Managing a Difficult Conversation: How Virtual Humans Can Improve Our Communication Skills

Many people feel lost when it comes to bringing up tough conversation topics, especially around emotional or physical health. Why is this, and how can we overcome the challenge of managing a difficult conversation?

The Cost of Avoiding Conversations

We use conversations to negotiate and mediate conflict, solve problems and make decisions, and foster relationships. When the stakes are high, not feeling prepared, a lack of confidence, and anxiety about repercussions are all barriers to effective conversations that have the potential to make a positive impact. As a result, important opportunities to resolve issues between a parent and child, a teacher and a student, a doctor and a patient, work colleagues, and other relationships are not brought to the forefront.

Not having these conversations take place at all has real costs. Knowing some simple strategies for starting and managing a difficult conversation can make a significant difference in our relationships and the changes we want to see.

Preparing For Managing a Difficult Conversation in Real Life

Knowing that the power of conversation can positively impact our actions and behaviors, there are some shortcuts we take to prepare ourselves. One classic example is talking to oneself in front of a mirror. This way, we imagine how a conversation might pan out and get used to the feeling of hearing certain things out loud. Or we might recruit a friend to role-play, practicing back and forth trying to anticipate what someone might say and how they would react. Sometimes there’s the opportunity to practice conversation skills through training in the professional world (i.e., medical training in communicating with patients), but this often takes a backseat to training in other hard skills.

How do we make the time to prepare? Are personal or professional role-plays realistic? Do we feel comfortable working with another person? Too often these role-play exercises fall short of providing the necessary skills for managing a difficult conversation in real life.

A New Way to Practice Managing a Difficult Conversation

How do we address conversation barriers and give people tools that allow for managing a difficult conversation comfortably and effectively? At Kognito, we wanted to solve this challenge. Our solution: practice-based conversations with virtual humans. A virtual human is an animated, computer-generated character embedded with emotions, memory, and personality that talks, gestures, and reacts like a real person. There are numerous benefits of virtual humans as a tool for training people in the art of conversation that can change lives.



Having the opportunity to practice in a conversation simulator helps people feel more like themselves and better prepared before having that conversation in real life. What can virtual humans offer that live humans can’t?

Engaging with a virtual human in an online environment creates a safe participatory experience that guides you through a conversation from start to finish. The experience is close to real-life as possible, without the real-life consequences. If you make a mistake in a virtual practice conversation there are no penalties, just opportunities to learn how to manage the discussion more effectively.

This guided practice involves choosing from a set of conversations strategies that are both effective and ineffective in managing the conversation. Seeing how a virtual human responds verbally and non-verbally can reveal an unexpected flow of responses from the virtual human, or raise topics that you didn’t expect. Consequently, practicing in this format allows for exposure to relevant topics and a deliberate learning experience.


When there are high stakes in a conversation, there are no opportunities to take back what you said and learn from your mistake. In a virtual environment, it’s safe to experiment and possible to undo. With a virtual human, someone can try different approaches and communication styles without fear of repercussions for real people like patients, or students, for example.

Practicing with a virtual human is also a learning experience in which the virtual human can give cues or unbiased feedback. In a real-life role-play in front of people, we might be nervous of judgment or feedback from others and adjust our practice accordingly. But research shows that we feel less judged on our performance and are more willing to reveal information with virtual humans.


Recreating realistic settings, authentic virtual human personalities, and life-like actions contribute to making virtual humans more effective. Subject matter experts, professional scriptwriters, and interaction designers play a prominent role in informing the narrative and character details to mirror real life as much as possible. With this realistic interactivity, studies show that interactive role-play can help learners build empathy for others, which in turn can lead to higher satisfaction and positive behavior change for all parties involved.

When this practice feels more deliberate, we feel better engaged and will likely transfer skills to professional or personal practice. Knowledge on the topic and about communication skills like scientifically proven motivational interviewing strategies, learned from assuming the role of a virtual human or learning from a virtual coach, complement the experience.

Making Conversations Happen

The increased feelings of confidence and new skill sets that come from practicing conversations in a virtual environment are impactful when we translate them into the real world.

At Kognito, our mission is to make more of these conversations happen, particularly those around social, emotional, and physical health. And more effective conversations can lead to impactful behavior change, like helping to guide someone to the right referral or resources that they need.

If you want to try practicing conversations with virtual humans, here are some available resources to try:

  • For health professionals who want to build skills leading real-life conversations with parents and their children about healthy weight and childhood obesity, check out Change Talk.
  • For Coloradans, One Degree is an online simulation and app to practice talking with friends about their alcohol and marijuana use.
  • Talk to Someone: Triple Negative Breast Cancer, is a judgment-free environment for newly diagnosed triple negative breast cancer patients to learn and ask questions about diagnosis and treatment options with a virtual coach.

Our website has demos of other virtual human simulations available to try. Learn more about our approach here and stay tuned for more blog posts on virtual humans.

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