Throw a load of random people together, and you are bound to get some awkward moments, especially if you are forced (as you often are at work) to spend a lot of time with each other. We all have embarrassing work stories, and there are whole TV series dedicated to awkward work situations (my favourites being The Office and 40 Rock) which take place on a regular basis. But, for Assistants we find ourselves having to navigate a lot of office politics and we have to work with all types of individuals and levels of seniority so for us dealing with awkward situations at work is a regular occurrence. Here are a few examples of awkward situations we might face and how to style them out for future reference.
Dealing with awkward situations at work
- Small talk at your desk: This used to happen to me all the time. My desk was outside my three Executive’s offices and next to the boardroom. So I always had a stream of people waiting at my desk to go into my Exec’s office or waiting to go into the boardroom. My desk was the staging post before going into battle! Everyone felt the need to start a conversation with me, about the weather, about my weekend plans, about office gossip or what my Executive was up to. Aside from the constant annoying interruption I had to engage in a lot of small talk, often with people that were not very good at small talk. It could be awkward. So, I came up with a few conversational questions that I could use with anyone at any level in the business, to avoid any awkward silences. Here are my favourite three… ‘What are you working on at the moment?’, ‘What are you having for lunch today / What did you have for lunch today?’ and ‘What are you watching on TV at the moment?’
- Lift chat: Another common awkward situation is getting in the lift with one other colleague and having to think of something to say before you get off without looking weird or rude or both. You only have a few moments so try not to stress too much if you don’t say anything. Usually, a warm smile and a ‘good morning/afternoon’ will suffice. You can do the whole elevator pitch thing, but you’ve got to have that nailed before embarking on a conversation that lasts a minute or two. If someone starts a conversation, be nice, be polite, nod in agreement and say ‘see you later’ before exiting the lift.
- Meeting and greeting: We have to do this a lot, and it can be awkward, so much so, that I have written a whole blog post on the art of the meet and greet for Assistants.
- Your colleagues are loud: This is awkward and annoying but is a pretty standard part of working in an open plan office. If it is something that is stopping you from doing your work every day, you are going to have to say something. To make things less awkward you can start by asking everyone to be quiet because you are working on something important that day, hopefully, everyone will respect your request and then the following day spend quite some time dropping massive hints about how much you were able to achieve in such a quiet environment. If that doesn’t work, then you might have to be more honest and speak to each person individually to say that you are struggling because of the noise. Be honest, but polite and see if there is some compromise. Perhaps a quiet hour, or headphones or you can block some time in an office for an hour or two a day.
- You are asked something in a meeting, and you have no clue what to say: So this has happened to me a lot! I have spent hours and hours and hours in meetings, so I have often been put in the spot to answer questions I don’t know the answer to. The best solution is always the same – ‘I don’t have that information to hand, but I will find out and let everyone know as soon as I am back at my desk’. This also works if you have completely zoned out of the meeting and don’t know what you were asked. When the meeting finishes go back to the person for more ‘clarity’.
So, dealing with awkward situations at work can be mastered. It is always worth remembering that if you are feeling awkward, the other person probably is too so be nice, be gracious and smile. You might be busy and want to get on with your day, but kindness can go along way in our profession.