Faire une différence

11 February 2022

4 min.

Telling someone they smell bad: How do you do it?

Although professional life generally prepares us to have some delicate conversations, some subjects are more difficult to discuss than others!

One of these is a situation that most of us have faced at one time or another: having to communicate to a colleague that their smell is bothering others. Awkward, did you say?

Fortunately, whatever the situation — we’re talking about unpleasant smells, but it could also be a matter of inappropriate clothing or vocabulary, for example — the tips we’ve prepared in this article will put you on the right track!

Preparation: An essential step

It goes without saying that the conversation you are about to have must be properly prepared. Not only do you want to make sure your message is clear, but you want it to come across without the other person feeling insulted.

How do you tell someone they smell bad without offending them? First of all, by remembering the fundamental ideas that should underlie the conversation: respect, kindness, and the common good. In other words, by approaching the issue with simplicity, and by being as concerned about the wellbeing of the person you are talking to as you are about the wellbeing of the team.

But in reality, what are the best practices to keep in mind so that this delicate discussion goes as smoothly as possible?

Here are 3 tips that will save you a lot of trouble.

Boost your teams

Adopt winning practices in terms of kindness


Tip #1: Go for it without waiting

The longer we wait to broach a sensitive subject, such as telling someone they smell bad, the more tension builds and the more likely our reactions will get out of hand. When we are anxious about having a difficult conversation, this anxiety tends to rub off on everything we do… and the other person can usually tell! Not to mention the negative effect that such an unpleasant situation can have on the whole team if everyone is affected.

Rather than letting things drag on, bring up the issue as soon as possible. Be careful, however, to have the discussion in an appropriate location, away from other people’s eyes and ears! Make sure that the location you choose allows both parties to feel safe despite the potential discomfort of the moment.

Tip #2: Easy on the kid gloves

For fear of offending, many have the reflex to start with a long preamble before getting to the heart of the matter.

“Honestly, it’s not easy to say…”
“I feel a little bad telling you this…”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but…”

The more you drag it out, the more you risk provoking anxiety in the other person. On the other hand, if you approach the question very simply and directly, without beating around the bush — which does not preclude being kind — the message gets across more easily.

(This is the same underlying principle of effective feedback, actually: avoid sugarcoating and focus on the message you want to communicate).

Boost your teams

Improve feedback practices within work teams.

Constructive feedback

Tip #3: Speak for yourself

Having to tell someone that they smell bad can be uncomfortable. In such situations, there is sometimes a tendency to blame someone else, or even an entire group. If this is a regular habit, it is best to avoid it, because rather than reducing the discomfort, it can significantly damage trust.

Rather than using phrases such as “Someone brought it to my attention that…” or “Actually, everyone thinks that…”, speak for yourself. Not only will this person-to-person communication be more authentic, but it will also allow you to clearly state your feelings and requests about how to resolve the situation.

Boost your teams

Establish a climate of trust in teams


A matter of learning… and practice

The discomfort of difficult conversations can be overcome! While each person typically has certain interpersonal skills that are unique to them and therefore come more naturally to them, it’s wrong to buy into the idea that, when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues, “you either have it or you don’t!”

This is very simplistic and… not at all accurate!

In fact, when it comes to learning new skills and putting them into practice, we need to adopt the right attitude: by letting go of our limiting beliefs (“I’ll never be able to do it!”), we are much more willing to go outside our comfort zone. Even when it’s time to talk about delicate subjects!