How To Tell Someone They Smell Bad (And Other Awkward Conversations)

Do you have something uncomfortable to tell someone? Like maybe she smells bad, or he needs to wash his hair more, or everyone can see her underwear when she bends over? Here's how to break the news with minimal fallout — and how to decide if you should keep silent instead.

Don't jump the gun.

Nobody really wants to be the one to tell somebody they stink, so this advice shouldn't be too hard to follow. Still, you should remember that it's probably not worth commenting on somebody's B.O., greasy hair, visible underwear or the like unless it's causing a problem for you — or you're pretty sure it's starting to cause problems for them. I talked to Halley Bock, CEO of Fierce Inc., a leadership development and training company that focuses on conversation — she says a good rule of thumb when considering whether to confront a coworker is to ask yourself whether the issue is really affecting your work. Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How to Talk Through Any Difficult Situation at Work, gave me similar advice: "Wait for a pattern to emerge. Definitely don't say anything the first, second or even third time you notice it." If it's something little that can be fixed in the moment — toilet paper on someone's shoe comes to mind — go ahead and speak up. But for larger issues, it can be a good idea to hold off until you're sure it's an ongoing problem.

Don't speak out of spite.

Bock advises that before you say anything, you should ask yourself if you want to enrich your relationship with the other person. If the answer is no — if you don't care about them or even want to take them down a peg — then you should probably keep quiet. People can smell fakeness, and an insincere "I'm only saying this because I care about you" isn't going to help anyone. Nobody likes a concern-troll.

Pick a private place.

Somebody's B.O. is not a topic to bring up at a board meeting or a party. Says Flagg, "you want to be sure you are alone and in a private setting, one where you know you will not be interrupted." She adds,

[W]hen you do speak up, don't EVER say that several other people have "brought it to your attention." That's horrifying for the individual. He or she will become so focused on who else said something and how many other people were talking about him or her, that it derails the conversation and turns it into something negative. A caveat: Sometimes a person will get crazy, especially if they report to you and they blame you for picking on them. In that case, it is sometimes necessary to say you're not alone in your observations.

Be clear.

Bock says that when you're delivering uncomfortable information, you need to be "clear, concise, and compassionate." She explains that some people are so afraid of criticizing others that they "put a lot of pillows around the message, so much so that the message is lost." So don't couch your statement in so many qualifiers that the person can't tell what's going on. Instead, Bock recommends five steps: name the issue, give an example, describe it objectively (as a video camera would), clarify why it's important, say you want to resolve it, and invite the person to respond. Flagg offers a somewhat more streamlined approach: "I'm sure you're not aware of it but thought you'd like to know that I'm noticing an odd odor. I think it might be your..... (fill in the blank.)" Another example, if you're close with a coworker who you think dresses inappropriately: "I think you should reconsider your outfit because it can potentially hurt your image and the impression you're making on others. I'm concerned people won't take you seriously, or that they will question your professionalism." Or if you're the boss: "I've noticed your appearance (or hygiene, or dress) has changed and there are a few things (or one singular thing) wrong that we need to discuss."

If you feel like you need to couch your statements a little bit, Bock recommends a lead-in like, "I want to talk with you about an issue that may be sensitive, and I find the best way is to be direct." But then be direct — nobody wants to be in an awkward conversation any longer than they have to.

Let them respond.

Bock says that when confronted with a difficult personal issue, people sometimes react with "denial, defense, or deflection." Expect this, and stay on track — don't let the person derail the conversation by talking about someone else's ugly haircut or whatever. They may have a totally legit explanation — perhaps a medical problem — in which case you should hear them out. But don't get caught up in an argument if they get defensive. Sometimes, it can be a good idea to just leave and give the person a minute to consider what you've said. Relatedly...

If you're the one who gets called out, it's totally fine to ask for some time.

Bock notes that feelings of embarrassment, shame, or shock are totally normal if someone just told you there's something wrong with the way you smell, wash, or dress. You may even feel physically sick or shaken. If that's the case, it's totally fine to ask for some time to process what you've just heard. Go to a private place, yell, drink a cup of tea, whatever you need to do so that you don't kill the messenger. And if it turns out you don't agree, taking a minute will at least keep you from getting in a big argument. Unless the person who confronted you is just an underminer and a jerk (in which case you probably know it), they're trying to help. Says Flagg,

I always reckon back to how grateful we are when our friends tell us that we have a big piece of spinach in our teeth. They don't let us walk around and embarrass ourselves. It's the same mindset, the same thing.

Put it in perspective.

Even though conversations about things like personal hygiene can be fraught, they're not matters of national security. Don't treat them that way. Says Flagg,

Don't make it a big deal. It's only as big as you make it. Be comfortable just saying the words because a sense that you're ill-at-ease adds to the recipients discomfort as well. Keep it light.

B.O. certainly isn't pleasant, but in the grand scheme of human problems, it could be a lot worse. Keep that in mind when approaching someone, and everything will go a lot more smoothly.

Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How To Talk Through Any Difficult Situation At Work
Fierce Inc. [Official Site]

Image by Steve Dressler.