Let’s face it, being a leader is not for the faint of heart in the best of circumstances. One of the more challenging things we occasionally must do is give difficult feedback and have tough performance conversations. Recently EPI was asked how to approach a difficult conversation in a virtual environment—something that has its own specific challenges.

We gave it some thought and came up with a few tips we’ve found helpful over the years:

Don’t have the conversation via email.

It’s fine to follow up with an email that clarifies expectations and confirms everyone’s understanding, but the initial conversation should ideally happen by phone so that you can tap into nuances of tone or even silence. Video conferencing can be great for a different way of connecting, but it’s still easy to miss nuance and body language. And video calls can be exhausting.

Document, document, document.

Note the facts and agreed-upon outcomes just as you would in any office situation.

Prepare for the conversation.

Write down any specifics you want to address in case you get flustered or off track.

Use “I” statements.

This is just as important now as in person. Using “I” statements helps diffuse difficult situations.

Clarify expectations.

This is a great chance for you to explain what you expect from the person involved and make sure they understand those expectations. Not only does this ensure you’re moving toward the mutual goal, it also gives you a baseline to refer to if you need to have another conversation down the road.

Vulnerability is especially important in a virtual environment.

Most people are still getting used to this new way of working and will make mistakes. You included. If you make a mistake, own it. And then move on. Your team will appreciate your honesty, and they will be less fearful of making their own mistakes.

Don’t avoid the tough conversations.

If someone was struggling with performance before, they will still be struggling now (perhaps even more so). Don’t avoid the tough conversation or feedback because of current circumstances.

Express empathy.

It is more important now than ever to practice empathy.

Difficult conversations are never easy, no matter how we are working. But we still must show that we care enough about our teammates to want them to be successful!

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Director, Talent Management