9 clever ways to handle a condescending person

You’re at a family gathering, enjoying a delicious, home-cooked dinner when it happens. One of your more judgmental relatives (we all have one, right?) shifts the conversation and decides to explain your career to you. 

Her condescending tone is barely concealed. You bite your tongue and think to yourself, “How on earth am I going to handle this?” 

We’ve all found ourselves in situations like these, facing condescension that makes us feel like we’re being made fun of or judged. So, what do we do about it?

Drawing from personal experiences and offering simple, relatable tips, we’ll explore how to deal with condescension with these nine tried and tested strategies:

1) Show empathy — even when it’s hard

As with many other emotionally complex situations in life, empathy can be a total game changer. When it comes to diffusing condescending situations, you might like to first try to understand the other person’s point of view.

This will not always be easy, particularly when you have a feeling they don’t have kind intentions. 

However, by acknowledging their feelings and perspectives, you can help ease tension and create a more open, understanding atmosphere. (This is particularly useful when it’s not just the two of you, and you want to avoid an awkward social situation.)

You can say something along the lines of: “I hear you, and I totally get where you’re coming from.” By doing this, you are more likely to find common ground with this person and find areas where you can both agree or work to understand each other better. 

2) Remain calm and collected

A few years ago, I found myself in a professional workshop where a fellow participant constantly belittled my ideas. It was awful — I felt like people were going to believe what he was saying, too.

Instead of reacting with defensiveness or insecurity, I took a deep breath and calmly acknowledged this person’s perspective. I was able to show that his words couldn’t break me down.

When confronted by condescension, your first line of defense is your ability to remain cool, calm, and collected. Just remember the three C’s.

Even if you’re feeling angry inside, maintaining this composure will help to disarm the condescending person and prevent the situation from getting any worse.

3) Actively listen to what they have to say

During a conversation at a family gathering, my aunt once insisted that my choice of career — writing — was nothing more than a glorified hobby. Particularly as it came up against more practical professions at the table, including teaching, law, and medicine. 

Rather than to counter what he said, I decided to actively listen, nodding and asking questions about her views and opinions about my work.

Active listening can be transformative when dealing with condescension. It not only shows that you respect the other person’s opinion, but it might also reveal that their condescension is rooted in misunderstandings, insecurities, or unfair biases.

By tuning in to what the condescending individual is saying to you, you can uncover hidden layers beneath their arrogance. It could become clear that their condescension isn’t a true reflection of your inadequacies, but rather a projection of their own issues.

So, next time you find yourself on the receiving end of condescension, remember that your attentiveness can be an incredible tool for shifting the dynamics.

4) Keep your confidence levels high

Ever been undermined in the workplace? It’s not a nice feeling at all. I remember in a work meeting a few years back, a more senior co-worker tried to undermine my story pitch in the newsroom.

Rather than getting upset about it, I responded by simply offering up my well-researched data to support my pitch and went on to confidently explain my ideas to the team.

By doing this, I managed to give a dignified response to the condescending person. 

I’ve found that knowledge is the very best weapon against condescension and that it pays to back yourself by keeping informed about the topic at hand and keeping composed enough to express your thoughts clearly and with confidence

If you’re lucky, you’ll find that a well-informed reply can silence even the harshest, most condescending critic.

5) Don’t be afraid to ask questions

man woman at work 9 clever ways to handle a condescending person

During one team meeting a few years ago, a colleague called into question the relevance and timeliness of my news article. This could have easily triggered me to get all defensive, however, I opted for a more constructive approach. And man was I pleased I did.

I took a moment to consider their criticism and then I responded with a simple but open-ended question: “Could you please share your thoughts on how we might be able to improve it?”

My response wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction, rather, it was a choice to create a more productive, collaborative atmosphere in the workplace. 

By seeking out their input, I not only cut down any potential tension but also demonstrated that I genuinely valued their perspective and was open to hearing more of their ideas.

This question-asking technique is a simple yet clever way to remove the focus from confrontation and toward working together. You might also find it shifts the focus back onto the condescending person and encourages them to reflect on their own opinions and beliefs.

6) Be clear about your boundaries

When dealing with condescending individuals, you don’t always need to give equal weight to their thoughts, opinions, and contributions to the conversation. Because sometimes, there’s a line to be drawn, and it’s essential to set boundaries.

A friend once talked down on my cooking skills in front of our group of friends, while I was hosting a dinner party. I smiled and politely said, “I appreciate your feedback, but I’m happy with how I cook — and it seems like everyone else is too.”

This boundary-setting approach is a great way to communicate that you will not put up with being disrespected. By doing this, you issue a clear message that their behavior isn’t okay.

7) Take a humorous, light-hearted approach

In a recent encounter, I found myself in a rather condescending conversation with a friend of a friend who couldn’t resist making fun of my choice of car. Instead of letting the situation escalate or taking offense, I quipped, “Well, at least my car never gets lost in a parking lot!” 

Humor can be a powerful tool in handling condescension. It lightens the mood, making the condescending person’s remarks seem less significant. 

In the book, The Psychology of Humor, author Rod A. Martin writes that humor works to reduce the “distressing nature of the situation” and “reduces the often-paralyzing feelings of anxiety and helplessness.”

As condescending comments often thrive on making you feel inferior, responding with humor can help to cut through this power. You’re essentially saying to this person, “I really don’t take your comments seriously.”

This way it makes it super difficult for the condescending person to maintain their critical stance without appearing overly serious. Just be sure to keep your quips light and good-natured without resorting to sarcasm.

8) Look to your allies

Don’t be afraid to look to your friends, family members, or even colleagues for support when it comes to dealing with a condescending person. It’s particularly helpful if this ally is able to empathize and personally understand your situation and your point of view. 

For example, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve struggled with certain members of my family undermining my career choices as a writer. So after I had a particularly bad experience with this at one family event, I told my younger sister about it.

The next time my career came up in discussion, my sister responded to my aunt, saying: “Actually, that’s not necessarily true — I’ve seen how hard she works.”

Having allies can allow you to feel more secure and confident, as well as provide additional perspectives on handling condescension.

9) Sometimes, you’ve got to let it go

Sometimes, it’s better to let condescending comments roll right off your back. Not every situation is worth your time and it’s important to prioritize peace of mind and self-esteem over winning each battle.

The energy used to counter every instance of condescension can be energy better used elsewhere. Consider, for instance, the concept of opportunity cost. “Opportunity cost is the value of the next-best alternative when a decision is made; it’s what is given up,” says economic expert Andrea Caceres-Santamaria.

Every minute you spend engaging in an argument with a condescending individual is a minute taken away from things that might nourish your well-being, growth, and joy.

Final thoughts

To sum things up, knowing how to handle condescending individuals with grace, intelligence, confidence, and humor is a valuable skill. By staying calm, practicing active listening, and setting boundaries, you can navigate these tricky situations with ease.

Remember, you don’t need to face condescension alone. Seek support from allies who understand where you’re coming from, and when necessary, walk away from condescending conversations that don’t serve your well-being.

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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