A woman pointing at another woman when she's talking to her illustrates how to stop being condescending in communication

Do people respond negatively when you ask them to do something? Could it be because you’ve made them feel like you’re looking down on them?

Perhaps you’re a parent trying to get your teenager to respect curfew, or you’re a manager pressing your employees to meet a deadline. George Thompson offers some tips on how to get people to cooperate without making them feel small.

Keep reading for Thompson’s advice on how to stop being condescending when you’re communicating with others.

How to Stop Being Condescending

One method for practicing Verbal Judo in your daily life is to pay close attention to the language you use. Thompson explains that, even when it’s your job as a professional (or as a parent) to get someone to cooperate with you, you can do that without using language that feels condescending to others. 

(Shortform note: Experts say that, when people sound condescending, it’s often because they’re feeling attacked and are trying to demonstrate their superiority. That can be an easy trap to fall into when you’re trying to convince someone that you know how to resolve a conflict or solve a problem. But experts say you can avoid sounding like you think you know better than the other person if you choose your words carefully. They recommend focusing on listening instead of talking, waiting to give advice until you have the other person’s permission, and listening to the other person’s view of the problem before trying to propose a solution.)

Thompson points out that most people don’t respond positively to being told what to do. So, in many cases, just issuing instructions won’t yield the results you want. If, instead, you respect the other person’s agency and acknowledge that their cooperation with you is a choice, you’re more likely to get them to go along with what you’d like them to do. Thompson shares five steps for people who are ready to learn how to stop being condescending when they’re persuading someone to cooperate with them.

Step 1

The first step is to request that they do what you’d like them to do. By clearly articulating what you want to happen, you’re explaining your goal.

Step 2

The second step is to explain the rationale for your request if the person hesitates to cooperate with you. Explaining “why” you’re asking them to do something makes it easier for the other person to understand the rules or reasoning.

Step 3

The third step—if they still haven’t been persuaded—is to explain what will happen if they cooperate with you or if they don’t. This acknowledges that they’re making a choice and gives them the information they need to make it.

Step 4

The fourth step—if the other person still doesn’t want to cooperate—is to ask whether there’s anything you can do to get them to cooperate. You’re addressing the fact that they aren’t going along with you, and giving them a chance to choose.

Step 5

The fifth step, if the other person still declines to go along with the solution you’ve proposed, is to follow through and respond to their lack of cooperation in the way you said you would

For example, imagine you need to ask your roommate to clean up the dishes they left in the kitchen sink. You could start by asking, “Hey, could you please wash the dishes?” (Step 1). If they hesitate, you could explain, “I’ve left dishes in the sink before, and it attracts cockroaches” (Step 2). If they still wave you off, you could say, “If we clean the kitchen when it needs to be cleaned, it’ll be healthier and easier for all of us. If not, we’ll need to create a cleaning schedule” (Step 3). If they still just say they’ll do the dishes later, you can ask, “Is there something I could do that might make tidying up easier for you?” (Step 4). If there’s still no action, follow through: “Let’s make that cleaning schedule, then” (Step 5).

How Do Other Experts Recommend Getting Someone to Cooperate With You?

Getting someone to decide to cooperate with you can be a challenge. Experts have proposed many step-by-step methods for working through a disagreement. Like Thompson’s, many of these methods hinge on using language carefully and respectfully when you address the issue. In Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen write that the first step to understanding each other and solving a problem together is to find the “third story”: an objective version of events you can both agree on. 

To find the third story, you don’t have to know the other person’s entire history: You just have to focus on the difference between you (like the fact that while you prefer to wash the dishes right away, your roommate feels it’s OK to leave them in the sink). You can use what the other person has said as their side of the story, ask them for their input, and then discuss the matter until you both agree on the third story. Next, the authors recommend inviting the other person to join you in finding a solution to the problem. You can’t force them to cooperate, as Thompson points out. But, if you state your purpose, they know what they’re agreeing (or disagreeing) to participate in and realize they’re making a decision. 

Similarly, in Crucial Accountability, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler write that you can resolve a disagreement while preserving your relationship with the other person if you approach the conversation carefully. They recommend that, once you’ve established the issue and how you’d like to resolve it, you can address barriers to that solution by explaining the negative consequences that the other person might encounter by not cooperating. The goal isn’t to frame the natural consequences as threats or scare them into going along with your solution; instead, it’s to inform the other person of what they might not know or realize.
How to Stop Being Condescending: 5 Steps to Polite Persuasion

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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