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:
- Saying No
- When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate
with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the
group toward joint problem solving.
- Believe It or Else
- When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future
action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that.
Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here
are some of their techniques.
- How to Misunderstand Somebody Else
- Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even
more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand.
Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
- People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some
tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.