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“Courageous” conversations in lockdown

17 June 2020

The article at a glance

Professor Mark de Rond gives us six key techniques to having “courageous” work conversations in the Zoom era in the first webinar …

Category: Insight

Professor Mark de Rond gives us six key techniques to having “courageous” work conversations in the Zoom era in the first webinar of our What’s Next? How to Survive and Thrive in a Post COVID-19 World series.

Here’s an opportunity to see his presentation and read key findings:

Webinar: How to Have “Courageous” Conversations in Lock-down

A tried-and-tested process can help people have “courageous” conversations with co-workers in the remote Zoom video conferencing era when misunderstandings can more easily fester, says Professor Mark de Rond of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Mark de Rond at Camp Bastion.
Dr Mark de Rond at Camp Bastion

For many people, working together by working separately is proving far from straightforward: technological hiccups, “pixel eyes” that result from hours staring into computer screens, and the intrusion of home life on calls can make for a dispiriting experience. Add to this a nagging feeling that others don’t appreciate how hard you work just to stay afloat, and these are the makings of a perfect storm.

While, in the traditional workplace, one can more easily pick up cues as to how people are faring, what’s working and what isn’t, this is much harder to do when working remotely, Mark said to the webinar on Wednesday 10 June, in the first of a series entitled What’s Next? How to Survive and Thrive in a Post-COVID-19 World organised by Corporate Communications & Marketing department at Cambridge Judge.

Mark is Professor of Organisational Ethnography at Cambridge Judge. He received training in mediation and conflict resolution at the Harvard Program on Negotiation and at Consensio Partners, and serves as a member of the University of Cambridge’s mediation service.

He identified six key things people should do in having courageous conversations with work colleagues:

  1. First, accept that this isn’t going to be easy and will likely generate strong emotions on multiple sides, yours included. For that reason alone, give careful thought to what is most important in this conversation for you to walk away with, and keep this foremost in mind when things get tough.
  2. Ask yourself what someone else might like to achieve in this conversation. After all, if they agreed to talk to you, it is never for your reasons but because they have a problem that they would like to resolve. It follows that the only way to solve your problem is to help them solve theirs in the process.
  3. When you finally meet virtually, agree on ground rules such as keeping the discussion private between the two individuals or broader team involved, and listening when others talk with the understanding that everyone will get their say.
  4. Ask what a good outcome will be for everyone in the conversation, and then tell them about your hope for today. “You’ll typically find that most people want the same thing: to restore some semblance of the working relationship so they can get on with their lives and their work,” he says.
  5. Having agreed on the issues to be covered, begin by asking others to tell you what impact it has had on them – on their health, their sanity, and their ability to get work done. This “feelings” conversation is often the most difficult part to get through, but critical if a working relationship is to be rebuilt.
  6. Agree on solutions, and then make commitments and ask for a favour from the other person or people in the conversation. “Here’s what I’m willing to do, but I need you to do something for me too, and here’s what it is.”

In the webinar, Mark outlined these techniques as part of a time-weathered process for having courageous conversations – after first discussing ways to prevent needing the conversations to begin with, and if they are needed how to prepare for such difficult discussions.

“So often with workplace conflict, when you tease it apart, what you’ll find is that quite often conflict is based upon some misunderstandings that simply isn’t ever talked about. People are perpetually poor at having adult-to-adult conversations in the workplace, unable or unwilling to talk about things that really matter,” he said.

In preventing conflict, Mark said one important practice in a remote environment is to avoid long time lags in responding to emails, as this can cause insecurity among co-workers who can’t simply stop at your desk to inquire politely if their email was received.

“In a workplace when we say something that doesn’t land quite well, you can often repair it in a moment”, whereas online it’s far more difficult to determine if something “landed or didn’t land, if it worked or didn’t work, what caused offence and didn’t cause offence,” he said. It follows that it is even more important when working virtually to give others the benefit of doubt, assuming they are trying their best under challenging circumstances.

Finally, under all circumstances, it is useful to remember that being seen as composed, gentle and kind is likely to curry more favour than aggression and suspicion, or letting emotions run roughshod over the conversation. “There’s a lovely quote attributed to Lady Montague that captures this nicely”:

Civility costs nothing, yet it buys everything.