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August 24, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 34
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Dealing with Condescension


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.

Which came first — the chicken or the egg?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
the situation
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Practice Positive Politics  Next Issue
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For tips for controlling condescension, see "Controlling Condescension," Point Lookout for August 17, 2005.

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!

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

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945Coming December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
Fog offshore near Cabrillo National Monument, CaliforniaAnd on December 9: Clearing Conflict Fog
At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.

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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.
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