7 awkward work situations—and how to respond to them

At work, we can stumble into interactions that leave us anxious and tongue-tied, writes Alicia Bassuk for Harvard Business Review.

Bassuk, a leadership coach and founder of Ubica, recommends preparing a few go-to responses, which you can fish out later when the conversation calls for it. She describes seven common, uncomfortable work situations and the one-liners you can deliver to regain control.

Situation 1: Someone takes credit for your idea

According to Bassuk, most people have experienced this awkward encounter: You make a point that goes unacknowledged, only to have a colleague restate the idea as their own and get credit for it. 

What to say: "Thanks for spotlighting my point." If you deliver this line with composure, you can both reclaim your idea and avoid accusing the other person of taking your idea, she writes.

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Situation 2: You're asked to stay late, but you're about to leave the office for a personal obligation

If you explain what the personal obligation is, you risk causing resentment in your coworkers, Bassuk notes.

What to say: "Excuse me, I have another commitment." This statement minimizes your risk of backlash by implicitly requesting confidentiality and eliminates the risk of oversharing about your obligation, she writes.

Situation 3: A valued colleague snaps at you

If you snap back, you risk damaging your good rapport.

What to say: "This isn't about what you do for me. It is about what you did to me." If you deliver this sentence with composure, you can diffuse the situation. The line limits the scope of the conversation to an isolated incident and keeps the door open for mutually affirming conduct in the future, Bassuk writes.

I'm sorry, but you need to work on your apologies

Situation 4: You have to say "no"

Most of us will have turn down an idea or request at one point, but often it can seem easier to just say "yes." 

What to say: "This is a good launching point." When spoken enthusiastically, this statement lets you avoid committing to the request, while protecting your reputation, she explains.

Situation 5: You need to deliver a tough message

As a leader, you may have to give negative feedback to employees. But hearing sensitive feedback can put anyone on the defensive and make you wonder if the feedback is even worth giving, Bassuk notes.

What to say: "I'm here to be for you what someone once was for me." If you deliver this line calmly and candidly, you give the other person a moment to brace themselves for tough news, she writes. The statement also positions the message as a piece of encouragement, not criticism.

Situation 6: You disagree with someone's decision

The prospect of addressing something that bothers you can inspire apprehension and lead you down an unproductive rabbit hole of over-analysis, Bassuk warns.

What to say: "This is my preference." This line clearly communicates your concern and desired change, while conveying that you're open to negotiation. 

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Situation 7: You need to escalate a serious issue

If you've used the proper reporting channels and the person you speak with is not willing to pursue the issue, you may worry about facing mistreatment or even losing your job if you keep pushing, Bassuk writes.

What to say: "Your response gives me cause to take this further." Deliver this line with a calm and matter-of-fact tone, Bassuk writes. The statement can empower you in the moment to inform the other person that you will not accept misconduct and that you expect the offender to face consequences, she notes (Bassuk, Harvard Business Review, 10/13)


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