At work, where relationships usually lack the context of shared family history, condescending remarks and gestures make trouble. Even if the conversation manages to maintain a peaceful veneer, condescension can leave a bitter residue that can taint later exchanges or possibly entire relationships. General advice about avoiding condescension is useful, but general advice can be difficult to apply in the moment. One reason for the difficulty is that we tend to use habitual patterns in our language that we don't recognize as possibly condescending. These patterns might have been innocent enough in the context in which we learned them, but they might not work as well in other contexts. Unintended condescension can be the result.
The fundamental problem is that we cannot control what other people do with what we say.
We tend to assume that we appear to be condescending to others only when we intend to. That's an unfortunate mistake. But we can reduce the likelihood of making these mistakes by avoiding a limited number of phrases and tactics that many people experience as condescending. Below are two examples of phrases to avoid. In what follows, I'll use the name Charlotte (for Condescender) to refer to the author of the unintended condescending remark. And I'll use the name Edgar (for Experiencer) to refer to the person in the conversation who experiences Charlotte's words as condescending.
- What you're forgetting is…
- This construct Condescension can leave a bitter
residue that can taint later
exchanges or possibly
entire relationshipsis one of a class that includes, in the place of forgetting, words or phrases such as overlooking, neglecting, failing to mention, or ignoring. [Note 1]. For example, Charlotte might be interpreted as condescending when she says, "What you're forgetting is that the system works fine with Module Delta instead of Module Alpha."
- Using this construct risks being interpreted as condescending because the construct critiques Edgar's thought process, rather than the content of his comments. When Charlotte uses this construct, she's actually claiming to know that Edgar has forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected something. That claim by Charlotte raises a question: "Does she really believe that she has such superior intellectual powers that she might know exactly what's wrong with Edgar's thought process?"
- Charlotte would be on much firmer ground if she were to question Edgar's comments directly, rather than claiming to be so insightful as to know how he came to what she believes is an incorrect conclusion. She could say, for example, "How does that explain why the system works with Module Delta but not with Module Alpha?"
- It's not that simple
- When used in conversational debate, this phrase criticizes Edgar's position by asserting that his position lacks the complexity or nuance necessary for addressing the issue at hand. As the introductory phrase of a conversational contribution, it's a criticism offered without evidence, which creates the conditions for some people to experience it as condescending. This happens even when evidence justifying the criticism follows immediately after the phrase.
- This one is especially dangerous because it has acquired a role typically played by embolalia — the filler words and phrases we use in everyday speech to help us gain time to gather our thoughts. So while Charlotte is actually using the phrase merely to stall for time to compose her thoughts, Edgar experiences condescension that Charlotte didn't intend.
- To be safer, Charlotte can supply the foundation for the criticism before the criticism itself. But even better, she can ask Edgar how his position addresses whatever shortcoming Charlotte has in mind.
Next time we'll explore how we risk unintended condescension by using common expressions unrelated to judgments of others or judgments of what others have said. Next in this series 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!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Conflict Management:
- When You Can't Even Think About It
- Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can
think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
- Deniable Intimidation
- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators
succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding
their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
- Making Meaning
- When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some
interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are
sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
- Reframing Revision Resentment: II
- When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever,
we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives
that can be helpful.
See also Conflict Management and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info