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. Top Next Issue
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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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us
into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached
a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source
is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing
- Dismissive Gestures: I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated,
we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a
catalog of nonverbal insults.
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: III
- People who habitually interrupt others in meetings must be fairly common, because I'm often asked about
what to do about them. And you can find lots of tips on the Web, too. Some tips work well, some generally
don't. Here are my thoughts about four more.
- Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information,
we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for
interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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