Managing Smart: How to Hold Conversations Remotely About Medical Conditions

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

By Joanna Victoria, Manager, Access Services

As we continue navigating through these unique times of change, we need to remember that we all are affected and react in different ways to these changes. This creates a special challenge to us as supervisors as we thrive to support each individual in our team in an equitable manner. 

This past September we provided recommendations on How to Support Employees Managing Work and Caregiving. As remote work continues, we also want to provide you with  suggestions on how to hold conversations with employees who have shared they have challenges managing work at home due to a medical condition.

The Conversation

When it relates to a medical situation, we want to be respectful of the employee’s privacy by not asking specific questions about their medical condition. For example, “What is the condition?” “What are your symptoms?” “What medication was prescribed?” Still, we want to have a conversation with the employee to understand any specific needs at work so we can identify possible ways to provide support.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Her words accentuate the importance of approaching our conversations with others with empathy and compassion.

This is particularly important when holding a conversation with someone who is going through a challenging situation. Before we can get to how we can help, we first need to build or solidify our connection with the employee. We can approach conversations with empathy and compassion by being intentional about how we interact with each other, actively listening to what is being said and asking clarifying questions.

An individual conversation might be best place to start. Having the chance to connect one-on-one with the employee allows us the opportunity to learn the specific circumstances and would give us insights on how to best offer support. It is usually recommended to have this type of conversation in person. During these times when most of us are working remotely, having the conversation via Skype, Zoom or Teams would be an appropriate alternative as these provide the opportunity for individuals to use video meetings.

Being able to see each other during the conversation is very important as it allows us to observe the employee’s body language, eye contact and all other nonverbal cues. Being observant during our conversation would help us recognize the employee’s emotions and from there how to appropriately engage and be responsive to the employee.

We also need to be aware of the nonverbal cues we send ourselves. Controlling our own nonverbal communication helps build rapport with one another. Vanessa Van Edwards, lead investigator at Science of People Research Lab, in the training “Communicating Nonverbally,” provides insights and resources on the different nonverbal cues we perceive from others and the ones we send. Awareness of these social signals we observe in others and we send during our conversation helps us establish a connection with our employee.

In addition to observing, we also need to actively listen. We must allow the time and space for the employee to speak, and we should make it our goal to pay close attention to what is being said. When listening, we should focus our full attention on the employee rather than be distracted by incoming messages, emails or by trying to formulate our own response as we might miss relevant points shared by the employee.

Most importantly, we should not interrupt the employee while they are speaking. First, the employee may feel unheard or think that the message is not important. Second, we may reach the wrong conclusions by not listening to the entire message. It is important to take the time to fully listen and engage, allowing the employee to truly share their thoughts.

Active listening involves our full attention and patience. Dorie Clark, professor of business administration at Duke University, helps us understand the groundwork for listening and teaches us how to listen well in the training, “Improving Your Listening Skills.”

In order to better understand the situation shared with us and to find out the best way to help, we must also ask clarifying questions. Even though we should not be asking for details about the medical condition, asking other clarifying questions help us ensure we have captured all important aspects of the employee’s situation. In order to maintain an open dialogue, it is recommended to ask open-ended questions (questions that start with who, what, where, when and how). Examples of these might be “What do you mean when you say…?” “How can I help?” Or “When do you need…?”

In the section “Asking Powerful Questions” from Lisa Gates’ training “Coaching and Developing Employees,” Gates, a negotiation consultant and executive coach, provides resources on how to formulate questions that can help people find clarity, self-awareness and options for actions.

As supervisors, we are empowered to hold conversations with individuals in our team to learn how we can best support them, even if it relates to a medical situation. By being intentional about how we interact with each other, listening to what is being said and asking clarifying questions (not related to the condition), we are able to show empathy and compassion during our conversations and get a clear understanding of the employee’s needs.

Offering Resources

Based on the employee’s needs, you may be able to provide temporary solutions as small as schedule adjustments or short-term leave (sick, personal, vacation — as appropriate).

Please remind employees of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources, and put them in contact with the Organizational Development and Human Resources team at or 407-299-5000, extension HR4U (4748) for additional resources that may be applicable (i.e. FMLA, ADA, etc.).

We must remember that our employees are individuals who, like us, are doing the best they can to balance work and home life during COVID-19 times. Approaching individual conversations with empathy and compassion would impact those with whom we are connecting and who would not forget how we supported them during their time of need.

For additional information on this topic, we encourage you to explore courses in LinkedIn Learning, our online, on-demand professional development resource.

For additional questions, members of the Organizational Development and Human Resources team (ODHR) are here to assist you at the contact information listed above.

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