5 Communication Traps that Make You Sound Condescending
…and how to avoid them.
“Some of my coworkers are so clueless,” a coaching client complained recently. “I get accused of being condescending when I explain things. How do I give them the info they need without sounding obnoxious? I’m not trying to be a jerk.”
If you have (or perhaps more importantly, if you think you have) more authority, experience, or knowledge than another person, it’s easy to slip into patronizing communication. Some people seem to enjoy belittling others, but for most of us, it happens unintentionally. Snarky voice patterns, poor breathing, assumptions, certain facial expressions, and your personal perspective can trip you up and send a condescending message. These behaviors, even when done inadvertently, damage rapport and raise barriers to understanding, tolerance, and cooperation. I mean, who likes to be talked down to? Ugh.
Here are some tips—verbal, nonverbal, and perceptional—to help you eradicate this off-putting trait from your conversations.
1. Watch your voice tone.
When you’re giving information or directives, it’s appropriate to use the Authoritative Voice Pattern: a flat voice that curls down at the ends of statements. However, many people, especially if they’re seeking validation, will soften their authoritative statements nonverbally by curling up at the very end and adding a question like “Okay?” or “Right?” Not only does that reduce your credibility, but if there is any edge to your voice, it comes across as snarky or demeaning.
Learn to make statements with comfortable confidence. If and when you are seeking someone else’s input or checking for understanding, that’s a good time to use the Approachable Voice Pattern (voice curls up at the end of statements or questions). But tacking it on to the end of an authoritative statement does nothing to soften your words. At best, it sounds insecure; more often than not, it sounds patronizing.
That edge to your voice comes from poor breathing. If you’re stressed or tense, that changes your breathing pattern and will affect your tone of voice. Breathe deeply to keep any haughty tones out of your voice.
3. Assume intelligence, not knowledge.
Everyone you work with has a brain—probably a pretty good one. Everyone has mental strengths and skills… as well as blind spots and limitations. Just because someone doesn’t understand doesn’t mean they’re an idiot. A good friend of mine once said to me, with great affection, “I don’t know how someone as brilliant as you can also be such a ditz!” I had to laugh. I am very smart (if I say so myself) and yet often the most obvious answers escape me. Expect others to have a brain and use it—but don’t expect them to use it the same way you do.
You can’t expect them to understand your context, either. In your world, you likely have your own jargon, acronyms, nicknames, labels, and inside jokes that outsiders don’t get. Using those among the initiated brings people closer together. Using them among the uninitiated makes people feel stupid and excluded, especially if you act like they should know what you’re talking about. Use language that everyone understands, and do so respectfully.
4. Avoid contemptuous facial expressions.
Perhaps you’ve seen the meme: “I can control my tongue… but my face is another story!” Saying all the right words—even with a neutral tone of voice—won’t help if you’re face is broadcasting contempt or superiority. To communicate respectfully, avoid rolling your eyes, looking down your nose, and the lopsided contemptuous “smile.”
You can’t restrain your facial expressions, you say? Of course, you can. You do it every day. Your face, your words, your actions—you control them any time you believe doing so is in your best interests. It’s only when you think you can get away with it or you want to communicate dominance that you don’t bother to regulate. Yet really, it’s always in your best interests to communicate with kindness and respect. You can stand your ground, speak authoritatively, AND be kind and respectful.
5. Check your mindset.
This is the most difficult and important tip. If you sound condescending, it’s probably because you [want to] feel superior. When you interrupt others, check your watch or texts while they’re talking, or correct them over and over (“Actually…”), it’s usually to look or feel more important. While it is true that you are better than everyone you meet in some way, the inverse is also true: Everyone you meet is your superior. If you bring to every conversation a mindset of confident humility, curiosity, and respect, not only will you personally benefit and learn immeasurably, but communication will go more smoothly and your relationships will be stronger.
Like my client, you are probably not ever trying to be condescending. Yet there is a difference between “not trying to” and “trying not to.” Total word geek moment there, I know… but inadvertently making others feel small will reap the same consequences as if you were trying. How do you avoid missteps? By choosing your steps purposefully. Avoid these common traps by making purposeful choices in your communication, and you’ll find your relationships grow and productivity improves.