Recently, I had an email exchange with a good friend at work. He posed a question and a couple of us chipped in with what we thought might be helpful information. He mostly ignored our response and repeated the content of his original email as though we either didn’t read it or didn’t understand. But the two of us who did respond had both understood and read the email and took offense at the condescending nature of the email assuming that we hadn’t. We each, probably unproductively, sent him snarky replies. Later, I mentioned to my friend how condescending the email was and he said he didn’t mean to be condescending, he just thought we hadn’t read the email fully (and even backed it up with another email thread where he responded similarly and sure enough, in that case the respondent hadn’t read his email).
And lest anyone think this is only happens to others, in a conversation with another friend whom I greatly regard, while trying to understand why he was solving a problem a certain way, he suddenly became defensive. He took my comments as being condescending rather than helpful. I had to apologize and reiterate that contrary to thinking lowly of his thought process, I assume that if he is solving a problem differently than I would, he probably knows better and I wanted to understand why.
For the most part, we don’t intend to be condescending. Instead, we condescend when we try to communicate in a more basic way that underestimates the comprehension of the listener. If we estimate correctly, they take no offense and often appreciate that they now understand. This underestimation is rarely intentional but exhibits a much larger problem of communication. The person speaking has some intent they try to communicate and the listener interprets both what the speaker said as well as their assumptions. So whose responsibility is it to close this gap?
Sometimes we take offense at what another person said. When confronted, they respond that it’s not what they meant. So who needs to change? Most of the time, we assume the other person — if we’re speaking, they should understand our intent; if we’re listening, they should speak better. As a result, both parties believe the other person needs to change making this conflict difficult to resolve.
We should instead take responsibility for our own part. It’s not possible to always communicate perfectly so that the other party always understands our intent. When we miscommunicate, we should take responsibility for communicating in a better way going forward and apologize for communicating the wrong thing. Similarly, if we hear something that seems offensive instead of taking offense we should ask the speakers intent and give them as much benefit of the doubt as possible.
We learn to communicate better by practicing both.