Today, I observed two interactions that got me thinking about how we interact with people. Two occurrences of a disconnect between someone of slightly more power and someone of slightly less power.
This morning, on my drive to work, I was listening to an interview on the radio. The interviewer was answering a question posed by a high school student. She started out with an upbeat tone talking to this young 18 year old. When I heard the high school student responding to her he was more dry, he was definitely curious for the interviewer to answer his question but he didn’t seem interested in her playful tone and her commentary on his age (talking about how young he is). He wanted clean-cut answers. As the interview went on her tone didn’t change much, she explained concepts in such a way that it seemed as if she was talking to a much younger person.
Later in the day, I was reminded of this when I was observing a training. The trainer was talking to a hand-full of students who may have been younger than her but also could have been older. The trainer was presenting herself as a knowledgable, straight-laced trainer. She walked the students through the tasks they were learning and asked them questions along the way; “now, why does that get included”, “now, what would you write for that”. There was something about her tone throughout the training that made me feel like she was underestimating them. The students sat quietly, giving a few “mmhmm”s and “yeah”s along the way.
Both of these situations bothered me. There are ways to communicate and teach without being patronizing. I respond strongly to situations like these for two reasons: 1) my bubbly attitude has been interpreted as “dumber than”and 2) I try to be aware of my own attitude, to avoid patronizing anyone.
Reading your audience is not just something to do when presenting something or writing something. Every interaction has room for you to see how the other people are interpreting you. In the interview this morning, the high school student did not take the playfulness of the interviewer positively. He seemed to get more short with her as the interview went on. This afternoon, the students went along with what the trainer was saying but when the training was through they reached out for help from other sources because they still had questions. The trainer from the afternoon might have done better interviewing the high school student, because he could appreciate her straight-laced attitude.
I recognize that we all have personalities and that our personality plays a major role in how we interact with others. I don’t believe that you have to change your personality to be relatable and approachable to those you speak to. I know I don’t change my personality when I realize someone is making confused faces when I talk at my fast pace of speaking. If I recognize the visual signs that I might be losing someone’s interest (or am wearing them out with my words) I try to slow things down. Sometimes I just take a big pause then say, “I know I just threw a lot at you.” to give them a cue to feel okay about not catching everything or not catching on. When I’m in a space where someone might see me as being the more powerful one in the relationship I try to make space for them to see that I don’t feel more powerful. In situations like this afternoon involving the trainer, I work to let the people being trained know they are appreciated and I recognize that we are peers in spaces outside of the training setting.
In the training setting, the trainer knows more but that does not mean the people being trained do not know anything at all. They likely have had experiences that can give the trainer insight into training methods or the tasks they’re being trained on. When you’re the one holding the little extra bit of power in a relationship like the two I observed today, you hurt the productivity of the relationship by patronizing the person/people on the other side. Being patronized makes it harder to ask questions, it makes it harder to feel comfortable sharing and it does not feel good.
There are times where there are major power differences in relationships, there aren’t times when patronizing someone with less power is okay.
I continue to need to work on this, as I read back through this I’m hoping that this chunk of text is expressing my frustration with my observations and is not patronizing readers.
Thanks for reading.
Let me know if you have any tips for recognizing and changing patronizing attitudes!