How to Handle Awkward Work Situations


It happens: you work in an environment with all different types of people, beliefs and perceptions, so subsequently things are going to get awkward once in a while. Here are some ways to handle some of these common awkward situations:

You Get Stuck in a Boring Conversation

To be polite, give it a good 6 or 7 minutes before you start looking for an escape route. Try excuses such as, “I’ve got something printing on the printer that I need to pick up” or “I’ve got to run to a conference call,” then make sure you follow through (for example: actually go to the printer or go to your office and shut the door).

A ruder way to excuse yourself is to distract your boring storyteller by drawing an innocent passerby into the conversation. “Oh hi, Kelly! Todd here was telling me about the latest innovations in printer ink!” Then make your excuse and escape.

You Don’t Know the Answer to a Question

So you’re in a meeting with your boss and colleagues discussing marketing strategy. The spotlight is on you as you share your information. Your boss asks you a question and everyone stares at you, waiting for your answer. Except you don’t have an answer. What do you do? You don’t want to say “I don’t know” without sounding dumb or even unprepared.

The best way to handle this may be just choosing to be direct: “That is a great question; let me get back to you on that.” This acknowledges the question and lets the person know you will give it some consideration instead of giving a weak answer.

If you don’t know the answer because you haven’t done what you were supposed to, apologize. Then give a deadline of when you will have the question answered. Be sure to follow through so that you don’t lose dependability.

What if you are unable to put the question off? For example, if you are giving a speech or being interviewed (and will not have a chance to amend answered questions). Try misdirection: answer the question with a question of your own.

For example: “That is a good question, but an even better question would be…” and then discuss what you know.

A Heated Disagreement with your Boss or Coworker

You yelled; he yelled, and even though it was behind closed doors, chances are the whole office heard it. The best thing to do is take a time-out to cool down.

When we are upset, we are unable to think clearly and may say things that we don’t mean or don’t even make sense. Walk away for at least 20 minutes but don’t engage your coworkers in a slam session. Go somewhere you can cool off and think clearly. Then return to the conversation and make it a productive one.

The Broken Record

You like your boss and enjoy her stories, but she has one favorite story that you’ve already heard. Again. And again. And again. If the story is more than a few minutes long, it’s okay to politely interrupt while telling her how much you enjoy the story (as long as you are alone). But if you are in a group, just let it go. Don’t embarrass her or yourself.