Training on the Art of Delicate Conversation

Most who work in an office have an experience with a co-worker who bothers us, but whom we’re too uncomfortable to confront. The problem often is awkward to bring up, such as body odor, chewing with their mouth open, or on the professional front, a tendency to speak over co-workers, rather than giving them a chance to speak at meetings. It’s hard to tell someone they stink, they chew like a cow, or they’re a loud-mouthed bully.

Or is it? If you’re taught ahead of time how to broach uncomfortable conversations in the workplace, and are given an easy forum to do so, are these discussions easier and more productive?

I thought of this recently as I read a question submitted to the Job Doc on boston.com. A person who just moved to a new position, and cubicle, at their company, was concerned about how to tell a colleague that her perfume was so intense it was causing migraines. The author of the column, Pattie Hunt Sinacole, suggested the person with this problem speak to their Human Resources department about instituting a no-fragrance policy in the office, but otherwise seemed at a loss as to how to have this delicate conversation. “It is difficult to ask another co-worker to change their habits, like their use of perfume or body lotion. However, if they understand how the use of these fragrances impacts others, this may help them appreciate your concerns. You can also speak to your Human Resources department to ask your co-worker (and maybe even others) to limit their use of fragrances, air refreshers, etc., in the workplace,” Sinacole writes.

I don’t blame her for hesitating to recommend that the person with the migraines approach the colleague reeking of perfume. But it makes you wonder about the importance of a workplace where people feel free to talk about problems that are uncomfortable, whether personal hygiene-related or work-related. If you can’t ask the person sitting next to you to wear less perfume, explaining politely that you have a sensitivity to fragrance and have been getting headaches, then can you ask a boorish co-worker to stop shouting you down at meetings?

Do you think it would be productive to have work groups once a year do an exercise in which each person notes two or three good points about a colleague and then two or three areas (whether personal habit-related or work-related) that could use improvement? Doing so might create a safe zone in which to air grievances and minor discomforts. I imagine in this exercise, the perfume issue could be broached like this: “This is kind of silly, and I hate to bring it up, but Suzy, I was wondering, could you wear less perfume or none at all? I’ve felt too bad to say anything, but the perfume is really giving me headaches. It’s nice perfume, but I’m super-sensitive to fragrance, and it’s making me not feel well.” If such a grievance is brought up while other pluses and minuses (minor and significant) are being discussed, it won’t be as big a deal, will it? An exercise like this also makes discussing good and bad points about co-workers—with them in person—a part of the company’s regular proceedings and culture.

When you’re taught, or signaled, by your company that it’s expected that you’ll air both the positives and negatives about co-workers directly, and as part of a regular exercise, you lessen the chances of passive-aggressive behavior. I suffer from passive-aggressive behavior these days, and I know it. The usual yearly airing of grievances and discussions of accomplishments and areas of needed improvements that should take place in the form of an annual performance review has been denied to me. My boss doesn’t want to do them, and I haven’t felt like pressing the issue with my Human Resources department. So I’ve noticed my demeanor toward him is sour. I’m unfriendly and say as little as possible, much like an angry teenager who doesn’t want to talk to her parents about her day at school. I’m still doing a good job, and meeting my professional obligations, so he doesn’t do anything. He knows, in fact, he can’t ask what’s wrong because he knows himself and doesn’t want to correct it (lack of recognition, lack of deserved merit-based salary increase, lack of development opportunities).

Just as a performance review can give employer and employee a chance to discuss areas of strife, a regular—maybe even a quarterly—session in which colleagues share issues of achievement and discomfort with each other can be a catharsis that prevents passive-aggressive unpleasantness. And it keeps everyone productive, as it’s hard to work effectively with someone who makes you angry every time you see him, or who causes pain to surge across your forehead every time she settles into the cubicle next to you.

Do you make it easy for employees to openly and constructively discuss uncomfortable issues with each other? What are the dangers of not doing so, and allowing a culture of passive-aggressive behavior to emerge in the workplace?

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