Don’t Patronize Me: How to Handle Condescending Remarks From a Coworker and How Not to Set Yourself Up
"Let me see if I can put this in terms you can understand." "You don't know what you're talking about." "I thought that, too, when I was your age." Condescending remarks hurt. They contribute to an atmosphere of destructive conflict, even when we accompany them with smiles or veneers of humor.
While we most associate those kinds of comments with bosses or managers, anyone in the workplace can patronize. For instance, a low-ranking, technically savvy engineer remarks to a director of marketing, "Yes, as I've already explained, we could do as you suggest - if you want to blow our deadline - again."
The sources of condescension range from sloppy communication (I'm in a hurry and I don't have to time to consider your feelings or worry about manners) to insecurity (I feel threatened by you and am trying to regain the upper footing) to an out-of-control ego (I must appear smart, worldly and in-the-know by demonstrating my expertise at every opportunity).
Strategy: Regardless of the reason, your best bet is to handle the remark calmly and directly. "What do you mean by saying _____________?" This will (hopefully) force the other person to explain exactly what he/she meant. It's a subtle way to take control of the situation, putting the instigator on the spot to explain/defend his/her remark. That way, you still come across as professional, and deflect inappropriate comments.
Let Me Explain it to You Again
In addition to snide comments, another common way condescension rears its ugly head in the workplace is when a coworker continually "explains" things to others when it's obvious they already know what s/he is taking about.
Let's face it; no one wants a lesson in basic science if s/he is a rocket scientist, yet some people routinely view questions as signals that the asker can't handle the situation. As a result, they jump in and offer advice/help without evaluating what the questioner already knows.
Strategy: The next time you feel like you should explain something, whether it's a business policy, a technology, an incidental, or something that will help clarifying your meaning... give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Strategy: Preface your response with "You may already know this but..." It' sets a completely different tone in how we come across to others. If the questioner didn't already know what you're talking about, s/he'll be flattered that you overestimated his or her expertise and, if s/he was already clued in, no harm is done. No one wants to think that we assume they don't know anything!
Strategy: Before you ask a question, tell them what you already know before you pose the problem to them. For example, if you phrase your question like so: "Hey, I wanted to ask your advice about A, B and C. I was thinking that I could do D and E, or maybe F. Do you have any other ideas?" This way, you present your solution/thoughts, so the person you're asking knows that you've been thinking about the issue already.
Strategy: Whenever possible, avoid asking the advice of people you do not respect or who are simply rude.
Joseph Wolfgang von Goethe once said, "Look closely at those who patronize you; half are unfeeling, half untaught." Make sure you're not among the unfeeling or clueless and help educate - and reign in - your colleagues who are.
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