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 . 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 ways in which 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!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The High Cost of Low Trust: I
- We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures
to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate
what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
- Social Safety Margins
- As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have
less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When
are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
- The Advantages of Political Attack: II
- In workplace politics, attackers are often surprisingly successful with even the flimsiest assertions.
Often, they prevail, in part, because they can choose the time and venue for their attacks. They also
have the advantage of preparation. How can targets respond effectively?
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
- Grace Under Fire: I
- If you're ever in a tight spot in a meeting, one in which you must defend your actions or past decisions,
the soundness of your arguments can matter less than your demeanor. What can you do when someone intends
to make you "lose it?"
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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