Whether it’s handling a poor performance review, addressing a violation of company policy or delivering bad news about potential layoffs, the prospect of having difficult conversations is enough to fill any manager with dread.

Yet, whether we like it or not, such scenarios are part of working life and cannot be avoided. These are challenges that every leader must face at various times throughout their career.

So, what is the best way to help prepare leaders to have these difficult conversations? How can we, as training professionals, help them gain the skills and confidence required to handle these interactions with the appropriate balance of assertiveness, empathy and tact?

The Value of Practice

The real answer to this lies in practice and experience. No matter how much (albeit) valuable theory we provide, the reality is that these skills have to be physically and emotionally experienced in order to really stick.

Up until recently, the only real way to practice these skills was through role-play with a willing other — and this does remain a valuable option where it can be facilitated. Two people acting out specific scenarios can take a conversation in a variety of directions.

This replicates, to an extent, the potential content of a real difficult conversation and results in concrete experience that can be drawn upon when it comes to the actual event.

The most obvious downside to this approach, however, is the practicality. In the absence of a willing and ever-available partner, this sort of training is usually confined to the physical and time constraints of a trainer-facilitated course. It doesn’t allow for practice on demand — that is, practice when it’s really needed. Additionally, in some cases, the presence of another person may have the opposite effect and inhibit the learner: they may be reluctant to experiment or try things out for fear of looking silly.

VR: Replicating Emotions Through Immersion

The emergence of virtual reality (VR) in the soft skills training space provides possibilities for solitary, on-demand practice that were not previously conceivable. While, of course, it’s always been possible to practice in the bathroom mirror, VR provides a unique immersive environment that transports the learner out of that bathroom and into a meeting room — face to face with an employee.

VR, combined with the right learning design structure (i.e., prompts, tips, pre-programmed questions, comments or responses, etc.) allows the learner to practice difficult conversations in a realistic yet safe environment.

Through the power of suggestion and through immersion, the learner is able to trick their brain into feeling the emotions associated with a real interview — even more so than in the case of role-play practice. This results in the learner gaining valuable experience in the way they would from a real-life scenario with their employee.

The emotional connection associated with VR is important and exciting from a learning design and training perspective. Research carried out by PwC shows that “v-learners” (those learning with VR) feel 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content than classroom learners and 2.3 times more connected than “e-learners” (those learning through eLearning).

The ability of VR to connect so closely with the emotions gives learning professionals enormous scope for providing meaningful learning based on active, lived experience.

Adding AI to VR

Now imagine a scenario where the two-way conversations of role-play practice could be combined with the emotional connection benefits and on-demand nature of VR training. In fact, this is not as far away as you might think!

VR training providers are now working on converting text from artificial intelligence (AI) generated chat into speech — lip syncing avatars and incorporating meaningful AI-powered conversations into VR practice exercises.

By adding AI to VR, not only will learners be immersed and emotionally engaged in their VR environment of choice, but also they will be able to practice two-way conversations over and over again — preparing them for the real thing and perhaps making that dread a thing of the past.

AI is already being used in VR practice platforms, for example to generate difficult questions or topics, and the addition of two-way conversations is already happening behind the scenes. It’s likely that the first examples of two-way AI enabled practice conversations in VR training platforms will emerge in the near future.

Conclusions: Benefits of VR and AI

In conclusion, in terms of an effective on-demand solution, VR is a great option to consider for practicing soft skills like handling difficult conversations, job interviews, negotiations or meetings.

VR is immersive, emotionally engaging and allows users a safe space to practice without fear of failure. The addition of AI interactivity is already taking VR learning to a whole new level — and with rapid developments in technology, the overall quality of virtual training can only be set to grow over the coming years.

This is an exciting new space for soft skills training and worth keeping an eye on moving forward.