Dealing with Condescending Co-Workers

Whether it’s regularly being told your ideas are dumb or being given instructions in a patronizing tone, it’s common to find individuals in the workplace who haven’t perfected the nuances of professional communication.

Passive-aggressive behaviors like the ones described above are meant to keep you under thumb, even though they are often disguised as reasonable criticisms or helpful hints. Essentially, these behaviors are bullying with a velvet touch.

Like addressing more overt bullies, taking on condescending co-workers is more complicated than just standing up to them. You need a solid game plan to prevent this kind of behavior, or else your self-confidence and even your reputation at work could take a hit.

Fortunately, there are a few effective strategies for handling any patronizing people you must share a workspace with.

Don’t personalize the behavior

Avoid the temptation to think that this bullying behavior is somehow about you. Patronizing behavior often comes from the other person’s insecurity, not your lack of ability.

If you take the situation personally, you’ll feel attacked, and, it will induce a fight-or-flight response that can make it harder to handle the situation.

Furthermore, realize this person just might be trying to provoke you, and if you allow that to happen, you’ll just be playing right into their hands. Stay relaxed, upbeat and never ignore the power of true kindness in a bad situation.

Establish unacceptable behavior

Once you’ve grown comfortable with the idea that patronizing behavior isn’t about you or your performance, you can take steps to end the behavior.

Address the patronizing behavior by calmly saying, “You know, that sounded a bit condescending if you ask me. Were you trying to be?”

This both sets a limit on the behavior you are willing to accept and gives the person a chance to back away from the behavior rather than escalate the situation.

Ask for more detail

While it doesn’t happen often, sometimes people who sound patronizing don’t realize they are taking an inappropriate tone. These people may be from a different culture or coming from a different workplace atmosphere. If this person is an otherwise good co-worker who occasionally dips into condescending speech patterns, you might want to concentrate on what is being said and not the tone.

If you have to, ask this person to explain what they mean when you feel they might be patronizing. You could say something like, “I believe we’re on the same page, but is there anything else I’m missing?”

This strategy of “playing dumb” is a great way to send the message that the other person isn’t effectively communicating with you, and it gives them a chance to change their tone while avoiding escalation or confrontation.

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