The Remote-Work Guide To Difficult Conversations

And Why Emotional Intelligence Has Never Been More Important

Jul 09, 2020
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Maryland Smith management professor Nicole M. Coomber has one word to describe these past months of remote work: Challenging. Emotional intelligence, she says, has never been more important.

“Remote work can be just as effective, just as productive as in-person work or being in the office, as long as you are using emotional intelligence when it comes to dealing with yourself in these situations and also dealing with others,” Coomber told participants in a recent webinar on the topic. The session, exploring what COVID-19 means for business and economics, was part of a lifelong learning series offered by the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

In her own life, Coomber is juggling four young children, a full workload, and a need to collaborate with colleagues, students and clients – all from home. Her colleagues and clients are engaged in similar juggling acts.

When it comes to interacting with our colleagues, clients and customers, Coomber says the basics of emotional intelligence are essential: self-awareness (how you perceive your own emotions) and social awareness (how you perceive other people’s emotions).

You can develop self awareness by being vulnerable and talking about what you’re experiencing. One way is to keep a daily journal. Coomber also recommends using an emotion sensation wheel to pinpoint what you’re feeling and how it’s making you react.

You can also develop your social awareness. “Ask questions, or tell the other person what you’ve been experiencing and ask them how their situation is similar or different. And really listen to the answer,” she says.

She says perceptiveness is particularly important when challenges arise. Coomber took webinar participants through three scenarios and outlined how emotional intelligence could help navigate the difficult conversations:

Scenario #1: You need help.

You are remote, struggling with something and you need to ask a supervisor or teammate for help.

Schedule an appointment, especially if you are asking something of them, Coomber says. Ask what times work best to demonstrate that you are respectful of their time. Be specific about what you need help with. “Sometimes I have found that talking to a neutral person, like an uninvolved friend, to talk through what I actually need before I ask for help is really helpful.”

Here’s why: If the person you’re asking for help is already overwhelmed, another request might be unwelcome. Telling that person the specific way in which you need help can be a much more emotionally intelligent way of getting the help you need, while also building that relationship.

When you do connect, Coomber says, don’t skip small talk. A well-intended friendly inquiry can go a long way toward establishing our human connection.

Scenario #2: An employee is underperforming.

You lead a team and one of your employees is suffering from a personal issue but has not raised it with the team. It’s affecting communication and output.

First and foremost, get a sense of the situation. What effect is this having on the team? Check in with your entire team to see what challenges have surfaced. If multiple people say that one team member is not communicating or contributing, you’ll know your next step – having a one-on-one check-in with that team member.

Prepare for the meeting by finding out what kinds of support services and other tools your organization offers. If the employee needs help, you’ll know what’s available.

When you meet with the team member, be specific, says Coomber. Don’t create a “compliment sandwich,” she says, flattering the person, then discussing the problem, then closing with more flattery. “It’s not very socially aware to sugar-coat an opener with ‘everything is great,’ but then go into reasons why it’s actually not.”

Remember to listen and give the team member an opportunity to offer solutions. “If they are reticent, that’s when you talk about the impact it’s having on the rest of the team,” Coomber says.

Scenario #3: Your client wants too much.

You’re presenting to your client, who keeps adding tasks to your to-do list.

Take a step back and realize that if you’re being asked to do more, especially during this remote-work situation, that can be a fairly big stressor. “Recognizing the stress of that, not out loud or to the client, and recognizing your own emotions around that, is step one,” says Coomber.

Make sure you’re on the same page as your team and have a game plan before you go into a client meeting. Use a “positive no,” she says. Reiterate what you’ve agreed on and make it clear if you say yes to something additional, you’ll have to say no to something else or renegotiate terms.

Then think about why the client is making the request and make a recommendation.

“This can happen again and again,” says Coomber, “but if you acknowledge your own emotions around it and recognize why the client is asking, that can be really important.”

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About the Expert(s)

Nicole M. Coomber

Nicole Coomber is on the faculty in the Management & Organization area at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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