How to Deal with Condescending Colleagues

August 8, 2022 9:00 am Published by

By Paul White and Natalie Hamrick

Spend any time in the workforce, and there is a high possibility that you will be made to feel “small” by a colleague talking down to you or devaluing your input. Taking some time, however, to understand what motivates condescension, as well as learning some strategies to combat it, can help make working with colleagues who tend to be condescending much more tolerable. 

What motivates condescension?

A person who is condescending in their comments toward others often:

1) wants to “win” the discussion, usually by squelching any dissent

2) uses the situation to boost their own self-esteem by tearing down another person

3) likes the attention that can come from making a quick-witted cutting remark.

In some situations, a condescending remark is the result of the person being under extreme stress, and the comment slips out in an impatient moment. These are the easiest situations to deal with because it is not an established interaction style, and will either remedy itself once the stress clears, or the person will likely be open to someone pointing out the undesired behavior. But many situations involving condescending remarks often occur as a result of the person’s overall interaction style. 

In these cases, condescension can be traced back to insecurity, control issues and/or a wound from the person’s past. They believe there is something about themselves lacking that must be compensated for. They feel a need to establish feelings of self-worth, or to not feel out of control of the situation. Condescension is frequently used in an attempt to fill the perceived gaps in their lives. 

How to deal with condescension

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Remembering to not take their comment personally can help defuse the hurt you experience. A condescending remark is more about the other person’s, rather than your shortcomings. If you have an established relationship with the person, you could say something like, “Wow, you must be under a lot of stress right now. Is there something I can help you with?” 

CONSIDER POSSIBLE FLECKS OF TRUTH. Although their delivery was terrible, there could actually be some constructive feedback to glean from the comment. Take a moment to examine what was said, and squeeze something to work with from it, if possible. 

KEEP BITTERNESS AT BAY. Working with someone who is consistently condescending can make you not only angry but bitter in ways that can make you toxic, too. Find ways to nurture your inner reserves and gain perspective. Don’t let their unhealthy behaviors become contagious.  It may help to vent with a trusted friend about the situation to help you gain perspective on the situation.

POSSIBLE ACTIONS TO CONSIDER. Maybe you have power to influence change, maybe not. Here are some pointers if you do decide to confront your patronizing colleague:

  • Take a moment to calm down, if needed.
  • Ask to speak to them in private (to keep the situation between the two of you)
  • Enter the conversation with an attitude of establishing a healthy relationship between you, not proving the person to be in the wrong.
  • Be professional. Use “I” language (“I feel devalued as a person when you speak to me in a condescending tone”) instead of “You” language (“You are so condescending in the way you talk to me”). It’s less confrontational and easier to receive. 
  • Be willing to accept feedback that you may have a growth area of your own.
  • Extend grace and work on establishing a new foundation of how you will work together in the future.

Sometimes this will go well. Other times it will not. 

DON’T EXPECT THEM TO RESPOND “NORMALLY.” Dysfunctional individuals do not respond to corrective feedback in the ways we expect healthy colleagues to. Your critical colleague may not be receptive to hearing your belief that they communicated inappropriately. The more realistic approach is to lower your expectations of getting healthy responses, and be pleasantly surprised if you do.

AUTHENTIC APPRECIATION CAN HELP. Positive interactions can douse the flames of negativity. What are some things that you value about your colleagues? Take a moment to communicate appreciation with an encouraging note, surprising someone with their favorite snack, helping someone meet a deadline, taking a quick walk with colleague to catch up, or even just tossing a high five someone’s way when they accomplish something.   

WEIGH THE COST. With certain individuals, you have to determine whether or not responding to their comments is worth the additional conflict that may result. Sometimes (for a period of time, at least), not responding may be the best course of action.

Regardless of the level of condescension you face, remember to look at the situation as being the result of their issues. While you may be a recipient of their comments, you really aren’t the reason for them. Manage your reactions so the situation doesn’t become worse. If possible, explore the potential lessons you can learn that could be embedded in their comment, and counter their negativity with some positives.

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For more tips in dealing with conflict at work, see our recent book, Making Things Right at Work.

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August 8, 2022 9:00 am

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