February 8, 2015

It’s Not Smart to Make Others Feel Stupid


I sometimes hear about “brilliant rain-makers” who “don’t suffer fools.” These are smart lawyers and executives who behave intellectually superior and are intolerant of others’ “stupidity.” They finish other people’s sentences, know what others are trying to do and say, hate to be bothered and don’t like their time wasted. What their colleagues or clients might find to be new, difficult or challenging, they see as plain and simple and can’t understand the concerned confusion. So when they try to explain or respond, they come off as impatient and condescending. And the person on the other side of that interaction ends up feeling dwarfed, diminished, devalued, demeaned, degraded, debased and disgraced. This is the ultimate way to block communication and disconnect from people.

Powerful rainmakers are not the only ones invalidating and trivializing other people’s problems, issues, feelings and positions. Outside the office, there are too many examples to list here of people making each other feel stupid. Experienced mothers do it to new moms: “Didn’t you know that you don’t have to boil pacifiers every time they fall?” Actors do it to their fans: “Yes, I said I like to be single — but that was my character talking — I don’t live in a movie you know!” Parents do it to their kids: “How hard can it be to write that book report?…You’ve read the entire book three times already!”

We’ve all been on the giving and receiving end of making others feel stupid. And the point I want to make is that there’s nothing smart about this manner of communication. In fact, it’s dangerous. Pushing people away, lowering others’ confidence levels, and building resentment in professional and personal relationships are just three examples that demonstrate how condescending communication leads to conflict and chaos. 

To be a smart communicator, and make those around you greater:

Remember what is was like not to know. After all, you weren’t born a lawyer, manager, executive, mother, actor, reporter, partner. Somewhere along the way, there were wonderful teachers and supportive mentors.

Recognize that there are many activities and subjects that make you feel clueless. A partner I worked developed greater empathy when the IT manager at her office made her feel stupid for not knowing how to upload a document to a new system.

Use your knowledge to help others grow and develop. People learn from each other by sharing their stories and experiences. We don’t learn from data and information in technology and books as much as we do through personal experience and conversation.