How do the best remote teams communicate? They lean in, literally (more on that in a minute) and capitalize on whatever medium they’re using. Also, they don’t run from conflict; rather, they set norms to confront it productively.
Click the video above to watch the complete replay of our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop on May 21, “How to Communicate like the Best Remote Teams.” Or check out our detailed recap below.
- Amy Gallo, contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict
- Dustin York, associate professor of communications at Maryville University
Communicating when conflict is on the agenda
Are you a conflict avoider or a conflict seeker? Our polling during the workshop showed a 60/40 breakdown, with avoidance as the more common stance. That wasn’t a surprise to Gallo, who said most of us tend to see conflict as a threat.
But there are ways to prevent conflict situations from hijacking your amygdala, the part of the brain that manages emotions like anger, fear, and sadness.
Gallo’s four major tips for preparing yourself for conflict or tough conversations:
1. Understand where the other person is coming from. What is driving their behavior or stance? This perspective-taking exercise helps you to “approach the conversation with empathy, rather than with guns blazing,” Gallo said.
2. Know what you’re disagreeing about. Be clear on the issues.
3. Determine your goal. Do you need a resolution, or do you just need to be heard? (If the goal is to prove that you’re right and the other person is wrong, find a new goal.) Maybe the goal is to get a project over the finish line—all the better if that’s also the other person’s goal. “There are bonus points,” Gallo said, “if you have a goal that overlaps.”
4. Decide how to proceed. This might include making the choice to not engage at all, but don’t let this be your default, Gallo said.
Create an environment for healthy disagreement
Gallo’s top tips for this include:
1. Agree that you’re going to disagree and have a plan for how your team will resolve conflicts when they arise. “Re-contract” this whenever your team undergoes a major change, such as a quick transition to all-remote work arrangements or a staggered return to the office; different environments may call for different communication tactics.
2. Remember that silence is not the same thing as agreement, particularly in a remote context, where technical difficulties or distractions at home or the awkwardness of your medium might prevent people from speaking up. Designate a “disagreer-in-chief,” someone who has the role of pointing out the risks when a new idea is presented. Make sure this duty gets rotated.
3. Hold your opinion lightly. If you want to change someone’s mind, Gallo advised, show them your willingness to change yours.
4. Watch your mindset, and act comfortable, even when you aren’t.
Remember your nonverbal communication
York, who did his dissertation on the impact of nonverbal communication on audience retention, explained how simple changes to body language can have big effects.
Some of his top tips:
1. Get away from the back of your chair. Studies show that sitting in the front 75% of your chair and/or leaning forward just slightly will result in people finding you more approachable, likeable, and credible. This works in person and on video calls, too.
2. Keep your toes and torso pointed toward the person you’re speaking with. It’s a subtle but very real way of showing you’re engaged. Even if the person on the other end of the line can’t see your toes and torso, point them in the direction of your screen if you can. Remember, our nonverbal cues can be picked up in other ways; for example, when we record a voicemail message, our voices can register differently if we are smiling while we say the words.
3. Look into your computer’s camera. That’s the best way to simulate eye contact on a video call. It helps to move the box with the person’s image in it as close as you can to your machine’s camera.
4. Be mindful of the urgency of instant messaging. People tend to put pressure on themselves to respond right away to instant messages—even more so than with email. (See the Quartz at Work story: Time is a strong but rarely recognized power construct in the workplace.)
5. Get familiar with the phrase “What I hear you saying is…” Acknowledging what you have heard from people is useful on two levels: it prevents information from getting lost in translation (particularly helpful in the case of a bad video connection, for example) and it shows the other person that you are listening, which engenders trust and will lead to a better outcome.