How Not to Talk Down to People | Slow Down Fast Personal Coaching and Lifestyle Design ~ David B. Bohl

How Not to Talk Down to People

Ever hang up the phone and think “Wow, I feel a little insulted” but you’re not sure why?

Ever get an email that just rubs you the wrong way?

You feel like someone was rude to you… but they weren’t overtly rude, so you can’t really call them out on it?

That’s the art of subtle condescension at work!

istock_000003992773xsmall.jpgIt can be intentional or accidental, and it’s my feeling that 90% of the time, it really is accidental. Nevertheless, “talking down to people,” whether we meant to or not, does have its consequences.

It can make us unlikeable and even unlovable. It can cause others to actively avoid us. And it can pull us farther away from our goals as a direct result of people not wishing to cooperate with us.

So how do so many people manage to offend or condescend to each other without realizing it?

• They’re in a hurry and engaging in “sloppy communication.”
• They’re not thinking about manners or courtesy.
• They haven’t considered the other person’s feelings.
• They’re hoping to appear smart, worldly and or in-the-know about a particular subject or area of specialization.
• They feel threatened, either by the intelligence of the person whom they’re speaking, or by outside competition, and they’re too busy defending their own ego to acknowledge someone else’s.

In what ways do we carelessly tromp upon others’ egos as we’re so busily trying to prove ourselves?

1. When we “explain” things to people who actually may already know what we’re talking about.

Why is this a form of condescension? Because we never bother to acknowledge that they may indeed already be aware of what we’re telling us. Teaching isn’t far from preaching… and no one likes to be preached to without a choir and pulpit in the background.

How to fix it? The next time you feel like you should explain something, whether it’s a business policy, a technology, an incidental, or something that will help clarifying your meaning… give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Simply preface what you’re about to say with “You may already know this but…” It’s such a humble little phrase, but it makes a huge difference in how we come off to others. No one wants to think that we assume they don’t know anything!

2. When we take credit for ourselves, but forget to give it to others.

Sometimes people feel the need to give themselves a little pat on the back for their accomplishments. Maybe they want others to recognize that they worked hard to solve a problem, complete a task, or innovate a new system of some kind. Standing up for ourselves in this manner is certainly a good thing. (If you don’t do it, who will?)

But where we go wrong is when the achievement was shared… but we fail to acknowledge that someone else may have had a hand in the outcome.

How to fix it? Simple. Just before you congratulate yourself, remember to honor and give public credit to someone else if they’ve helped you out. Say, “Thank you for being a part of this project,” and mean it! Do this whether you’re talking one to one with the person who helped you, or if the two of you are engaged in a group discussion with others.

Sure, it’s a cliche… but recall that there is no “I” in team. People are far more likely to want to work with you in the future if you treat them as equal and valued partners, not only in cooperation, but in the sweet victory of success!

3. When we try to tell others how to do their job… or we attempt to do it for them.

There is nothing worse than saying you’re going to partner up with someone for their expertise, but then second-guessing every decision they make. In both professional and personal situations, collaboration usually works best when each person owns an area of the project.

So when people constantly ask us, “Why’d you do it that way?” or “Wouldn’t it be better if you did X?” they’re not-so-subtly telling us they don’t trust our ability or our judgment.

How to fix it? Next time you feel like criticizing a team mate or work partner’s actions… just stifle that urge. Keep quiet even if you think you’re being “polite” and have the best intentions.

Not only is it demoralizing for the other person to constantly hear your complaints and objections, but it greatly detracts from productivity. After all… if you’re so busying looking after what the other person is supposed to be doing, who’s keeping an eye on your portion of the work?

The opposite of talking down to people, technically, is talking “up.” But this would imply that we’re putting them on a pedestal, and there’s no need to cut ourselves down in such a manner.

What we want to do is converse with folks “on the level.” Your remarks should communicate to others that hey, everybody here is intelligent, and just as much as we all do a good job… sometimes we might make the occasional mistake – myself included. And that’s okay, because as mature, rational, capable adults we’ll fix whatever goes wrong if it does. But most importantly, we’re here to work together as a team of equals.

It’s not so difficult to foster cooperation and collaboration, both in our jobs and in our everyday dealings. It’s not so hard to make people remember us, like us, and choose to work with us time and time again.

The trick is to slow down, think before you speak, and remember that others want to be acknowledged and recognized just as much as you do.

Who can you show a bit of gratitude and compassion toward today?

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14 Comments on “How Not to Talk Down to People”

  • This was a great article, exactly what I was looking for! I have had trouble with my tendency to talk down to people and this article will help with that, but I also have trouble when people talk down to me. I’m not sure how to handle that. Any ideas?

  • Jane,

    Thanks for sharing!

    Give this a read:

  • I am glad I found this article because I have a co-worker that is condescending. She has been with the company for more than 20 years and feels she knows everything. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate her knowledge and I have learned quite a bit from her. She quizzes me when I am only asking for some assistance to perform a duty. I am not quick to anger but this type of training rubs me the wrong way. I want to say something but I am hoping I will be getting another position by the end of the year. If that doesn’t happen, I am going to have to say something to her. I am not quite sure if he is aware or not. Another manager pointed out how she treats people and that is probably why she didn’t get a promotion but at that time I did not personally notice it. Or she was not treating me that way. Since then, I have noticed that she can be abrasive but it is not just triggered at me. Anyway, she is one of the reasons I want out. I hope that she doesn’t catch me on a bad day.

  • Jazz,

    Moderation is a good thing, especially when it comes to advice. People are most likely to take advice only when they’ve asked for it, not when it’s thrust upon them. It’s unfortunate your co-worker feels so insecure and needs to demonstrate her erudition to you at every opportunity.


  • I have been a manager for about 20 years. I have been told that I talk down to people. I am not sure what or how I do this. I am a visual person and have a hard time staying focused on what people/staff are telling so I often ask to see what they are inquiring about. Some staff members have expressed that when I do this they feel that I don’t trust them. It’s not a matter of not trusting them, its an interest of wanting to give them the assistance they are wanting and understanding the issues. I do get irritated at times when some staff members don’t take an interest in their job or pride in their work and are just sloppy. However, those same sloppy workers are the ones who claim I talk down to them. Those that are not sloppy workers, have expressed their appreciation to me as their supervisor and don’t feel that I talk down to them. The reason this concerns me as I have managed at different companys and find the same response from people in that I talk down to people and believe there must be some truth in it. I am just not sure what or how to change. My son told me that I have more masculine features that people have a hard time accepting this from a women. So some things that I say are acceptable from a man but not from a woman. So could this be the problem vs talking down to people? Not sure.

  • PJ,

    Without experiencing you in action and your style of communication, I cannot say for sure if you’re tending to talk down to people.

    I will say that communicating with anyone, anywhere, is about reflective listening. The key is to assure whomever you’re speaking to that you understand and empathize with their situation.

    The language you choose, your body posture, and your facial expressions will all give clues as to whether you’re with someone or against someone. The latter is what causes risistance and discord in relationships.


  • David,

    Thank you for the response. I believe I am a good listener and have been told this many times. I really never thought about my body language and that it may be giving the wrong impression. Certainly something worth being aware of.


  • Good article. I have left jobs & relationships because of this issue. Some of us sensitive types really can’t deal with being talked down to. We end up feeling like we’re less valuable than others. I always thought that if you speak
    to others in a manner that says ” You & your opinions, thoughts, ideas, etc
    matter, then you would get that in return. Not always so.

  • Maybe it is me but the only reasons for people seeming to talk down to people are ones that actively portray the offending person as being full of themselves. What of the people who don’t think or do any of the things listed but instead when they say something think that everyone is intelligent enough to understand what they mean? I get told semi regularly that I come off as if I think I know everything and that what I say is 100% right, when I try to better explain what I mean I usually am not given a chance to finish. So more or less my giving people the benefit of the doubt is a lot of the problem.

  • I got lucky in catching this article. I have a friend that says alot of things that make me go, huhhh? Sometimes by the end of a conversation, I am speachless about some of the things she has said to me, and by the time it hits me I am already off of the phone with her, later when my mind plays back the thoughts from the day I chew on it a little more. When I go from being happy in my own world and then suddenly a huge burst of a demand from the real world comes along it can be a little shocking.
    Recently, this friend was a few weeks short of closing in on her due date for having her first baby, she asked if she could hang out at my house for 2 days while I was at work while she had a new window instaled- the baby would have arrived by then- she needed peace and quiet. Having so much on my mind at the time, I told her that I was sure that would be okay and to let me know. A few weeks later I spoke to her on the phone while I was on vacation from work- I spent my vacation at home this year. At this point I had forgotten all about her inquiries about being at the house for those two days- I have been dealing with alot of intense ‘seasons’ in my life recently, so my memory has slipped a bit. In the conversation, she said ‘I will be over tuesday and wednesday’. I am curious as to why? ‘I am getting my windows replaced. Remember you said I could come over?’ It just so happened that Tuesday and wednesday were the last days of my vacation, and I had many plans to possibly paint, decorate, clean…thump around the house to do the things I do not normally have time to do. My doing this did not sound like a healthy enviorment for a newborn. I then let her know my plans, that this was my vacation- the only time I had to get things done- and if you come over- glad to have you, but I have a to do list. At this point she tells me ‘Why is it that you chose these days specificly to take off- your house is suppoused to be empty?”
    Her question alone made me feel slightly inadequate- especially when she used the word ‘specificly’, as though my timing was very inconvienient to her, as though she was a manager and I her employee.

    We seem to have a lot of conversations like this- mostly on her end. Most of the time I leave a conversation wondering what exactly she meant by whatever.

    Long story short- thank you for your article and your website. Sometimes I get a little lost in translation, and it is nice to be able to find information about situations that leave me feeling a little akward. I have read a couple different articles and like what I have seen- I really enjoyed the one about the seasons of our life.

  • I always thought it was just a personality trait that I tend to over explain things. Now I realize the things people have been telling me all these years are true and that I’m just bossy, controlling and a know it all. I feel like sh*t right now and so stressed, I just want to clam up and not speak to anyone unless necessary. But thanks for posting the article. I will try to slow my thoughts down and make everyone feel smart.

  • I have an employee that just quit because he feels that I speak down to him. I am not sure where it is coming from since I am unable to speak with that person now. I had a difficult time getting reports, and updates on wirk compleated by this person. I am hearing that others also think the same but have not felt like telling me.

    What is it that I am saying wrong to them? I am stressed that people would think that I talk down to them. I was a nasty mean person years ago but had an event that changed me forever. I have been told more times than I can count that I am nice, or professional and that people in general feel good after speaking with me.

  • Wow – so glad I found this as I was starting to think it could be me. @PJ, I recently experienced the same thing as you. I manage a small team in an industry that I have a wealth of experience (I’m 52). A 28 year old man, with no experience in this industry went to my boss and said that I talk down to him and yes he is a very sloppy worker. And just like you, the non-sloppy workers have expressed appreciation and don’t feel that I talk down to them. I am a woman also and think that this is due to his own insecurities. This employee has 2 degrees and never had a job in either of his areas of study. He was unemployed when we hired him — and now I know why. You hit the nail on the head — to him questions coming from a man would seem reasonable, but from a woman he can’t handle it.

  • Most trainers and teachers talk down to people.

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