With offices becoming more open in design, we’re in a lot more direct, face-to-face contact with our coworkers throughout the day.

And while this work style may foster more spontaneous collaboration … it also presents more opportunities for office etiquette blunders and awkward situations between coworkers.

There’s a number of ways a coworkers’ habits, or even hygiene, can interfere with your ability to work comfortably and effectively.

Two ladies coworkers discussing a serious topic.

Sound can be one issue. Coworkers who make a lot of noise with papers and desk items, talk loudly on phones or video chats, listen to music through their computer speakers or loud headphones … and generally make a racket … can ruin the concentration of workers around them.

Smells can be another troublesome topic. Coworkers who wear too much perfume or cologne … or perhaps don’t manage their body odor sufficiently, can create an uncomfortable situation for those around them. Or, if they’re in the habit of eating strong-smelling foods at their desk, that can create a less pleasant shared workspace, as well.

And, of course, it’s always difficult to have a conversation with a coworker who may have let you down on a project, or whose performance has been suffering.

Having uncomfortable conversations about these and similar issues with coworkers is never easy. Especially if, like most people, you dislike conflict and would do nearly anything to avoid it.

But avoiding difficult conversations just makes co-working situations worse. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to turn such conversations into constructive experiences for both parties.

Here are a few tips for broaching delicate subjects at work:

  • If a group of you are affected by the offending person’s behavior, perhaps nominate the person most close to the offending party. Constructive criticism is always easier to take when it comes from a friend.
  • Have empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see where they’re coming from. How would you feel if somebody needed to have such a conversation with you?
  • Be sure about your motives. You’re not confronting your coworker to hurt them. But to improve the work situation for you both. You could start by saying something like, “I wanted to talk to you about [PROBLEM], are you aware that it’s an issue?” This makes the discussion truly feel like a conversation and allows your coworker to share his or her perspective.
  • Have the discussion in private. If possible, schedule a meeting room for just the two of you. You don’t want to embarrass your coworker – you want to work together to find a solution that helps both of you.
  • Be objective and compassionate. Stick to the facts. Let the other person know, gently and tactfully, how their behavior or negative habits are affecting your comfort and job performance. Use “I” statements to explain how you’re being affected. Don’t use accusatory or emotionally loaded language.
  • Show you care. Acknowledge how hard it is to be honest about such topics, especially at work. Let your coworker know you’re willing to help them make the changes you’re asking for—and mean it. Make a plan together to constructively fix the situation.
  • Contribute something positive. Soften your constructive criticism by letting your coworker know about the things that you enjoy about working with them, and that you appreciate their teamwork and collaboration.

Want to learn how to navigate other tricky workplace situations with grace and professionalism? Polite Society’s Business Etiquette Training can help!