Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 33;   August 17, 2005: Controlling Condescension

Controlling Condescension

by

Condescension is one reason why healthy conflict becomes destructive. It's a conversational technique that many use without thinking, and others use with aggressive intention. Either way, it can hurt everyone involved.

Certain that her point about the new risks was clear, Caitlin advanced to the next slide. But when she was less than 20 words into describing the contingency plan, Warner interrupted her. She knew she was now officially in trouble.

Two rabbits doing the Condescension Cha-ChaNot so fast my dear," he began. "Let's go back to that risks slide. I want to hear again whatever it is you're trying to say."

Caitlin knew Warner's tricks. She let the "my dear" go by, because she'd seen him rattle others before and she was determined to keep her mind clear.

"Absolutely," she said with a smile, pressing the left arrow to go back one slide. "We can spend as long on this slide as you think you need."

The room was now very quiet, as everyone waited for Warner's response. Engaging with Warner like that was a gutsy move, but Caitlin knew that folding up would only have invited even more abuse.

Warner and Caitlin are doing the "condescension cha-cha" — or at least, a couple of the steps. Warner's "my dear" and "whatever it is you're trying to say" are attempts to elevate himself while he denigrates Caitlin. And Caitlin's "as long…as you think you need" is a response in kind.

Condescending remarks hurt.
They contribute to
destructive conflict.
Condescending remarks hurt. They contribute to an atmosphere of destructive conflict, even when we accompany them with smiles or veneers of humor. Here are some common examples:

  • We already thought of that.
  • What you're trying to say is X.
  • Let me see if I can put this in terms simple enough for you.
  • I know what you're thinking.
  • Well, Phil, I'm glad you could finally join us.
  • That report is actually pretty good given that you don't have all the information I have.
  • Oh, you just figured that out?

In the workplace, anyone can engage in condescension — you don't have to be more powerful than the people you're being condescending to. All that's required is a willingness to elevate yourself while putting down others. For instance, a low-ranking engineer who's a technical expert can remark to a director of marketing, "Yes, as I've already explained, we could do as you suggest — if we want to make the project another year later and alienate the other half of our customer base."

To get control of your own condescension, start tracking condescending remarks (by count, not by author). Note trends. You'll develop sensitivity to all condescension, and that will automatically give you control of your own.

Dealing with a condescending remark entails making a choice. Options include escalation, confrontation, retreat, looking the other way, responding in kind, or, as Caitlin did, combining two or more of these. The choice you make depends in part on your own strength and on what you think drives the condescension. We'll examine these options next time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Dealing with Condescension  Next Issue

Condescension is one form indirectness can take. For more on indirectness see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenKBWmUrsKFhxmrotYner@ChacNoKXqfkeDfxGlpvwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Carrot and stickIrrational Self-Interest
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
Too much time on his handsHurtful Clichés: Part II
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
In the conference roomInterviewing the Willing: Tactics
When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
Shaking an orange treeWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part III
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
Autumn colors on Clopper LakeEnding Conversations
At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A Great Grey OwlComing June 29: How to Waste Time in Virtual Meetings
Nearly everyone hates meetings, and virtual meetings are at the top of most people's lists. Here's a catalog of some of the worst practices. Available here and by RSS on June 29.
An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeAnd on July 6: Cognitive Biases and Influence: Part I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support. Available here and by RSS on July 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenjcHsYhoWVncapeYKner@ChacgtyMjRRsjHDbTIyIoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Sudoku Solutions, INK: A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization
In thCross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Workis workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.