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-Cha"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

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!

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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Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
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Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.

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