specific examples and facts. Thus, proper preparation for a difficult conversation will make it easier to return to the essential points if the discussion were to veer off course.
- Try to understand your client’s issues or motivations: We often view difficult conversations as a confrontational process. The person who succeeds in imposing their view is the lucky winner. However, the situation or issue is rarely “black or white”. Looking at the problem from the client’s point of view and thinking about their motivations will put you in a more constructive problem-solving mood.
During the Conversation
- Show that you are open-minded: Ask questions to demonstrate that you are genuinely seeking to understand the other person’s point of view. This also involves showing empathy. In our text on active listening, entitled L’art de l’écoute active, published in the October 2020 edition of the Praeventio Bulletin, we discussed the importance of “reflecting”. In essence, this means describing in your own words what you understand about the situation or issues presented to you, the emotions you feel about the situation and the emotions you feel as your client tells their story. Remember that keeping an open mind to the information provided is not the same as agreeing with what the other person is saying. You are always free to stick to your position.
- Slow down and listen: Slow down the pace of the conversation and, if necessary, pause before answering. This will allow you to choose the appropriate words to present your position and will reduce the intensity of the anxiety or negative emotions you feel as a result of the conversation. Moreover, pauses force your client to take responsibility for what is said. Indeed, as long as you are speaking, your client does not have to commit themselves. In other words, a pause forces your client to take a position. It’s also important to take the time to listen. This will provide you with a better understanding of the issues at stake.
- Avoid distractions: Make sure you are in an office or corner of the house where there will be no distractions. Inform the people in your home that you will not be available during the virtual meeting.
- Use clear and jargon-free language: Whether virtually or not, it’s important to express yourself in a simple and straightforward way to avoid any misunderstanding with your client.
- Propose alternatives: Where possible, suggest alternatives to your client. For example, if the chances of success of a case are mixed, propose settlement negotiations.
- Check your client’s understanding: To do this, use open-ended questions rather than closed-ended questions. For example, instead of saying, “Do you understand?”, ask, “What do you think of the proposed strategy?”
- In all events, be sure to end the conversation with clear instructions on how to proceed with the file: Each party to the conversation must know what needs to be done and the deadlines for doing so. The “game plan” must be unambiguous.
After the Conversation
- Send your client a written report of the conversation in order to document your file.
- Remain available if your client has any questions: Taking the time to answer your client’s questions will, in many cases, avoid second thoughts on the decisions that were made during the conversation.
- Take stock of what happened: At the end of a difficult conversation, it’s always worthwhile to reflect on some of your reactions or on how certain things could have been approached differently. The goal is certainly not to make yourself feel guilty, but to learn from events with a view to continuous improvement.
In short, it’s never easy to have a difficult conversation, whether virtually or not. Unfortunately, maintaining good client service sometimes involves addressing difficult issues. That said, remember that most clients appreciate a lawyer who gives them the straight facts and saves them the expense of a legal saga.
Gallo, A. (2016). How to Mentally Prepare for a Difficult Conversation, Harvard Business Review. Found at: https://hbr.org/2016/04/how-to-mentally-prepare-for-a-difficult-conversation.
Knight, R. (2015). How to Handle Difficult Conversations at Work, Harvard Business Review. Found at: https://hbr.org/2015/01/how-to-handle-difficult-conversations-at-work.
Lord, I. (2015). Le courage de dire : pour des conversations difficiles qui ne démobilisent pas. Found at: https://ordrecrha.org/ressources/competences-personnelles/2015/01/le-courage-de-dire-pour-des-conversations-difficiles-qui-ne-demobilisent-pas.
Markman, A. (2019). How to Have Difficult Conversations Virtually, Harvard Business Review. Found at: https://hbr.org/2019/07/how-to-have-difficult-conversations-virtually?ab=at_articlepage_recommendedarticles_bottom1x1