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August 17, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 33
 
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Controlling Condescension

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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.

"Not 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
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Condescension is one form indirectness can take. For more on indirectness see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.


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