Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Presentations Tough Call: Handling “Difficult” Remote Conversations Like a Pro

Tough Call: Handling “Difficult” Remote Conversations Like a Pro



Judy Rees talks about tricks and tips that have worked for distributed-working pioneers, and ways to apply them for ourselves.


Judy Rees works with senior leaders, operational managers, teams, coaches, and all kinds of “change professionals” to develop advanced communication skills. Her specialism is supporting highly diverse teams to connect effectively, even when members rarely meet in person. She facilitates online meetings, workshops, conferences and teaches facilitators and trainers to do their thing remotely.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.

[Note: please be advised that this transcript contains strong language]


Rees: Before we get started, I have a question for you. What's one difficult kind of remote conversation that you tend to have that you would like to be different? This is one in the privacy of your own brain initially, and then turn to your neighbor to talk about it, but not just yet. Just to spark some ideas, I thought you might like to see this. If you haven't seen it before, it's absolutely awesome. It's by Elise Keith of Lucid Meetings. This is a map, a periodic table of all the different kinds of business meetings that are out there. If you didn't think of anything when I said, "What's a kind of difficult remote conversation that you have that you'd like different," here might be some ideas. For me, some of the difficult ones are ones with lots of high emotions, lots of stress, lots of difference of opinion, lots of arguments. For other people it might be sales conversations. It might be project planning meetings, or it might just be the kind of conversation where nobody speaks.

Just for 30 seconds, please turn to your neighbor and talk about what's one difficult conversation, remote, that you'd like to be different? Now, here's the thing. I should, of course, have done this before we started, but here's a suggestion. When we do an activity and we come to the end activity, if you see me stick my hand up, please stick your hand up and stop talking. If you haven't used it before, it's a really good way of bringing a group to silence quickly. We'll try it out in a little while, but I'm glad you've all got some ideas in your mind about some difficult conversations that you'd like to be different. When you have an idea in your mind about something that you might want to apply this talk to, you're going to pay more attention, and that's going to work better for me, and hopefully for you as well.

Welcome, my name's Judy [Rees]. This is hopefully going to be quite an interactive session. I want to make sure you go away with at least one idea for something that you can try in your real life in the immediate period after this conference. I'm guessing that most of you will have some kind of remote conversation some of the time, that you'd like them to be different. Here's where we're going with today's talk. Lisette [Sutherland] is down here in the pink, she's quoted. She pointed out in her excellent book, "Work Together Anywhere," successful remote working results from a finely tuned, consciously chosen combination of skill set, mind set, and tool set.

I thought what we could do in this session would be to explore those three things in relation to difficult remote conversations: skill set, mind set, and tool set. Ok, so I suggest we start with skill set.

Skill Set

One of the things I love about teaching people, training people to have better online conversations is that when it comes to skill set, everybody understands that you're not born knowing this stuff. Nobody comes out of the womb with a talent for doing video conferencing. One of the things that you can think about doing is, what amongst your skill sets is transferrable to remote, and what's different? What are some of the things that are definitely going to be different?

We'll come back to a list of some of those things that are going to be different in a moment. What I really would like you to do is have an experience of a skill which you can easily develop for yourself both in the room and remote. A skill which is subtly different, in the room and remote, and a skill which is a deep underpinning skill, which when you build this skill, will make it much easier for you to build additional skills in remote working and in remote conversations. I'm hoping that sounds interesting, because all it is is the skill of attention – of paying attention, and of guiding attention. Paying attention is subtly different when you're remote. When you know how to pay attention well, you can pick up all sorts of interesting information from your remote conversation that you would otherwise have missed, and that means that you can get better and better at the other stuff.

Here's the activity. In a moment I'm going to invite you to get into pairs with the person you just spoke to, or somebody different, it doesn't matter. Just to be talking to one other person, and you're going to take it in turns to be the speaker and the listener. The speaker's job is to talk about something that's important to them. That could be something work related, it could be a hobby, it could be your family, something important to you for two minutes, or thereabouts.

The listener's job is more interesting. The listener is going to go through three states. Number one, listen with your full attention on the other person. Number two, be distracted. This is the only time during this talk I'm going to invite you to get your phone out. You can also be distracted by me jumping up and down and waving my arms about, if you like. Then, the third state, go back to listening. Then, we'll bring the group to order again and then we'll swap roles. Let's see what happens.

Everybody survived talking to the next person, great. I'm curious, what happened when your listener was distracted?

Participant 1: The speaker was also distracted.

Rees: Who had a different experience?

Participant 2: I lost my train of thought.

Rees: Who had a different or a similar experience?

Participant 3: I noticed it, then I was, "All right, I'm going to plow right on through."

Rees: You noticed that you plowed on through. Other people, you were distracted, you lost your train of thought. Is there a relationship between that activity and what happens in remote conversations?

Participant 5: Yes, maybe that's if you don't have the video chat on then you don't know whether your partner is distracted or not.

Rees: Yes, if there's no video you don't know whether your partner is distracted or not, and?

Participant 6: If you can't see the facial expressions of recognition, or confusion, or interest, then you don't have the micro-feedback to power your motivation and signs of success to keep going down a different direction, or to understand where to focus and where to de-focus, and focus on a different thing.

Participant 7: If the video is switched on and you didn't know it's switched on, you can be doing something which you don't know you're doing, just still more distracted.

Participant 8: Even if the video is off, the keyboards tapping away is a dead giveaway.

Participant 9: I think if you're doing remote calling where you're using your computer, it's much harder to resist the temptation to try and do something else at the same time.

Rees: Absolutely, it's really hard, because you're staring at your computer, and the notifications come up, and you're in that place where you're used to doing your emails, and all that stuff, and yet, the quality of your attention can determine the quality of another person's thought. When your listener is distracted, you lose your train of thought. Nancy Kline, who came up with this brilliant quote, she's very expert in facilitating in-the-room conversations, not very keen on doing remote ones, not least because she finds it hard to hold people's attention away from the emails and the notifications, and to keep them doing their thing on the call.

For me, when it comes to the skill set of effective remote meetings, attention is absolutely critical, but people don't seem to notice that it's actually a skill. It's something that can be trained. You can get better at paying attention, and I recommend that you do. I think it's safe to say that pretty much all the highly effective remote teams that have been written about or have written about themselves, make a point of making sure their video cameras are on, and making sure that there's an agreement. If you're in the conversation, you're in the conversation. If you have to leave, leave, but don't be half-in, and half-out. Pay attention.

That single change of paying attention will make a dramatic difference to the quality of difficult conversations that you experience. That's because influence, in its broadest sense, is predicated on attention. This is one way of illustrating the idea that effective influence starts by paying attention. When you know what's going on for the other person, and then perhaps you guide their attention by asking some questions, then you're in a much stronger position to make your pitch, to do your speaking up.

You guys know this from the point of view of creating products, you know that it's about, first, listen to the user. Know what they really want, but the same applies when it comes to difficult conversations online. If you're in a conversation with somebody and they're angry, first, pay attention. Listen to what they're angry about, and often that on its own will reduce the emotional temperature. It just works. Then, you can ask some questions. You can find out the background to what they want, what they're upset about, once you've brought down the emotional load. That's where guiding attention comes in, and from there you're in a position to say, "Yes, I've heard you say how you feel about it. Given what you feel about it and that I've heard, are you interested to hear how I feel about that?" You're much more likely to get a yes when you've listened first.

Attention and developing your attentional skills is a really big idea when it comes to difficult remote conversations. That little activity – listen, be distracted, listen – is one that you could potentially do with your teams, your colleagues. It takes about five minutes total, but every group has a similar experience that it's hard to keep talking when somebody's not listening. Of course, there are lots of other skills that you might choose to build when it comes to difficult remote meetings.

These are some of the ones that emerge quite strongly in the trainings that I run, and with Lisette [Sutherland] as well. Things like, how do you keep people fully engaged in a remote conversation? Of course, you want them to turn off their distractions, turn off their email, all that kind of thing, but how do you keep them focused? How do you design a conversation so that people are more likely to stay focused? Design a conversation? Yes, it's allowed, you can design a conversation. You can construct a plan which will make your meeting much more effective. Another one that comes up for a lot of people is, how do I track the energy? How do I know whether people are angry or bored? That comes down to attention again. You need to pay attention to what people are doing, what people are saying, and then you'll know what they're thinking and feeling. Again, video cameras on makes an enormous difference. We'll come back to that in a moment.

There are more skills you can build. There's stuff like, how do you really use the online space in a way that's analogous to how you do it in the room? A lot of you will know that in difficult, by which I'm saying highly emotional conversations in which there might be anger, a lot of you know that it's generally advised to sit down next to the person you're working with rather than sitting across from them on the table. Sit next to them and have a document between you. If you've got video cameras on, effectively you are sitting opposite, so how can we adjust the space to make us appear to be more on the same side rather than opposing each other? These are skills that you can experiment with and play with. Come on one of our courses, of course, you'll learn it all very quickly, and it's too big for one talk, but you can play with it. Just think, "What would I do in the room, and how can I make that similar or as effective when I'm remote?"

Finally in this list is the Groan Zone, which is the point, for example, in a discussion where there's a lot of people and a lot of different points of view, the point of maximum divergence gets called the Groan Zone. People find it really, really uncomfortable, and that's true whether it's in-the-room meetings or remote meetings. Remote meeting, though, have one subtle difference, is that when people find themselves really uncomfortable they're much more likely to distract themselves or suffer a sudden internet outage.

There are ways of managing that Groan Zone. For example, if you're going into a brainstorming event where you've designed it, and you know that there's going to be a point of maximum divergence that might be uncomfortable, you might want to warn your group about that. Let them know there's going to be a challenging point in this meeting. I'm going to be challenging you to hold different view points and to talk about those different view points. Please, can we have a deal for the length of this meeting that we stay online, that we stay present, and that we sit with our discomfort? Trust me, it will get better after the Groan Zone. That's how it works. Those kinds of things are little, tiny tweaks that you can do that can make some of these difficult meetings more effective.

Now I know you've probably full of questions at this point. I'm hoping that we're going to have quite a chunk of question time at the end of this, so hold the questions in your mind, or make a note. At the same time, be thinking, "How could I apply what she just said to that difficult kind of remote meeting that we talked about in the very beginning? How could this be relevant?"

Mind Set

I'm going to press on to the question of mind set. Who knows who these three people are?

Participant 10: Chess players.

Rees: Chess players. The Polgár sisters. I don't know whether everybody else knew this already, but I didn't know until reading a book very recently that László Polgár, the father of the three first female Grandmasters of chess, was an educational psychologist. He was a great believer in the power of nurture over nature. He believed that it was possible to teach children to be brilliant at pretty much anything, and he was so convinced that he decided to seek out a woman who had the same view and was willing to have children with him and go through a huge experiment.

The Polgár sisters were an experiment in nurture over nature. I find that astonishing, but it really opens up for me this idea that you can get good at stuff which initially feels impossible. László Polgár knew the moves at chess but he wasn't some Grandmaster. He did know how to make it fun and interesting to learn how to play chess, so that's what he did.

The fact that you've got some difficult remote conversations that you want to have puts you in a brilliant position. As the thought psychologist Anders Ericsson says, "You only get good by practicing the stuff that you're not yet good at." You have to practice the stuff that's hard as well as the stuff that's easy. Difficult conversations can be a brilliant place to get good at stuff.

I appreciate that that's not always going to be a realistic thing to say, but have you read David Marquet's new book, "Leadership is Language?" He's the guy who wrote "Turn the Ship Around!," well-known book. His new book, "Leadership is Language," is absolutely awesome. I strongly recommend it, nearly as much as I recommend Lisette's [Sutherland] book. He points out that when you're under pressure of deadlines and various emotions it's actually really difficult to do the work of practicing and getting good at stuff. How might we use our mind set to develop our difficult meeting skills? It seems to me there's only one possible way, which is to find some meetings which are not quite as difficult as the worst ones and practice there. Do practice there, because there's where you're going to get good.

Tool Set

Skill set and mind set we've covered, now I want to come onto the issue that you've all been waiting for, tool set. I had a fascinating experience while preparing for this talk. You guys all want the most super-duper tools, and I thought, "It's obvious, what we need for this talk is a picture of one of those Edwardian lady cyclists in a long frock, who's obviously using the wrong tools." With a little bit of internet research, I not only found a picture of an Edwardian lady cyclist, I found my new hero, Tessie Reynolds.

Tessie Reynolds was the first woman to record a record cycling time from London, to Brighton, and back. In 1893, she put in a time of just a fraction over eight hours. She was 16 years old. The same month, the male record was about seven hours, so she was pretty awesome when it came to cycling. What was particularly interesting about Tessie Reynolds in relation to our remote meeting problem was that she didn't wait for skin-tight lycra, or for carbon-framed cycles, or even for there actually to be a women's record for her to beat.

She went in using the equipment that she had, a safety bicycle, and what she had, but she didn't wear a long skirt. She drew the line at an ankle-length skirt, because that would've caught the wind and slowed her right down. Instead she adopted rational dress. She wore knickerbockers and a jacket, so this is the fastest women's cycling kit of her day. She chose the best that she could get at the time. She wasn't wishing for dreams, but equally, she wasn't putting up with any shit.

When it comes to tool set, my strong advice to you is to make sure that on every difficult remote conversation, everybody can be seen and heard. I know that's not trivial for some of you. Some of you are working with some systems which don't allow that. It's time to put your foot down. Everybody should be seen and heard. That means cameras on. I do appreciate that not everybody can have their camera on every time all the time. Sometimes there are situations which mean that for this specific call I can't have my camera on, but the whole idea of, "It's our company culture. We don't bother with cameras," no. This isn't the 1990s, we're in 2020. We've moved on, cameras work. Just turn them on.

One person, one device. If at all possible don't set the thing up for failure by having a bunch of people in a room together and one person stuck over on the side, unable to hear, unable to see, and still trying to get their opinion heard, it's not going to work. That is not the way to make a constructive conversation happen. Everybody seen and heard is the trick.

Quickly, there are a few things that, if you'd like to learn more about this stuff and go to the next level in terms of content, here are some links. The second link down there is a free minibook by InfoQ, which features several of the speakers of this conference. The minibook is called "Mastering Remote Meetings," and it covers loads of this kind of stuff.


Back to what we've been covering. Skill set, mind set, and tool set will all make an enormous difference. Of the skill set, start by developing your attention, training your attention. Learn and practice like the pros, like some of the people that we've been seeing pictures of in this. Sports people don't say, "I wasn't born to be able to do this," and then give up. They practice the hard stuff. Michael Jordan's famous quote: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots. I've lost almost 300 games, 26 times I've been trusted to take the winning shot and missed," but he didn't give up. He keeps on going.

Thinking back to that difficult conversation that you'd like to be different, what's something that we've covered so far that you might try? Take a moment to think, and then take a moment to turn to the person next to you and see what you've come up with.

Another little twist, take your two to team up with another two, and continue the conversation so you find out about three other people. Great, let's hear a few things that either you're going to try or you heard someone is going to try. Who's got something?

Participant 11: I find that I have external monitors plugged into my laptop and that always causes me to get distracted, so for my own personal attention, any time I'm on a call I'm just going to unplug those external monitors.

Rees: Brilliant, thank you. Who's got something different?

Participant 12: Definitely we agreed that the problem is if one group of the people is in one big room, and that does make the communication much more difficult. If somebody is close to the mic you can understand him or her quite well, but if somebody's in another part of the room it's difficult, but that's our own experience from different companies in different countries.

Rees: Yes, it's really difficult. Who else? Who's got something different they're going to try?

Participant 13: I think I'm going to try a mind set change. I often avoid difficult conversations with people who I don't think are having the best impact that they could, so when I see that happening I'm going to weigh it in and have an impactful conversation with them.

Rees: Just weigh it in, thank you.

Participant 14: I'm actually just going to share a tip that Charles [Humble] shared with us, which is if people don't want to turn the video on you can ask to turn the video on for the initial five-minute check-in, and that actually over time people get more comfortable with having the video on all the time.

Rees: Absolutely, it works really well.

Participant 15: I was going to say my difficult conversations were more about team meetings, and retros and things, and getting people to participate, so I'm going to do the listen, distracted, listen exercise just across my whole team and see. Just because people think they can get on ok with remote conversations but I'm not sure they can as well as they think they can.

Rees: Thank you. Did you have one as well?

Participant 16: My difficult conversation was around project updates and, "Hey, this is taking a bit longer." The thing I'm going to try doing is noticing what parts of their facial expressions indicate either, "Ok, that's fine," or, "This is frustrating," because I think I tend to default assume they're frustrated.

Rees: Interesting. One more.

Participant 17: I think I was going to experiment with video camera placement for a difficult conversation, because I know I've got one coming up. I might be asking for a sneaky hint or two later, but practice that and see what it's like.

Rees: Yes, I'm now really curious, video camera placement. Say a little bit more about video camera placement.

Participant 17: Obviously default it looks like you're very face to face. I have a performance improvement conversation to have, whereas I definitely would be in a room and we would not be face to face. We would be corner to corner, or something like that. I'll try and find something that looks ok and not fake to do that via video.

Rees: Yes, interesting challenge. One thing you might consider is talking to them ahead of time and saying, because this is useful stuff that everybody can learn, "Normally we'd sit on the corners of a table. How can we make it feel less confrontational?" Getting them to participate in the decision making can make a real difference, too.

In a moment we'll go onto questions, but before we do, I just wanted to highlight something that I've been doing in this session which is something that I do when I'm designing online activities. Whether I'm designing a whole online conference, or unconference, or whether I'm designing a 90-minute educational experience, otherwise known as a webinar that connects, or I'm literally doing a whole-day class online, in all those circumstances I have some design principles about how I design my conversations that I think make them more effective. Specifically, I have a very tight limit on the amount of time that I or any speaker is allowed to talk at an audience before getting the group to do something, because you can get away with it in the room. Particularly when people have come to a conference like this, and they're settled in their chairs.

When it's an online conversation that you want people to be engaged in, and there are all the distractions, human beings are designed to pay more attention to the stuff that's in their physical space than the stuff that's on a screen. It's the nature of evolution, or we'd all been eaten by saber-toothed tigers. You need to make more effort to keep people engaged. A very rigid limit on how long I talk from the front before getting the group to do something, because that will keep people engaged, keep them applying their stuff to their situation, and keep the conversation moving and pacing. I hope it doesn't feel exploitative to have done that before explaining it, but that's the reason that there have been so many activities in this chunk of time.

Questions and Answers

Participant 18: I'm wondering, how do you deal with meetings where people are using their keyboard, their laptop to take notes, and not get the idea that they are distracted?

Rees: It's a huge challenge, isn't it? If people are insisting that they are definitely taking notes, but all you can hear is, "Clank, clank," and you think that they're doing their email. To be honest, I think that the best thing to do is give them the feedback, because they almost certainly don't realize the effect of what they're doing. This is one of the things that happens quite commonly with the remote tool conversations. People don't realize that they can be heard well, or that they can be seen well. They're not paying attention to that, and they're not paying attention to the effect of the clack, clack of their keyboard. They need to be given that feedback.

That doesn't mean that forever and a day, in all meetings that will ever happen you should not have anybody taking notes on a keyboard, but I think there are certain times when notes on a keyboard are appropriate, and other times when they're not. Being able to talk to your colleagues about that, and open up a culture of, "Actually we can talk to each other about this stuff just as we can talk to each other about our work," I think, will make a big difference.

Participant 19: I had multiple questions, so I'll start with the one that follows on from his. Suppose you are the sort of person where you pay attention much better if you have a place where you can take notes. But of course, you are mindful of the effect that can have on others, so you mute yourself when you're not talking, and might share the document. If you type into Google Docs and share the document, just be like, "Just so you know, these are where my notes are going." Are there other things you can do to either negotiate, "This sets me up for being much more engaged and participating in the meeting? I want to minimize the negative effect on you." Or at what point does it make sense to say, "Ok, this is a thing that I generally need but I'm going to forgo that now and accept the negative effect on my attention?"

Rees: I think you're getting that in the question. It's context specific. If you're with your team who know you really well, and that you can say, "I really find this helpful to me, and I think it would be helpful to everybody if I can type into a shared document and it's live. You can see the notes I'm taking while I'm taking them, and you can all answer that, and we can all learn from that," why not, if it works for everyone? Then, there are different situations where it can be highly distracting, particularly, I suppose, things like a performance improvement conversation where somebody might really feel that the clack, clack of the notes is actually you effectively making notes to criticize them later. Could be really challenging, so I think it's highly context specific.

Participant 20: Very often in the meetings, which are made on-site, we use the different communication tools, not only speaking but drawing on the whiteboard, or we start to use that even starting this year. That's very effective, but I have no idea how to do that actually remotely now, and whether you have an advice, or tool on that.

Rees: Yes, there's some super tools for remote collaboration. They get called remote whiteboards but they do a lot more than whiteboards. The ones that are commonly used are Miro and Mural, which will do all-singing, all-dancing. The one that I personally prefer because it's got a learning curve which is about as long as, how do you learn to use physical Post-it notes, is Google Jamboard, which they don't advertise but which is a brilliant tool for shared drawing and brainstorming.

Participant 21: My question would be about working around the globe. If you have distributed teams around the globe you have different time zones, and different working hours people are working, so how do you manage that?

Rees: I think that [inaudible 00:41:10] will both be talking about that issue specifically. Do the best you can. Share the pain, and if you have any influence at all, make sure that your teams have a decent amount of overlap in terms of the times they work. Schedule meetings at a civilized length as well. I talk about doing a full-day's training online. I don't recommend doing a full-day's training online, by the way, it's something I stopped doing. The last time I ran it, one of the women on the training who was a very experienced trainer – it was basically train the trainer to do their training thing remotely. This very experienced trainer, at the very end of the day, sent feedback to me, "I'm really delighted that we've done this full-day's training, seven and a half hours of highly intense input, and activities, and learning. It's demonstrated to me that I should never, ever try and do that." Also, keep your meetings reasonably short, and always make sure that you take a break after about 45 to 50 minutes if they're longer than an hour, because people's attention span plummets rapidly.

Participant 22: I find it difficult to combine two things in a meeting, guiding the conversation and contribute myself. Do you have any advice on that?

Rees: If you have any choice in the matter, don't do that.

Participant 22: Yes, but sometimes it happens. Especially in the difficult ones.

Rees: My recommendation is, if at all possible, volunteer to facilitate other people's difficult conversations, and invite them to facilitate yours. It is really challenging, particularly in conversations where you're going to get emotionally involved, it's really hard to suddenly take off your participant hat and swap to your facilitator hat, because emotions don't disappear instantly. Emotions take time to decline, so even if you think that you've stepped out of your participant role into a facilitator role, you will still be biased in the way that you were biased before. It's really challenging to do, that's why people hire professional facilitators, but in an ordinary workplace where you've got other people at your same level, this can be a great place for them to do their practice and help you, and then you can do your practice and help them.

Participant 23: Do you have any suggestion to run workshop, like pair exercises, and things like that in a remote environment, considering that we're often all on a Zoom call, or something like that? How do you break the group down into smaller groups?

Rees: If you're using Zoom, you switch it on on the backend, and then you just use Breakout Rooms function. Turn it on, use it.

Participant 23: You can do one-to-one [crosstalk 00:44:52]?

Rees: In Zoom, though not in many other tools, there is a Breakout Rooms functionality which enables you to break the group into pairs, or threes, or fours, whatever it might be, and you can do that either randomly or by assigning names to groups. There is another tool which enables people to move themselves from one space to another, which is VideoFacilitator. If you're trapped in one of those organizations which won't use Zoom and doesn't have Breakout Room functionality, talk to [inaudible 00:45:31].

Participant 24: My question follows onto that in terms of running workshops. A lot of the physical [inaudible 00:45:45] do things like cluster, and Post-it notes, and I know you've talked about Miro and Jamboard, but the problem I found with those kind of tools is you don't get the social visual cues – with clustering you get people standing around debating ideas, and I find quite often with the online tools you just see this thing going backwards, and forwards. Then the conversations don't happen to coalesce ideas. I was wondering if you've got experience with those kind of things, any recommendations?

Rees: It's challenging. That's one of the places where remote facilitation gets really interesting. We've experimented with things like using Breakout Rooms to start to cluster conversations, so put people into the Breakout Room and then get a group of three to do the clustering, or you've got simultaneous clustering activities going on in different Breakouts. I'm not going to say I've got a perfect solution to that one, but I think we're learning.


See more presentations with transcripts


Recorded at:

Mar 16, 2020