What to Say in Difficult Situations at Work

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There’s a lot on the line when difficult situations come up in the workplace, and it isn’t always obvious what — if anything — we should say. If we say the wrong thing, we could annoy a boss, alienate a colleague or even jeopardize a job. Shrewd responses to tricky workplace situations…

PROBLEM: A coworker or boss belittles you in front of a group. Your inclination might be to argue or criticize the critic.

What to say: Very little. People who launch attacks of this nature tend to be skilled verbal bullies. You probably would be at a disadvantage in an argument, particularly if the initial assault took you by surprise or made you emotional. You could end up looking unprofessional if you return fire and begin bickering. It is better to ignore the bully’s behavior.

If you feel that you must say something, disagree without arguing, with a phrase such as, “That is not the way I see it.” If the bully continues to belittle you, you could say, “You seem to have a problem with me. Let’s talk about it privately.”

PROBLEM: A colleague asks for your help over and over again. You feel as if you’re doing his/her job as well as your own.

What to say: “I’m happy to give you a hand on occasion, but right now, I’ve got too much of my own work that I need to get done.” Do not rationalize that it will be easier to pick up the slack for this colleague than have this difficult conversation. The more of the colleague’s work you do now, the more he will ask you to do in the future.

PROBLEM: A boss demands that you work very long hours. You’re exhausted and feel that your family is getting short shrift.

What to say: Even if you were warned that long hours would be required when you took the job, you still can ask your boss for permission to rearrange your hours… or for time off for a specific purpose. Examples: “Would it be okay if I came in at 6:00 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays from now on so that I can get home by 5:00 pm to spend time with my family?” Or “I need to leave by 6:00 this Wednesday to take care of some family business. If there is anything you need from me that afternoon, could you get it to me by 3:00?”

If you believe that you’re being asked to work more hours than you signed on for, frame the problem in terms of your health and productivity. “I’m willing to put in some overtime, but I cannot physically continue to work this many hours each week.” If the boss protests that the work needs to get done, suggest that another member of the team help you with it.

PROBLEM: Bosses or colleagues invite you to frequent social engagements. You would prefer to spend your free time with your family or friends, but you don’t want to seem unfriendly.

What to say: Cite a prior commitment, but say thanks for the invitation. “Friday night for drinks? I already have plans, but thank you for inviting me.” Add that you will try to stop by for a short while — and then do so. Even a brief appearance should convince your boss or coworkers that you’re not avoiding them.

If you have turned down numerous social invitations from colleagues, suggest an alternative get-together that doesn’t cut into your personal time. “Friday after work? Oh, I can’t make it again, but I feel terrible that I never have time to meet up with you guys outside the office. How about we get together for lunch tomorrow?”

PROBLEM: Coworkers often ask you for a contribution to a charity… or to kick in for a gift for a coworker. Most people feel social pressure to contribute, but these office collections do really add up.

What to say: “No, thanks. I’ll take care of that myself.” This politely sends the message that your charitable donations and gifts are your own business.

PROBLEM: A coworker complains at length about your boss or your company. Everyone needs to blow off steam from time to time, but this puts you in a difficult position. If you agree, you seem disloyal to your employer… if you disagree, you seem unsupportive to the coworker.

What to say: “That doesn’t sound too good. What are your options?” This response is respectful to the coworker’s complaints without criticizing the employer. By asking about options, you steer the complainer toward a solution.

If you get caught in a workplace group-gripe session, either politely excuse yourself and walk away or change the subject.

PROBLEM: You’re quitting to join another firm. You want to leave on good terms, but you’re worried that your boss will be angry.

What to say: “I’ve taken another job. What can I do to make the transition as easy as possible for you?” Offer to stay on as long as you can to train your replacement… put in your maximum effort right up through your final day… and leave your notes and files in a condition that others can easily understand.

Whatever you think of your current employer, leaving on good terms increases your chances of getting a positive referral when you apply for future jobs and that the door will be open should you ever want to return.

Source: Don Gabor, a communications trainer based in New York City. He is author of several books on communications, including Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations.

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