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; have 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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4 Comments on “Don’t Patronize Me: How to Handle Condescending Remarks From a Coworker and How Not to Set Yourself Up”

  1. Mary Scott Says:

    I work with someone that is very condescending, we are equals in the job however I have to make sure she does her job, if she does not or she makes a mistake it falls on me although I am not considered her supervisor. She doesn’t know how to ask you something nicely, she has to blurt it out and demand things. For example: I have been listening to my ipod for 2 1/2 yrs which includes rock, pop, jazz, country, opera, etc…it has a wide variety. She has NEVER said one word to me about it in 2 1/2 yrs. I also tend to keep it very low so mainly I can hear it. The other day she yells, “Turn it off! I hate country music!” The next day I said, “You could have asked me nicely to please turn it down, there’s no need to snap and make demands, it is offensive when you do that, I do not talk to you like that, please don’t do it anymore.”
    Well you would have thought I slapped her in the face, she came back with, “I did ask you nicely, what are you talking about?”
    How do you deal with a person that doesn’t even hear what they say or how they say it? This is a huge problem and I am sick of it. She shares my office, its been almost 5 years.
    Thanks.

    • Sue Says:

      The woman is a narcissist with a personality disorder. She does not have the ability to empathize or understand that people should be treated courteously, since she believes the universe revolves around her. She is unlikely to change. You win if you ignore her behavior, she wins if you are upset.

  2. Prada Says:

    I have a condescending colleague, too. I’m respected in my field of work, and have trained professionals with higher credentials than hers. I have two more (higher) degrees, am published, sought after, and extremely in demand. I almost fell over when she said that I need to learn to ask for (her) help. LIke, why would I need her help, when my job is to innovate, and get people to follow me? Huh? Ironically, my colleagues have been complaining that she is not fully trained and might be alienating clients. She lied about her skills and a project flopped so badly, that the people under her supervision broke down in tears of embarrassment in front of a room full of 100 clients. She still thinks she’s more qualified than I am, though. Furthermore, there have been scores of clients and colleagues complaining about her lack of conscientiousness. I don’t need to answer her condescending comments. Her lack of competence speaks volumes.

  3. Johne288 Says:

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