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How to avoid awkward conversations at work

For the last 11 years, I’ve written a workplace advice column, answering people’s letters on everything from how to tell a manager your workload is too high to what to do about a colleague who smells.


One of the biggest themes I’ve seen in my mail in that time is that a lot of people want to know – how do I get my boss or my colleague to change their behavior without me actually having to talk to them about it? In other words, an awful lot of us are hoping that there will be some sort of magical spell that will let us solve problems without ever having to use our words. People really want to avoid direct conversations, especially if there’s any potential for awkwardness.


To some extent, it’s understandable. After all, your job is your livelihood, and you need to remain on good terms with your colleagues – and especially with your boss – or your life can become much less pleasant. But what I see in my mail is that people shy away from even minor conversations that are highly unlikely to end badly.


For example, I’ve heard from people who stew in silence for months rather than asking a colleague to please stop taking all their calls on speakerphone, or to turn down a loud cellphone ring. I’ve heard from people who spend way too long tolerating physically uncomfortable working conditions – like a painful chair or an air freshener that literally nauseates them – rather than have a quick conversation with the person who could fix it. I’ve even heard from people – multiple people – who end up doing work long after they leave a job – for free – because they’re so hesitant to say, “This isn’t something I can help with anymore.” Or even, “Let’s talk about what payment rate makes sense for this work.”


And even managers, who have the clear authority to speak up when they want something to change, can be some of the worst offenders when it comes to shying away from direct conversation. My mail is full of letters from managers who are frustrated with some aspect of an employee’s work but haven’t actually sat down with the person and told them what they want to see change… even though doing that is their job!


While certainly no one looks forward to a conversation that might be awkward or uncomfortable, the reality is that you’ll get far better results in your professional life – and usually have far better quality of life at work – if you’re willing to speak up and ask for what you want. Of course, that doesn’t mean speaking up in an aggressive or adversarial way, which seems to be what people sometimes imagine they’d have to do. Instead, the idea is to speak up calmly and matter-of-factly – in a tone similar to the one that you’d use to say “I can’t seem to get this software to work” or “could you help me solve this problem with a client?” In other words, it’s the tone you’d use if you were trying to solve any other work-related problem and you been stewing to yourself for weeks about it.


If you do that, you’re likely to find that most people are reasonable. Most people want to know if they’re doing something that’s aggravating you or making you unhappy – or in the case of that air freshener, making you physically ill. Most people won’t be upset that you initiated a calm, polite conversation about what you need, and you’re not going to come across as a jerk to reasonable people.


Of course, not everyone is reasonable – but most people are, and if you try it, the conversation is far more likely than not to go well and get you the outcome you want.

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