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When you need to give tough feedback, forget Zoom and pick up the phone

It may seem counterintuitive, but It turns out that we perceive emotions and hear better when we don’t see each other in a conversation.

When you need to give tough feedback, forget Zoom and pick up the phone
[Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash]

Do you need to give someone feedback at work that’s going to be hard to hear?  Perhaps you need to say, “You need to double your numbers next month” or worse yet, “We’ve talked a lot about what you’d need to do to get promoted this year, and to be honest, I haven’t seen enough change.” To make matters worse, do you need to give that feedback remotely because everyone on your team is working from home?  

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You’re probably thinking you should provide tough feedback over a video call, but it turns out that a phone call, one where you can’t see each other, is probably the better bet. Research suggests that you’ll have an easier time gauging how the other person is taking the news if you can only hear their voice and can’t see them.   

That probably flies in the face of everything you know about good communication.  Nonverbals, after all, are crucial to communication. For instance, isn’t it a well-established fact that most of our communication is nonverbal? 

The research supporting that claim came from a study conducted in the 1960s by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA, in which a speaker said the word “maybe” three different ways.  From that one word, participants had to guess the speaker’s emotions. Not surprisingly, people were much better at guessing whether the speaker was leaning towards “yes” or “no” when they got to see a picture of the speaker smiling or frowning than when they had to guess based on the voice alone.  The nonverbals conveyed most of the message.

So if your feedback is a single, stand-alone word, then yes, the other person will have a much easier time understanding you if they can see you. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to complex conversation when you’ll say much more than, “Maybe.”

You might be thinking, “But if we’re talking about a tough feedback conversation, I still want to see the other person.  I’ll get so much more information about how they’re reacting.  I’ll be able to see if they’re discouraged or embarrassed, if they’re surprised or relieved.”

It’s true you’ll be able to see more, but what you see might be misleading.  

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Recent research reveals we’re less confused about another person’s emotional reactions if we just hear their voice. Michael Strauss, a management professor at Yale, conducted a series of studies in which he asked participants to gauge the emotions of two people having a conversation. Participants who heard the conversation but couldn’t see the speakers showed significantly higher empathy and greater accuracy in perceiving each speakers’ emotions than participants who could both see and hear the conversation.  

Why voice only is better

Why is voice alone better?  Our facial expressions often lie. We have a lot of control over our faces–you can smile and graciously say, “Thank you” when you receive a gift, such as challenging feedback, that you really don’t want.  

Plus we all know a thing or two about body language. Who hasn’t heard that crossed arms signal defensiveness? You won’t do that in a call with your boss, no matter how resistant you feel.

But whereas most of us have learned to mask our emotions physically, we haven’t learned to mask our emotions vocally. Unless you’re a trained actor, your emotions leak out through your voice. A person communicates plenty through the subtle fluctuations in their vocal pitch, cadence, speed, and volume. Defensiveness comes through loud and clear in how you speak, even if your face is relaxed and body posture is open.  

And that, Strauss argues, may be why we’re better able to read another person’s emotions when we only have their voice to go on:  we’re not getting mixed signals. We can more accurately detect whether someone is feeling proud or perturbed, curious or confused, if we just have the more honest cues from their voice, not the potentially misleading cues from their face and body.  

There are also awkward and often unpredictable dynamics of giving feedback over video when you’re both working from home. As Ellie Hearne, the Founder and CEO of the consulting firm Pencil or Ink, notes, “No one wants to be told they’re underperforming when their kid suddenly appears in frame.”  

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And unless you both have God-given internet speeds, there can be weird time delays. If the video freezes at the wrong moment, you’re not sure what either of you missed. You might have to say the hardest part three times, making you look (and probably feel) more strident.

Managers I’ve interviewed also point out how awkward a video call becomes if the other person cries. Crying in front of your boss is always awkward, but now the employee sees themselves crying, magnifying the awkwardness. Crying over the phone isn’t easy either, but at least you’ve given them a little privacy. 

Sue Dopson, the Deputy Dean of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, also finds she can be a better problem-solver if she’s on the phone. Often in difficult feedback conversations, you want to help the other person find a creative solution to a problem they’re facing. And Dopson finds if she can stand up and move around, she can be much more innovative. With her cell phone in hand, she’s literally not stuck (physically or mentally), and some of her most creative feedback conversations in recent months have occurred when she’s been able to walk around her garden.  

Pacing in your backyard may sound odd, but Dopson is onto something. Stanford social scientists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz find that walking boosts creativity in real time, and walking outside produces some of the highest quality ideas. In one study, 95% of the people who walked generated at least one high-quality creative idea, compared to only 50% of the people who sat.  

So the next time you face a hard feedback conversation at work, the next time you need to say, “I’m really disappointed with your work this month” or “That’s not like you–help me understand, what’s going on?” try saying it over the phone, not over video. Chances are you’ll get a much more accurate read of the other person’s willingness to change, and you’ll be a better problem solver to boot.  


Dr. Therese Huston received her MS and PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. Huston was the founding director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University. She has written for The New York Times and the Harvard Business Review and has a robust speaking schedule before academic audiences, businesses, and conferences. She has previously given talks at Microsoft, Amazon, TEDxStLouis, and Harvard Business School. Huston is the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know and How Women Decide. Her third book, Let’s Talk, publishes on January 26, 2021 from Portfolio/Penguin Random House.

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