Well, first, what exactly does it mean to be condescending? It boils down to conveying that you’re above the other person in some way. In other words: “The way you see the situation is better and wiser than the person going through the situation,” explains therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT.
It can also make someone feel like you’re the expert in their life and feelings, instead of them, says therapist Kara Kays, LMFT, regional clinic director at Thriveworks. "The general reaction is that they feel misunderstood when somebody's being condescending; they feel like they're not present with their own solutions any longer." Sometimes it can be difficult to tell how what you're saying is being received, but below are some telltale clues that you're potentially crossing over into unwanted territory.
4 ways to tell if you're being condescending
1. They're not listening to you
When someone is already not listening to you when you're dispensing advice, it's a sign you could be being condescending. Someone who is receptive to what you're saying will actively listen and engage; when someone is taking in what you're saying with interest, Divaris Thompson says that looks like maintaining eye contact and nodding in agreement. "If they're looking away and if they seem checked out or uninterested, chances are if they're not really listening," she says.
2. The person you're speaking to is getting emotional
One sign you're being condescending is when the person you're speaking to is getting amped up—this means whatever you're saying is animating them. This could manifest as different emotions for each person, but the hallmark is that the conversation has taken a turn away from just a chat into something more because the person is feeling upset or judged. "Lots of people respond with either sadness, anger, or fear in that situation, fear of the judgment, anger that this person that they're confiding to isn't getting it or can't see it their way, and then just sadness," says Kays.
3. They're disputing what you're saying
Another clue that's helpful in how to tell if you're being condescending is when the person on the receiving end of your advice feels like they have to defend themself by disputing your claims or starting to argue. This is a defensive posture, says Divaris Thompson, and we only do it when we feel threatened—in this case, your advice is not welcome, and they don't agree with whatever conclusion you've drawn about them.
4. They shut down
When you’re at the point of monologuing, and the person you’re speaking with isn’t responding, that’s an indication they’re not receptive to what you’re saying. "If you're going on, and on, and on, that's another sign of being condescending," says Divaris Thompson.
How to give advice without being condescending
All this doesn't mean you should bite your tongue. One good personal check before dispensing tips is to consider whether this person would want your advice in the first place; consider whether this person would seek out your advice on their own before giving it out, says Divaris Thompson. It's possible to advise your friends and loved ones without tipping into condescension, and a key component of that is being crystal clear about what the person you're speaking with wants from you.
One way to do this is by asking whomever you're speaking to whether they want to vent or if they want advice. Divaris Thompson has a phrase she uses with her own clients that she recommends people use to gauge where the conversation is heading: "Do you want me to listen, or do you need advice?"
If it's the latter, be curious and take in what they're saying rather than leading the conversation. "If they're asking for your advice, they're obviously vulnerable enough to reach out for support, so ask how you can be encouraging versus belittling or insulting or shutting them down."
Before you offer any guidance, think about how it may be perceived—will it be seen as a helpful observation, or hurtful and nitpicky? Taking these few moments to pause and reflect on what you plan to say can help you put yourself in the other person's shoes and ensure you're offering the type of advice you'd want to take in return.
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