Turn Around Condescending Conversations

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Welcome to Talk RX with Doctor Neha. Today, I’ll answer a viewer’s question about how to deal with a boss at work.

Melissa from Colorado wrote, “My boss never talks to me, just at me. I feel disrespected, and he’s so condescending. How can I let him know without losing my job?” This is a great question, Melissa. One thing is that in a work situation, employees who don’t feel valued, honored and respected don’t perform at the level of the employees who do, so it’s in your interest, the company’s interest and your boss’ interest to have a conversation. But there’s a little bit of work that has to happen first.

Somehow you’re experiencing that your boss is talking at you, not to you. Now, you need to get clear first about how you’re coming up with that idea. Is it your boss’ tone of voice? Is it the way he crosses his arms or looks at you? Is it the words he chooses to say to you? Or is it that he chooses to make comments about you in front of the entire group?

You need to identify what you are observing in his actions; can you delineate those as if you were a video camera observing what he’s doing? Is it that he points at you? Sometimes when people point that kind of feels weird. So what is the gesture or way that you are picking up that your boss is talking at you, not to you?

The second piece is that you’ve turned that gesture, tone, or words into the meaning that he’s condescending. Now, whenever you’re starting to figure out a communication with somebody else, pay attention to whom it’s with. Since it’s with your boss, there might be a parent or an authority figure in your life with whom you’ve felt this way before. Ask yourself, “Have I ever felt this way before and with whom besides my boss?” That can give you some insight to some parallels with past experience.

Next, it’s time for you to get clear and curious about how you communicate with your boss. What do you do once that happens? Do you become passive-aggressive? Do you get sarcastic? Do you start talking about your boss, not to him? What strategy have you been using to survive this dynamic that hasn’t been working for you? Once you pay attention to all those ideas, you are ready to have a conversation with your boss.

The answer to your question—can I have this conversation without getting fired?—is yes. You want to give him the honor and respect that you’re hoping for.

I’m going to make up the details for your situation because I don’t have them here. Then here’s an example of the conversation you would have:

“Hey John, when’s a good time for us to sit down for 15 minutes? There’s something that’s been on my mind, and how I’m showing up in our communication and relationship as a boss and colleague that has been on my mind. When’s a good time for us to talk?”

He may say, “Tomorrow at 11 a.m.”

Definitely have that conversation in person. If you can’t, you could always do it on video chat or on the phone, but it’s best to have as much contact with someone so you can pick up their body language, tone, and words, and get a bigger picture of what’s happening. There’s less chance for miscommunication, especially when something is this important to you.

Once you’ve set that conversation up for success, and he might say, “What’s this about?” If he does, what you say is, “Well, I’ve been thinking about how I’m showing up in our relationship, and I think I could do it better. I think I could be a better communicator, and I’d like to share that with you. There are some questions I haven’t asked, and I should. I think it would improve our relationship and help me be more productive.” He’s going to be interested in finding out what that is. That’s a very different way than phrasing it by saying something like, “You talk at me, not to me, and you’re condescending. That’s why we need to have a meeting.” You can see or hear the difference between those.

As you get ready for this conversation, ask yourself, “How would you like to show up?” Do you want to show up defensive, guarded and closed, or would you like to show up open, curious, and as a good listener? The latter approach will help you make sure this relationship continues in a good direction for some time. Get clear about how your body language will convey your intentions. Are you open? Are you breathing? Are you coming to him with the intention to connect to him?

The conversation would sound something like this:

“Well, thanks, John. Thanks for meeting with me. What I’ve noticed over the past few months is three experiences that have me thinking about this long after we have an exchange. One of them was when in our meeting with the marketing team you told them something that I didn’t do as well as you had hoped. It was about X, Y, and Z.” Make sure you’re specific about what that was and just what he said, exactly what he said. Then you say to him, “I noticed I had a strong reaction and I shut down. I never told you about that. Instead, I started to be more reserved and I talked to some other people about it—that was not the right way for me to handle it. I need to have that conversation with you. If there’s ever anything that I do that you’re not pleased with, could we have a conversation like we’re having now instead of talking about it in front of the team? Would that work for you?” Then it’s your job to breathe and listen.

The second example is, “I noticed that when we were talking you pointed your hand at me, and it just felt a little intimidating, and I felt like I was a child that had done something wrong. What I noticed is that you get really passionate and excited when you’re talking; sometimes it comes across to me as you’re the adult and I’m the child. I noticed that doesn’t work as well for me. Do you remember what I’m speaking about?” It’s always a good idea to ask someone if they remember what it is you’re asking them about.

A third example of would be, “Hey, John when I asked you if I could take the week’s vacation to go on my annual family retreat your tone changed, and you looked down in a way, and I felt like I was in trouble, or something was wrong. Can you tell me what was happening for you?”

Now, leave out the part about you feeling like it was condescending. Shift from telling him what it was that you observed and then ask a question. That’s the best way to do it when you’re speaking with your boss. Let him fill in all the blanks. You may find out that it was something different than what you thought. It is also your job to equally contribute to this conversation and make sure that you’re showing up and communicating with him if something is wrong.

Thanks for listening. I would also love to hear your questions. What keeps you up at night? What has you wondering how you might change your own communication or change a relationship with someone else? Drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha or write in the comments below.

Your Awareness Prescription

  1. Set up a conversation directly with the person involved (rather than talking about them).
  2. State your experience by using phrases such as, “I heard…I saw…I felt..”
  3. State objective data describing what upset you (e.g., use of a specific word, tone, body language, hanging up the phone). Leave out your judgments or opinions of the other person (e.g., “You’re condescending.”)
  4. Get curious about the other person’s experience and take a few deep breaths as you…
  5. Listen deeply, and let the other person speak.

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5 Responses

  1. The boss maybe Narcisistic. To confront may not work, but to compliment and praise maybe. Yes…I language instead of you language may help. A N may not want others to know there is a problem. The N may want to treat the person like a child etc.

    1. Good point Wendy. Definitely only have this conversation if you are interested in building a bridge to your boss. If you’re not interested, don’t focus your energy here.

  2. I’ve had similar situations with bosses and even my spouse years ago. Their issue was more about unrelated frustration than with me. I also questioned my self-esteem at the time. Once I learned to be more confident in my capabilities, I was able to have a non-threatening, more meaningful conversation with the other party. Additionally it was necessary for me to become less defensive and more assertive. Great topic.

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