If the thought of telling someone they smell makes you want to run and hide, here are some tips to help tackle what can be an especially tricky conversation topic…
You’re being kind
Despite how it feels, you’re actually being kind – not to mention brave – for raising the issue and having this conversation. There’s a good chance that the person involved doesn’t realise they smell – yet people around them do, and no-one is telling them. How awful is that? Think how you’d feel if you smelt and weren’t aware it while everyone else was – wouldn’t you want someone to tell you?
So, as awkward as it might be to say so, remember that you’re doing this to help the person concerned and give them a chance to change matters. You’re the one who’s been brave and kind enough to tell them.
I know of many people who’ve needed to have the ‘smelly’ conversation, and thus far the responses of the ‘smelly people’ has been gratitude. Yes, they’ve been embarrassed – who wouldn’t be? – but also extremely grateful to have been told. One woman once told me of how she was forever on someone’s Christmas card list as a result of having had such a conversation.
Be specific about what it is about the person that seems to causing the smell. Is it bad breath? Smelly feet? A sweaty odour? Unclean clothes?
You might wince at the thought of being so specific, but this will let the other person know exactly what smell they need to tackle (if indeed they choose to). If you simply talk more generally about them ‘smelling’, it could describe any of the above. The risk could then be that the person goes into overdrive attempting to tackle smells that don’t exist, or worse, the wrong area altogether!
Being specific makes the problem smaller. ‘Bad breath’ is a tangible issue that can be addressed in a very particular way; being ‘smelly’ can potentially mean anything and everything.
How to phrase it
Below is a sentence that can help you broach the topic and get straight to the point. I recommend taking a direct approach, as engaging in chit-chat will only prolong the pain:
and I want to make you aware so that you can address it and remove it.”
You can adapt the wording to your own situation, since it might not be appropriate for every conversation about smell – use your own judgement.
If you’ve resolved to have this conversation with a colleague, then I salute you for being both brave and kind. You’re showing a willingness to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation for the benefit of someone else when others won’t – so go, you!
Sonia Gill is founder of the consultancy Heads Up, which specialises in making schools outstanding, and author of the #1 ranked books Successful Difficult Conversations in School and Journey to Outstanding; a supporting video on this topic can be seen on YouTube here.