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How to tackle interpersonal challenges remotely

15 Jul 2020 By Philippa Lucarz

Face-to-face meetings may not be possible at the moment, but managers can still ensure staff feel heard, understood and supported during difficult conversations, says Philippa Lucarz

The pandemic has brought about a seismic shift in how HR supports the wider workforce; it has required an immediate and responsive rethink of resolving employee relations challenges. 

Some organisations have grappled with the concept of placing discipline or grievance-type issues on hold, waiting for – and preferring – a more in-person experience, to ensure the process is supportively received and the implied mutual trust isn’t fractured by an ill thought-through and cold remote experience.

Creating and maintaining meaningful human connections and experiences at work is central to that innate sense of belonging and connection that employees need, and which employers want to encourage. It’s at the cornerstone of the employment relationship and solidifies the foundations of trust needed to maintain a healthy and fruitful relationship.

Managing interpersonal fallout remotely can mean that we lose some of the visual cues that we benefit from when being physically present. However, if we delve into the psychology of people and how people tend to perceive and receive information, we can create a successful remote experience – one that keeps colleagues feeling heard, understood, valued and supported.

Below are my top tips for encouraging effective interpersonal resolution, all of which can be effectively delivered remotely:

  • People hear the simplest messages very differently, so it’s important that messages are clear, concise and empathetic. If people feel threatened or criticised by what they hear or read, the emotional side of the brain is triggered, which in turn impairs logical thinking and creates a more tunnelled view of the situation. This can lead to issues and perceptions becoming more deeply entrenched. For people to genuinely listen, with the intent to understand and engage positively, any sense of threat needs to be removed from communication. To do that you need to fully understand someone’s perspective and world view, so that you can demonstrate understanding, empathise and carefully choose your words to avoid triggering a sense of criticism or injustice.
  • For any difficult conversations, always avoid surprises. In advance, communicate the scope of the discussion, the focus and purpose of the discussion, and the structure. This enables you to create a positive frame of what will happen, reduces their uncertainty of how the discussion will evolve, and provides a good opportunity to manage expectations, reframing any negative worries or apprehensions.
  • Allow some time for immediate emotions to settle down before having a discussion. Granted, sometimes an immediate discussion is needed. However, where you can, and only after scoping the approach and structure of the conversation you intend to have, it can be helpful to allow a period of time before speaking, to enable any immediate emotional responses to subside and to allow some time for personal reflection. This can help people connect more with the logical side of their brain, where more rational thinking takes place. They will then be more open to, and ready for, a more solution-focused mindset.
  • If you sense someone isn’t in the right headspace for a productive discussion with their colleague, possibly because they are still feeling offended, hurt or criticised, then a one to one can help before attempting any mediation-type discussion with colleagues. Giving them the time to ‘offload’ and feel heard can build their trust with you, give you the opportunity to reframe any concerns, and enable you to reposition your expectations for the discussion.
  • During the discussion, focus on solutions and not problems. A common first question is to ask someone to describe their experience or issue. In doing this, you resurface all the emotion connected with that experience, which can drain a lot of time and impair their thinking and responses. Discuss the issues on a high level only, avoiding the detail of the problem where you can. Focus on what they need to move forward positively, what measures can be taken to repair the working relationship and what they can do personally. If conversations go off track, reframe the discussion and bring it back to solutions. This will subtly remind them that they have digressed from the intended focus of the discussion.
  • Ask questions and enable others to come up with the solutions; avoid offering advice, where possible. People are more committed to the ideas and actions they generate for themselves.
  • Follow up – to change behaviours, we need to change ideas into actions and then actions into habits, so that they are maintained. Keep the focus on the change you want to see, and it is more likely to happen.

Remote discussions of a difficult nature can leave a lasting positive experience – if the time is taken to really understand the issue, to know the person well and to tailor a well thought-through and personalised communication strategy. After all, the quality of the experience is determined by the delivery, rather than the use of technology.

Philippa Lucarz is director of HR at Myerscough College

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