Dealing with Condescension
by Rick Brenner
Condescending remarks hurt. When we feel that pain, we often feel the urge to retaliate, even when retaliation might not be appropriate. Our responses are more effective when we understand where condescending remarks come from.
Condescension is rarely accidental. Typically, repeat offenders do know how to be tactful, respectful, or humble. If they didn't know how, then every once in a while, by accident, they would be tactful, respectful, or humble, because they wouldn't know how to avoid it.
Those who are frequently condescending are usually in one (or more) of three patterns.
- What seems condescending is sometimes a habit, a cultural difference, or a cultural preference. In a culture in which one of the sexes is held to be weaker, showing deference is a simple courtesy. To someone from a different culture or with different values, that same deference can seem condescending.
- For managers: Habitual condescension is the pattern most likely to respond to education or training. A performance improvement plan or probation is probably unnecessary and might be perceived as a disproportionate response.
- For individuals: Unless the maker of the remark also asks for help (a most unlikely scenario), advice will likely be unwelcome. Consider the incident a chance to practice tolerance.
- Responses to condescension
are more effective
when they fit
- So little thought informs reciprocal condescension that associating a larger plan or strategy with it is difficult. Moreover, if the condescension is truly reciprocal, determining "who started it" is usually unproductive, because the precipitating comment might belong to a prior incident.
- For managers: Although education or training can help, conventional approaches have limited value because this pattern is systemic. That is, the pattern belongs to a group, and the intervention must assess and target that group's processes. And since what the group learns must be accessible under stress, experiential training is more likely to succeed.
- For individuals: The cycle will break only if one of you breaks it. Try asking for what you want, using an "I" statement. For instance, with a peer you might say, "Ouch. I'd really like us to figure out a way to work together that doesn't hurt so much."
- People who employ intentional condescension are often trying to intimidate, to inflict insult, to upset the status order, or to cause someone to "lose it." Or they might be trying to establish a more comfortable status ordering in their own minds.
- For managers: Purposeful condescension is least likely to respond to education or training. A performance improvement plan or probation is appropriate and more likely to be effective.
- For individuals: Progress with people who have organizational power is unlikely, especially if they outrank you. Even with a peer, chances of success are limited, but they're greatest if you try a private approach. If you're firm and fearless, your partner will be more likely to believe that you'll escalate if things don't change.
Habitual, reciprocal, intentional — three different patterns that require three different approaches. Even I can understand that. Top Next Issue
For tips for controlling condescension, see "Controlling Condescension," Point Lookout for August 17, 2005.
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!
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
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- Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
- Email Antics: Part IV
- Nearly everyone I know complains that email is a real time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own actions. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
- Towards More Gracious Disagreement
- We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
- How to Eliminate Meetings
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- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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