In the past 10 days, three people from different organizations have complained to me about a boss or colleague who’s behaved condescendingly toward them. Not one of the three is a slouch, or a junior person. They’re all smart, competent, hardworking — assets to their organizations. And yet, they’re condescended to with some frequency.
The act of condescending involves looking down on, talking down to, and generally putting someone down. In all cases, the message is: “You are less than I am; you are not enough.”
That’s downright demotivating, isn’t it? It’s hard to do your best when someone’s busy putting you in your place, and indicating — often without words — that you’re somehow lacking. When condescended to, most people feel inadequate and pressured; they often shrink or withdraw to protect themselves.
The Thin Line Between Condescension and Contempt
Condescending facial expressions include smirking or curling the lips, rolling the eyes, peering at someone over the top of one’s eyeglasses, or wrinkling the nose as if disgusted. A condescending person’s gestures can include waving away comments, putting up a hand to shush you, or shrugging as if what you said doesn’t matter. A condescending tone and language might be sarcastic or sardonic, as if to say, “Oh, yeah? You think so? What makes you think you’re so smart?” or “There she goes again!”
Another condescending behavior is telling you something you already know, very slowly — as if you need extra time to comprehend — or speaking with added, disrespectful emphasis, as if you’re hard of hearing and out of touch.
In the emotional sciences, condescension usually connotes contempt. It’s bad enough to think you’ve been condescended to, but it’s even worse to face the idea that your boss or colleague might actually be thinking of you with contempt.
Why People Condescend
Do condescending people truly mean to treat others that way? Usually not, if the relationship is generally good otherwise. Many people who condescend are insecure. They’re looking for a way to to demonstrate their superiority and comfort themselves that you’re no threat to them and that they’re worthier than anyone else.
Others who condescend may, in fact, think too much of themselves, and use condescension to make themselves the focus of attention. But their condescension is likely to be a protective or deflective mechanism to draw attention away from their own feelings of insecurity. They patronize others as a way to avoid any expression or hint of weakness in themselves.
You Can Combat Condescension
Condescension can put a well-honed shiv in an otherwise productive relationship, making people feel unappreciated and dissed. If other attractive options for employment or participation come up, many people will opt out of the stress and disparagement of constant condescension and choose to go elsewhere.
But if there’s value in staying, how can you handle condescending colleagues? They may not even realize how they’re coming across. It’s not effective to hope they’ll stop on their own; condescension is usually a habitual behavior they’ve used to manage people or situations that displeased them or made them feel impatient, frustrated, or anxious. And it doesn’t help to be supercilious or defensive in return.
Instead, stick to being warm, earnest, gracious, and perhaps a bit humorous. It’s particularly important to make condescending people recognize that you’re on their team, working to help them achieve their goals and stature. Try to assess what they saw in the situation. Were they using condescension to get you to be quiet, like throwing a beanball at a batter to brush him back from the plate rather than giving him a shot at hitting a homerun? Or were they trying to take control of the situation to prevent it from getting off track?
A blanket guideline not to condescend won’t work. Start out as if the actual problem is not their behavior but the situation, and give them concrete examples: “You didn’t look so happy when Sue was talking. Was something wrong?” Or, “I know you disagree with Sue’s perspective, but you sure looked miserable sitting there!”
Speak Plainly to Open Up the Situation
If you have the organizational clout, moral authority, or personal moxie to confront condescension directly, you can be more specific. Here are three examples you can modify to fit your own situation:
- At one point during the budget discussion, you said X, and pushed back from the table. It seemed as if you were angry or thought I had said something stupid and you wanted to cut me off. Is there something else I should have said that would have been more effective? Or is there other feedback you can give me, so I can do a better job next time?
- When you rolled your eyes and shook your head while Jim was speaking, you looked like you were dissing him — as if you were so done you couldn’t wait to get out of there. Was something about the presentation not up to snuff? I’d be happy to work with him on it.
- You may not be aware of how you came across in the operations meeting. You looked and sounded so annoyed about the project plan that I’m concerned that some of the team isn’t taking in your feedback. They’re wondering why you were so harsh about it when they’ve put in so much work. Do you want me to call another meeting, so you can explain your points in a more neutral way?
It may not be your place to reassure condescending people about their own real strengths, or to help them see the good in themselves, but you can certainly try to help them see the good in others and the negative impact they’re having on both the team and the work.
Onward and upward,