Some of us may have met a condescending coworker at one point in our lives, and it can be challenging, especially when they start to affect your daily work routine.
Here’s how to deal with a condescending coworker, as advised by experts.
Table of Contents
- Set your emotions and assumptions aside
- Start your comments with an observation of exactly what you saw or heard
- Share your interpretation of what it meant
- Ask for clarification for the next steps
- Don’t allow your coworker to define you
- Remind yourself of your value
- Come up with a mantra
- Don’t take the bait
- Provide direct, private feedback
- Recognize that you can’t control the people around you
- Remember that you are actually labeling their behavior as “condescending”
- Ask to speak to them in private (only if reasonable/appropriate)
- Speak to human resources or a manager
- Ask clarifying questions
- Know when to let it go
- Ignore and don’t take personally
- Be kind with them
- Be careful during communication
- Mentally prepare yourself for future encounters
- Reward yourself with a self-praise
- Address the issue head-on in a private conversation with them
- Focus on resolution instead of winning the argument
- Beat them with experience
- Look within yourself
- Stop taking things personally
- Keep calm and carry on with your head held high
- Call them out on it, but its best to do it calmly and professionally
- Address the issue directly
- It’s usually about them, not you
- Stay calm and try to ignore it
- Be kind and emphatic with them always
International Speaker | Communication Strategist
Set your emotions and assumptions aside
Elevated emotions and feelings of frustration and anger will only make the situation worse. Instead, be willing to look at things from the outside to remove the emotion.
A mindset of “assume positive intent” will help here. That is, assume the person had a positive intention when saying or doing what (s)he did.
Although it felt condescending to you, the person may have meant to be helpful. People are not always self-aware and may not realize that their tone or actions would be perceived as condescending.
Start your comments with an observation of exactly what you saw or heard
Just the facts. Not, “you were all over my back about…” Instead, your email detailed three specific items that you said need to be fixed.
Be sure to use the person’s exact words or actions. This isn’t the time to interpret or exaggerate. Simply state the facts. If this is a trend, mention that. “This is the third time this month that you’ve sent a similar email.”
“When I read that, I understood it to mean that you don’t believe I know how to do my job well.”
“When I hear that, it makes me believe that you think I’m not smart enough to figure things out.”
Ask for clarification for the next steps
“What did you want me to take away from this series of emails?”
“Based on what you said, our initial understanding of the purpose of our project may be off track. Can we start there by going back to the overall objective of the project, and we’ll work together to get you what you need.”
Executive Coach for Leaders in Tech | Trainer | Speaker
Dealing with a condescending coworker can throw you off-balance and take a toll on your self-esteem. Here are some tips for neutralizing their effect on you.
Don’t allow your coworker to define you
If your colleague’s negativity touches on any of your insecurities, you might find yourself taking it personally and feeling bad about yourself.
But realize that the problem lies with your co-worker, not with you. If they didn’t like people who wear the color green, would you take it personally? Probably not.
Their condescension may hit closer to home for you than the color green, but it’s still their issue.
Remind yourself of your value
Having a healthy view of yourself and your contributions will provide protection against your coworker’s disdain.
Do you wish you could be better in some aspect of your job? Sure—we all do. But that doesn’t mean we should give a coworker the power to decide what, when, or how we need to improve.
Come up with a mantra
A saying, image, or action that reconnects you with your self-assurance can keep you centered during your interactions with your coworker.
For example, you can clasp your wrist like you’re putting on a bracelet while repeating “I am awesome and I am valuable.” Or you can picture yourself wearing a coat of armor that deflects their words as they come at you and renders you impervious to any disrespect thrown your way.
Your own mantra can be any combination of words, images, and actions — as long as it centers you and reminds you of your value.
Don’t take the bait
Your coworker quite literally is not the boss of you. You don’t need to respond to their digs or demonstrate your worth to them.
You just need to maintain your self-respect and focus on the professional content of your interaction. Take the higher road and reinforce the type of conversation that you’d like to have.
Bottom line? Stay grounded and confident in your value and don’t get pulled into viewing yourself through your coworker’s eyes.
Holly G. Green
Award-winning Speaker | Best-selling Author | Global Management Consultant, The Human Factor, Inc.
Provide direct, private feedback
One approach is to provide peer feedback, directly, in private to the individual. Candor, communicated via respectful comments, is critical for the process to work well.
Think through the following before providing feedback. What is most important for you to focus on? What behaviors really make a difference to the success of the team/the company?
- Don’t use peer feedback as an opportunity to vent or strike back at anyone.
- Don’t use peer feedback to nitpick or focus on trivial behaviors.
Consider if you have given feedback to the individual before.
If so, what feedback did you provide and when? Were there behavior changes following your feedback? If not, why not? Will this feedback be a complete surprise? If it will be a surprise, exercise additional sensitivity, and remember to provide feedback in a timely manner in the future.
Remember that we each process feedback differently.
You may prefer very direct feedback and absorb it as an opportunity to get even better. Others may feel threatened, angry, or confused.
When you are providing feedback, consider the tone of your message as well as the content so it can be absorbed in the most positive way possible.
Be aware of your body language and work to present in a non-intimidating way (arms by your side, comfortable surroundings as much as possible, calm and measured tone of voice, etc.)
It will be helpful to structure your feedback in the following manner:
“Here’s what I have observed”
This involves what you have seen, heard, or noted firsthand – specific behaviors, actions taken, language used, etc.
Steer clear of generalizations (i.e. “you don’t seem to care”, “you lack a sense of urgency”, “you are always so supportive”, “you treat me in a condescending manner…”)
Impacts or consequences
“Here are the impacts/consequences of your behaviors…”
Include feelings, results achieved/not achieved, or outcomes. Use “I/me” language. “When you say X, it makes me feel Y.” “When you do X, it feels like you are implying I don’t know what I am doing…”
“Here are my expectations…” or “It would be incredibly helpful if…”
Be as specific as possible. To prepare most effectively for this portion, note exactly what statements or behaviors have seemed condescending to you. Then rephrase/restate those to describe what you believe would be most helpful and use them in this portion.
“Can you help me with this?”
Ending by asking for help prompts an almost universal response in adult humans. The vast majority of us want to help others and are even flattered by being asked.
When you ask for help and steer the conversation away from telling someone they are doing something wrong, you create a situation much more conducive to getting what you want.
Recognize that you can’t control the people around you
When dealing with condescending co-workers, it’s important to recognize that you can’t control other people. You can only control your own thoughts.
When you have interactions with people who frustrate you because they seem condescending, try to get to the heart of the thought that you are having that bothers you.
It might be that you’re thinking, “He doesn’t believe that I’m capable” or “She’s acting like my boss.” It’s your own thoughts that are triggered by the other person’s actions that bother you rather than their actions themselves.
If you can begin to replace (or augment) these thoughts with something different, you may find that you respond in a less defensive way.
Remember that you are actually labeling their behavior as “condescending”
They may not realize that you experience it that way, and others may not experience them that way either. I’ve found it helpful to just try to deal with the facts and leave perceptions about motivations or what other people might think out of it.
It’s helpful to remember that what other people think of you is none of your business, and you’ll never be able to control that anyway.
Limit the amount of energy that you’re using to try to figure out why someone acts the way they do and focus on the goal at hand. Most of the time their behavior actually has nothing to do with you personally.
Sharaf Sultan, LLB
Principal, Sultan Lawyers
Condescension is the act of having a patronizing attitude or behavior, and often fits the form of passive-aggressive actions that ought to be known as having or showing an attitude of patronizing superiority.
While many employees are hesitant to react to it because they are not sure if it fits under the definition of harassment, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) is there to clarify this and protect workers against this type of behavior, and any other form of harassment.
With that in mind, condescension can take all forms of behavior including things such as passive-aggressive actions, offensive jokes, name-calling, ridicule/insults, and more.
Ask to speak to them in private (only if reasonable/appropriate)
If you are in a position that you are comfortable enough to address the person, you may do so. It is important to be professional and enter the conversation with the goal of establishing a healthy relationship.
Speak to human resources or a manager
If it’s not reasonable (i.e. because of power dynamics within the working relationship) to speak to the individual, raise the issue with human resources and report how it makes you feel. Let them know the impact it has on you and your ability to come to work and complete your job duties.
That said, you should not be punished (i.e. be fired or penalized in other ways) for raising your concerns about such issues, even if this results in consequences for another employee or the employer in general.
The OHSA sets out roles and responsibilities of employers within the workplace with respect to workplace harassment, including developing and implementing prevention policies, as well as providing information and instructions for employers to assist them in compliance.
Employers also have a general duty to ensure that employees are treated in good faith under the common law. This is in addition to any protection under the OHSA.
Psychiatry Resident, Dalhousie University
Having condescending coworkers can make the work environment unpleasant. In some cases, the person is unaware and unintentional in this attitude, so you can politely and privately let condescending coworkers know that their actions are off-putting.
Ask clarifying questions
If you don’t want to be that direct, an alternative approach is by asking clarifying questions; they may have stated the obvious in a condescending way, so you can let them know you understood that part and you want to know if they have other things to say to explain the situation better.
Know when to let it go
Sometimes people are condescending on purpose, in order to trap you into conflict. So while responding to a condescending coworker may be satisfying at the moment, it could lead to long-term problems in the work dynamic.
The best way to deal with a condescending colleague is to know when to let it go because it either wasn’t an intentional attack on your intelligence or because it’s just not worth giving this person the satisfaction of a response.
Chief Operating Officer, AiLaw
To deal with a condescending coworker can be provoking, and no one likes being talked down to. But with patience and good communication, you can encounter a condescending worker easily.
Ignore and don’t take personally
First of all, you should not take their comments personally, keep calm, and carry on as they say. If you take things personally, then you’ll trigger a fear response mechanism in your brain.
You should ignore and be calm, positive, and never underestimate the power of kindness in a negative situation if the person might be trying to provoke you.
Be kind with them
Positivity and kindness are some of the best diffusers of negativity. Despite knowing the condescending nature of coworkers’ behavior, you should keep a positive attitude when dealing with them.
You will see their poor attitude begin to diffuse if you respond with almost excessive kindness. Keep smiling with them, accept and complete their tasks enthusiastically, and never let their negativity rub off on you.
Be careful during communication
To deal with a condescending coworker, you should be careful in choosing your words and avoid speaking things that are defensive or provoking since that can validate the snobby coworker and spoil the chances of resolving the matter. You can usually turn defensive remarks into more constructive ones.
Suppose a coworker says something condescending to you, such as, “Well, if I were you, I’d just settle on a career and move on with my life.”
You might be tempted to respond with something like, “You’re absolutely wrong and don’t know anything! And stay out of my life.”
Instead, try saying something like, “I understand you see it that way. Let me explain why it’s more complicated than that…”
Therapist and Life Coach
Sometimes when people have to interact with a coworker who comes across as condescending, the natural reaction would be to get defensive or feel insecure.
It’s good to remember that you have a choice not to feel these feelings however challenging the encounter can feel to navigate. It takes practice to learn how to navigate these situations without letting it affect your self-esteem afterward.
Mentally prepare yourself for future encounters
One tool that can help is to mentally prep yourself for future encounters with the coworker and mentally rehearse different ways you can navigate these situations in the future.
Practice ahead of time what you need to communicate to them by writing it down in a clear and succinct way – this will help bring your stress and anxiety levels down.
Mentally rehearse being assertive without being aggressive or defensive, and clearly state what you would like or need to communicate in a calm voice, and talk to yourself internally in a kind and soothing way.
Reward yourself with a self-praise
After the encounter, be sure to give yourself a lot of praise for handling a difficult situation well. The more you can give yourself self-praise and positive self-talk, the less your coworker will be able to affect your overall mood and confidence.
Address the issue head-on in a private conversation with them
Instead of placing blame on them for their attitude, try to articulate how you felt when they treated you a certain way.
If you focus on your own feelings, it’s less likely to result in your coworker becoming defensive or the conversation turning confrontational.
Focus on resolution instead of winning the argument
You should approach them in a respectful way and with the intention of reaching a resolution, not with the desire to win an argument. Your coworker might also have constructive criticism for you, and it’s important that you are willing to accept your own shortcomings in order to move forward.
CEO and Founder, Better Proposals
I actually loved dealing with condescending people back when I worked at the office because it was always a battle of wits. Now that I get to hire the people that I work with, I do my best not to hire those who are condescending.
Beat them with experience
In any case, if someone is being condescending, the best way to make them stop is to beat them with experience. If they’re pretending like they know what they’re talking about, show them what you really know and make them quiet.
For example, if someone was lecturing me on design, I’d give them an account of a project I did before on a similar design project.
If you don’t want to waste your time, just ignore the person being condescending and let them be.
However, bear in mind that they could consider silence as a sign of approval and they’ll continue behaving in the same way. I’d try to talk back every time if you want the behavior to stop.
Related: How to Deal With Know It Alls
Mindset Coach | NLP Practitioner
Look within yourself
I’d like to offer what is possibly a different point of view than what you’ll be expecting. My answer to this question is to look within.
Here’s what I know. With my studies in NLP, I’ve discovered that we are actually responsible for everything that happens in our lives. This means, every thought, every opinion, every belief, every action we take, is our choice, our decision, our reaction.
No one else can make us “do” or “feel” anything. In fact, anything you perceive that’s happening, is just you translating that through your own filters and it really is just your perception.
Related: How Does NLP Work?
These days, if any behavior triggers me, my go-to tool is to look within as to why this is so. What I usually find at the base of it, is a limiting belief, or opinion that I could change.
Same as the person you deem is being “condescending”. Perhaps they are. But they are only running their patterns and filtering the situation through their filters, and if you accept people for who they are, and accept their model of the world, chances are you’ll see things differently, and no longer be affected by other people’s actions so much.
Director of Operations, MyCorporation.com
My advice for dealing with a condescending coworker is not to stoop to their level or take what is said personally. Not taking what is said personally is actually one of the four agreements in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements.
This book outlines four specific agreements each person should follow in order to obtain personal freedom from beliefs we make with ourselves.
These four agreements include the following: 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take anything personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best.
Do not take what is said about you personally. By not taking anything personally, we stop engaging in behavior that allows us to become prey to predatory thoughts and learn to trust ourselves instead.
It also ensures that we do not stoop to their level and get into petty arguments and disagreements that take away from the workday and what you’re meant to be focusing on at the present time.
Keep calm and carry on with your head held high
If you feel the need to respond to them, consider taking a walk instead to walk off the feeling and urge. Be kind, as kind as possible, to avoid reaching their level and getting into a petty, public spat together.
If what is being said to you is less condescending and more harmful or implies you are in danger, discuss it privately with HR or your manager. You may need their help and support if the situation escalates or presents a danger to you in and out of the workplace.
Founder, Search Pros
Call them out on it, but its best to do it calmly and professionally
You need to be prepared when facing a condescending coworker, or else you will lose self-confidence.
Every time a coworker attacks you personally, ignore it, they only mean to bring you down at your own expense. When you take things personally, it will affect your judgment by clouding your logical thoughts with more emotional ones.
Always try to maintain neutral body language. Any sign that you’re annoyed gives them the pleasure of knowing they have succeeded in annoying you, remember to hold your ground both physically and mentally.
Lifestyle Coach, SafeSpaceHub
Address the issue directly
You can’t pick your coworkers but you can let them know that it’s not okay to treat you improperly, and that includes being condescending.
A simple retort saying that their remarks feel condescending and that you don’t appreciate it can often put the matter at bay. There is no need to make a scene or even dwell on this, simply let them know that you will be ready to resume working but only when they can act professionally.
It’s usually about them, not you
Sometimes people don’t even realize that their comments are condescending, so it’s important to ask them for clarification. That will force them to think twice about what they really want to say.
Remember that for most people their behavior is more about them than you. You simply need to train people on what is acceptable and what is not.
Founder, Shari – Sells
When you have been in a normal office environment for a long time, it is quite unavoidable to come across colleagues that are condescending. You might not be stressed out due to workload but because there is this one person that is always devaluing and talking you down.
Before starting my own business, I’ve had my share of dealing with different kinds of co-workers, including condescending ones. Here are two ways to deal with a condescending coworker:
Stay calm and try to ignore it
This kind of person gets satisfaction when they see that the one they are bullying gets emotionally affected. Don’t give them this feeling of winning.
Let them witness that you are still calm, confident, and unaffected even if they are trying to talk you down. It will make them look embarrassing to everyone who is watching and to themselves.
Be kind and emphatic with them always
There is a saying “kill them with kindness”. Despite their condescending behavior, always keep a positive attitude in dealing with them. They might be expecting you to say mean things to them in return so it will cause them great discomfort when you do the opposite.
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