Speaking the Truth Not Always Easy in a Virtual World

If I ask you if these pants make me look fat, your face seems to say that I look like a whale, despite your verbal assurance that I look just fine. I really can’t tell if you are trying to spare my feelings or avoid my wrath, or whether I really do look pretty svelte. Since your facial expression belies your words, I’ll agonize whether or not to change for another half-hour, and even then, I’ll second-guess my decision all night long.

Now, imagine my colleague and I never have a chance to speak face-to-face. Let’s say I just finished leading a team meeting that suddenly crashed and burned. I send an IM to her for some quick feedback, and she replies with a terse: “You did okay.” Since I obviously did not do okay, I call her for some constructive criticism. She assures me that I “did as well as most people, under the circumstances.” I have no clue what she means. Was she too busy to think it through? Was she being overly generous to spare my feelings? Did she really think I did okay? Regardless, I have no idea what I did wrong, or what I can do differently next time.

Authentic communication, where we bravely seek and speak the truth, is hard enough when we sit across the table, looking into each other’s eyes. In a world where we have no such visual cues to go by, it’s far harder to decode what’s really being said, what’s not being said, and what’s behind the words, or silence.

In this edition of Communiqué, I offer some tips for restoring authentic communication in a world where we’ve gotten far more used to staring at screens than at faces.

  • Ask yourself who or what you’re trying to protect by holding back. If we’re honest with ourselves, we often withhold the truth to protect ourselves. After all, no one likes to be seen as an unkind person who cares little about others’ feelings. Given the choice, most of us would rather be liked than being known for our scrupulous honesty. (We mistakenly assume it’s impossible to be both!) But consider the consequences of not telling the truth. Where’s the kindness in bypassing an opportunity to offer helpful guidance that can get a struggling team member back on track?
  • The truth doesn’t have to hurt. Some leaders think that the best way to deliver feedback is to give a verbal lashing, which may take the form of a stern scolding, a stinging rebuke, or an angry lecture. Not only is this style of feedback humiliating, but it does nothing to help the other person learn from earlier missteps. There are ways of being frank and assertive while preserving the other’s self-esteem. Finding the right balance takes time and practice.
  • Think carefully about what you most want to get across. Parcel out a bit of the tough truth at a time, making it easier to hear, absorb and act on later. Since you can’t see his face and he can’t see yours, start with an observation or two and then pause, listening for his response. Remember that both of you have perspectives that will be important for each of you to hear, regardless of position or title. For example, you might start by saying: “I’ve noticed that the last few times you have led team calls, a few of the dominant participants managed to hijack the call. As a result, everyone else seemed to shut down.” Pause to let it sink in. “Did you notice the same thing?” This type of opening allows for a more productive conversation, where he is less likely to feel defensive and more willing to work with you on possible solutions for next time.
  • Choose a time and place conducive to unfettered, open discussion. Schedule enough time for the conversation, and make it clear that it’s important enough to make sure that both of you find a place that’s private and free from distractions. Ask her to bring a pen and notebook to capture important parts of the conversation, and you do the same. (Avoid typing, as the sound almost always inhibits a free-flowing conversation.) If you can set up a video chat, so much the better.
  • Tune into cultural differences. Some of us (notably, Americans) are used to hearing a bit of praise in advance of negative feedback. (And we tend to look for feedback far more frequently than most other cultures!) Contrast this to other cultures, where it can be downright confusing when positive feedback precedes criticism. (“I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m doing my job; I know I am. I only need feedback when you think I’m not.”) Some cultures appreciate blunt comments, while others far prefer a diplomatic version of the truth to save face. Know which is which as you plan your conversation.
  • Don’t obscure the truth with fancy language. Keep your language simple and to the point. Don’t leave room for ambiguity. Our window of opportunity for real-time communications are small, and without visual cues, the chances for misunderstandings are great. So instead of tiptoeing around the truth (“You may want to think about using a different approach to keeping track of your time…”), give it to her straight: “You seem to have trouble managing your time. I say this, for over the last month, you were at least 10 minutes late to each call.” Pause. “I’d like to introduce some tools that may help.”

Sheryl Sandberg, author of the groundbreaking book Lean In, sums it up beautifully: “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest, but delicately honest…the upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance.” In a virtual world, we have to listen exceptionally deeply to know when we’ve really hit the mark.


Check out related Communiqués: Avoiding Bad Habits That Lead to Miscommunications, Why Virtual Leaders Need to Learn How to Just Be Quiet, How to Disengage Your Virtual Team in 10 Easy Steps and Building Trust Across Different Cultures.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, a thought-provoking book, which prompted me to tackle this month’s topic of speaking and seeking the truth

12 True Behaviors That Expose Liars, Leadership Freak blog

I’m the Boss! Why Should I Care If You Like Me?, HBR blog


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