HR & Management

Handling uncomfortable situations like a pro

7 min read

19 July 2017

You need to address someone’s hygiene, a member of staff has started to cry after a fault you called them up on, or a bully has been flagged in the workplace. As boss, you'll undoubtedly come across uncomfortable situations and awkward conversations such as these.

Monster career expert Vicki Salemi said it best in a 2016 Glamour interview: “Work-related awkwardness is bound to happen.” We all have varying personalities, not to mention different personal and financial circumstances. That we won’t always see eye to eye, and that a bad day can make the office mood nosedive, is a given. But sometimes these rifts lead to uncomfortable situations.

Awkward conversations and situations are fuelled in large part by our perception of something that goes against the grain and when we’re unsure how to easily address a mishap that’s just occurred. They can be as small as greeting someone with the wrong name or on the grand scale of accidentally deleting corporate data and needing to come clean.

In most cases it helps to address the awkwardness head-on. While avoiding the situation is an option, it will often lead to bigger misunderstandings. “So learn how to handle uncomfortable situations and move forward,” Salemi explained. “Don’t dwell in the awkwardness. Rather, accept it for what it is, handle it in the best way possible, shrug it off, and move on.”

But when we make mistakes or are unsure whether it’s our place to mention someone’s obviously unzipped fly, we become nervous. With the right mind set and a few trick up your sleeve it will become easier to tackle such uncomfortable situations.

In terms of small-scale situations, injecting a little humour goes a long way in accruing forgiveness. A quip around not having had your fill of coffee could help after calling someone by the wrong name. As boss, however, most uncomfortable situations you’ll face involve being approached by staff to play peacekeeper in their stead.

There’s the office romance gone wrong, a manager’s suggestion that an employee get in on proverbial group hugs or complaints about someone’s body odour. Ignoring such grievances, no matter how small or insignificant you deem them, could make things worse for both the company and the employees involved.

Building up a reputation for being fair and consistent will ensure staff come to you with work issues, no matter how uncomfortable they may feel doing so. “No single tactic will work on everybody, but ultimately you want them to know they can tell you personal details.”

It’s a quote from Adam Dachis’ The Awkward Human Survival Guide – and it makes clear that while you may not enjoy their discomfort, emphasising that you’re ok with it will move the conversation along at a faster pace. He said: “Let them know you won’t just pass judgement.”

There are numerous ways to make someone “feel safe”. Watch your body language – research maintains this in turn will help better your own mood – try not to scowl at them and don’t interrupt them when they start explaining. Chances are they’re feeling just as awkward as you are, but if they feel it impacts them, the business or the team, you need to hear them out and weigh your options.

Quoted in journalist Rebbeca Knight’s Harvard Business Review article, Jean-Francois Manzoni, former professor at INSEAD, claimed you should “express your interest in understanding how they feel. Take time to process the other person’s words and tone.”

Showing you care – and alluding that you’ll think about taking action – will help you navigate the awkward minefield of learning someone wears too much cologne and the team wants you to tell the employee in question.

The rest of the battle lies in minimising inflicted pain, which is easier said than done, while ensuring your professional relationship remains intact. When it’s your turn to lead the conversation, some mental preparation is key.

Even if handling uncomfortable situations becomes easier in practice, seeing shock cross someone’s face is by no means a pleasant experience. Emotions will come to the fore, especially if you’re required to dig into personal matters.

Manzoni suggested: “The more calm and centred you are, the better you are at handling difficult conversations. It’s for situations like this, that you need to practice breathing. Take regular breaks through the day to do some mindful breathing, giving you capacity to absorb blows and enough time refocus.”

More importantly, it’s time to learn the art of being tactful. Awkward situations can be made worse if you don’t wield the right amount of sensitivity and diplomacy. “Be as kind as possible,” Dachis advised. “When it’s coming from a good place, it’s easier for everyone.”

Communication is thus not to be overestimated. Because no one wants problems, least of all the employee involved. Help staff see a way out in a way that suggests you respect them.

Another expert Knight looked to advice for was Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate, who said: “It might not necessarily be pleasant, but you can manage to deliver difficult news in a courageous, honest, fair way. The worst thing you can do is to ask your counterpart to have sympathy for you. Don’t say things like, ‘I feel so bad about saying this,’ or ‘This is really hard for me to do,’. Don’t play the victim.”

When it comes to a tougher, bullying type of situation, it becomes things become uncomfortable for a whole different reason – and it requires you to be far more blunt about your expectations.

“Ideally you want to resolve awkward situations as quickly as possible without creating too much conflict,” Dachis explained. “Nevertheless, you don’t always get what you want. Some people require a little more persistence.”

In such a case it’s time to get the rule book out and your game face on.