Soft Skills

Virtual Reality as a training tool for difficult conversations

White blonde woman in a red top talking to a white man in a black shirt

The first time employees practice handling a difficult conversation is often when they’re having the conversation.

Whether it’s de-escalating an angry customer or coaching a direct report, it’s hard to prepare an employee in advance for the challenge. Role playing, computer-based training, even practice in a mirror can’t compare to the heightened emotion of a real-life conversation.

It’s always been a paradox for employers to coach employees on difficult conversations, but emerging technologies are changing this. With Virtual Reality as a training tool you can teach employees the skills they need before they come face to face with an angry customer or disenfranchised employee.

This type of training, called Immersive Learning, allows employees to skillfully practice difficult conversations before they happen in a real-world environment.

Here’s how Immersive Learning can help impart the soft skills, such as empathy and listening, critical to handling difficult conversations.

The value of practicing with presence

People learn by doing… getting feedback on mistakes, and then repeating and iterating.

Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director, Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Immersive Learning grants a sensation of “presence” to the learner in two valuable ways:

  1. Environmental presence: When you put on a headset, you feel present in the environment — like you’re really there. 
  2. Social presence: Being in a virtual environment with a 3D, lifesize, interactive character gives you a sense of what that person is thinking, feeling, and conveying.
Employee in VR headset practicing with a virtual avatar

The character you’re interacting with might not look like a real person; most likely, it’s an animated avatar. But the immersion into the experience gives you the opportunity to practice with presence. A well-designed immersive experience makes you feel present in the context of the environment, so your brain treats the experience as if it were real life — giving you the mental, emotional, and physical reps you need to learn and improve.

Training for valuable soft skills with Virtual Reality

Employee to customerEmployee to employeeManager to employee
Sensitive conversations
Inclusive conversations
Giving feedback

Every customer-facing business has its own protocols for managing customers. For instance, in a financial business, conversations with customers often involve sensitive subjects. The customer is having trouble paying bills on time, for instance, and needs support. Being sensitive to the customer’s situation is important. Virtual Reality can be used to help employees find the right words in the moment, as well as practice how to say it. 

Virtual Reality is also an effective training tool for teaching employees how to conduct themselves with other employees, including manager-to-employee conversations. Managers have to be comfortable resolving conflicts, coaching employees through challenges, and communicating bad news to the team. 

When training on “hard skills” such as operational skills, simulating the exact environment of the workplace is critical to effective learning. But practicing soft skills like empathy and communication hinges more on interpersonal dialogue. Here’s a scenario to illustrate what that might look like with Immersive Learning.

What learners experience with Virtual Reality as a training tool

With Virtual Reality as a training tool, learners are fully immersed in a virtual world when they put on the headset. Here, they have the opportunity to practice conversations in a realistic setting using their words, head movement, and body language.

Consider yourself the learner, stepping into Virtual Reality training for management skills.

You put on the Virtual Reality headset and find yourself interacting with a virtual employee.

VR graphic of a black man in a warehouse looking serious and pointing at the viewer

His arms are crossed over his chest in an unfriendly way. He’s not smiling. He’s clearly unhappy. And he’s one of your strongest employees.

He speaks first: “Either she goes, or I go.”

How do you respond?

First, you’re asked to speak out loud and coach the employee through the challenging situation. There may be prompts to guide you along the way, depending on the scenario. The Immersive Learning platform records your responses, then gives you the chance to switch places with the virtual employee and observe your own words and behavior.

As a training tool, Virtual Reality provides a valuable opportunity for learners to watch their own performance in a challenging situation and self-assess, looking for opportunities for improvement.

Regularly, learners give feedback that even though they knew it was a training scenario, their palms got sweaty and they felt nervous. We’ve also heard how the virtual character helped put a “face to the voice” of customers on the other end of the customer service line.

A way to measure empathy and other soft skills

Empathy is a huge topic in the L&D world, and plenty of research demonstrates its importance. Virtual Reality is not just the closest we can get to real-world practice at empathy. In certain ways, it’s actually better. 

Immersive Learning is not just the Virtual Reality experience itself but the ability to gather data on that experience that helps give feedback to the learner and provide workforce insights to the business.

Empathy is notoriously challenging to measure. With Virtual Reality as a training tool, we’ve taken a skills-based approach: we measure employees’ capabilities across a number of skills that ultimately influence empathy. 

Because the learner is speaking out loud during the training, the headset captures a lot of data about the decisions the learner makes in the moment — what they say, how they say it, and what sort of body language they use.

For example, in one customer service training module, the company protocol is to require associates to use the customer’s name at least three times during a conversation. Through verbal analytics, we can identify when and how the customer’s name was used to measure the employee’s performance. 

We also use methods like reciprocity analysis on tone of voice and eye and head tracking to gauge active listening and communication.

These are just a few ways that Immersive Learning produces quantifiable metrics that can influence empathy and how learners will perform in front of real customers.  

Stronger training with Virtual Reality

One of the best examples of Virtual Reality as a training tool for difficult conversations comes from Verizon. 

They used Immersive Learning to train call center employees for phone conversations with angry customers. Using Virtual Reality as a training tool enables the learner to picture the customer on the other end of the line, which helps create empathy for that customer. 

In Verizon’s case, 96% of employees that went through the Immersive Learning training came away feeling much more confident about having difficult phone conversations with customers, and better able to picture a customer on the other end of the line as a real person in need. 

“As they went back to work and we tracked their progress through supervisors, we found that employees were much more confident because they were more aware of how they were handling the customers.”

Cleo Scott, Director of Global L&D, Verizon

Watch on-demand webinar with Cleo from Verizon on VR-based empathy training

Immersive Learning is not just more effective at teaching empathy and communication skills than most legacy methods. It also creates consistency in the way difficult conversations are handled across large companies like Verizon, because it’s scalable and standardized. Most importantly, of course, it’s effective, creating stronger communicators who are better at handling the sometimes difficult but necessary conversations we’re often having at work.

For a deeper dive into using Virtual Reality as a training tool, watch the on-demand webinar, Why employees handle difficult conversations better with VR training, or read the ebook Building soft skills in the workplace with Immersive Learning.

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