One of my clients (let’s call her “Jane”) recently asked my advice about how to communicate with a colleague who routinely speaks to her in a manner that Jane describes as “condescending”. Jane said that “her blood boils” whenever they talk together during the course of the business week, because this colleague (whose position in the company is at the same managerial level as Jane’s) routinely projects an attitude of superiority.
Jane reports that after a few minutes of conversation with The Condescend-er, Jane often feels insulted and wants to end the dialogue. Ending the conversation, in truth, would not serve Jane, because these two professionals have important business decisions to make together each week.
Jane’s dilemma is not uncommon. Her task in this business situation is to put principles above personalities. This means that Jane should place her focus on the priority (the business communication at hand), and not exhaust energy on her own feelings or judgments about her colleague’s communication style or personal attitudes. The objective is to communicate effectively to achieve specific business goals, and this can best be accomplished when one is emotionally centered and free of insecurity, frustration, anger, and feelings of insult.
It is certainly important to acknowledge one’s own feelings when one perceives condescension in a conversation partner. It is also useful to develop the ability to contain those feelings and set them aside, to achieve the larger business goal. Most people are more skilled at this than they realize. For example, a mother who sees her small child running into oncoming traffic would probably run into the street to grab the child and, in that instant, put aside any fears about her own personal safety: achieving the higher goal, the safety of the child, takes precedence.
While business conversations are less dramatic than this example, speakers who interact with Condescend-ers can choose actions (conversation behaviors) that support the larger business goal, rather than those that are based upon emotions.
Here are three tips that can help:
Do not allow The Condescend-er to lose face.
Most people who are condescending have a strong desire to prove that they are right and you are wrong. Many of them are not interested in win-win situations, but interested in win-lose situations. Of course, they want to appear to be the winners. You can remain focused on your business message and take the higher ground: find a communication style that allows The Condescend-er to feel that he/she is right. If you believe that this person is wrong, and when you must assert facts, opinions, news, etc. that might contradict The Condescend-er, do it with words/phrases that add ideas rather than oppose ideas. One simple strategy is to use the word “and” to add a contradictory idea, rather than using the word “but” (as people often do).
Use the acting technique: “Act As If”.
The deep-seated motivation underneath most condescending speech/behavior is a desire to feel better about one’s self. It is useful to remember that this behavior is often an indicator of low self-esteem. Before your blood starts to boil with The Condescend-er, keep in mind that this person may actually be hurting inside, and use the actors’ technique: “act as if”. View your conversation partner in a manner that supports your goals. View The Condescend-er as if he/she were a wounded person with a large bandage on his/her head. Treat Condescend-ers as if they were extremely fragile (as, indeed they actually are). Your “acting as if” (with complete commitment) will allow you to treat Condescend-ers with gentleness, kindness, and compassion. This will reduce their defensiveness and help you feel strong, capable, and confident. You will both be better able to focus on the greater good: the business task at hand. Act as if.
Remember that feelings are not always based on fact.
As you communicate with Condescend-ers, you may interpret their behavior to reflect the “fact” that they feel superior to you, and you may feel hurt, angry, insulted, etc. It is useful to remember that when you perceive condescension in others, there is always the possibility that what you are perceiving as condescension is really something else — and/or has nothing at all to do with you or how the person feels about you. I learned this lesson during my life on the professional stage. During a singing performance one night, I happened to notice an acquaintance in the front row of the audience. While I was singing, she was looking at me with a facial expression that (I thought) could only have been interpreted to mean that she was revolted and found my singing to be utterly objectionable. I was quite hurt and resented her for a long time after that. Ten years later, I happened to meet her by chance, and she spontaneously said, “Maria, ten years ago I came to hear you sing and it was very difficult for me. As you were singing so beautifully, I was reminded of my childhood feelings of jealousy toward my sister, who sang so well. I always felt inferior to her because she was so talented.” We don’t always know the facts, do we?
When you see an expression on someone’s face or hear a tone of voice that disturbs you, it is useful to remember that your conversation partner may be responding to something that has nothing at all to do with you! Condescend-ers are truly harmless. You can focus on business goals in conversation with them by (1) using words/phrases strategically, (2) using the actors’ technique of acting as if, and (3) remembering that your feelings are not always based on facts.