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How to Tell if Your Attempts to Be Helpful Seem Patronizing

You’re talking to someone, and you mean to be helpful. But you sense—or they tell you—that you’re being patronizing. How can you tell the difference? And how can you reframe what you say—and how you say it—in a better way?

We talked with Denise Black, a social worker at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, AZ, to learn more. Here’s what she had to say about the differences between being helpful and being patronizing.

“When an action is helpful, it feels like both parties are on equal footing. Being helpful comes from a genuine place, without any expectations in return. On the other hand, being patronizing is when you attempt to help and appear kind, but you do so with a superior attitude or in a condescending way.”

Watch out for these patronizing behaviors

Even if you mean to be helpful, you could come across as patronizing if you:  

  • Explain something the other person already knows, such as the basics of their job. In this case, they could perceive that you don’t think they are competent.
  • Use phrases such as “you always” or “you never,” that can cause the other person to feel defensive and make them feel judged. 
  • Tell someone who is expressing their frustration to “take it easy,” “relax” or “calm down.”

Patronizing behavior isn’t always spoken aloud. Sometimes, your body language and actions can be patronizing, such as when you:

  • Cross your arms
  • Roll your eyes
  • Sigh 
  • Don’t make eye contact
  • Stand over the other person and lean into their personal space
  • Point at the other person 
  • Pat them on the back 

How to reframe your words and actions to be helpful

You’ll likely come across as helpful if the other person has asked you a question—they are looking for your input. If they haven’t, start by asking them if they want your advice. If they do, keep these tips in mind:

  • Think about why you want to help—if you’re impatient or frustrated, your tone of voice may seem patronizing.
  • Listen and show empathy and compassion for how they’re feeling in that moment.
  • Ask them how they feel—don’t make assumptions about their feelings or thoughts.
  • Don’t interrupt them—wait until they finish talking before you give your advice.
  • Speak in a way that resonates with them—different people may focus more on emotions, results or details.
  • Avoid over-explaining something they already know by asking, “Are you familiar with…?” Black said, “This can help gauge their level of understanding.”
  • After you offer advice, give them time to speak instead of jumping in and offering more advice.

How mansplaining and patronizing behavior are related

“Mansplaining and patronizing can be quite similar,” Black said. Mansplaining is typically an explanation by a man to a woman that is condescending, overconfident, and sometimes inaccurate or oversimplified. “This can go hand in hand with being patronizing,” she said. “However, the truth is that gender does not really matter. Any gender can display this type of behavior to any other gender.” In fact, fathers sometimes complain of “momsplaining” when their partners or other women tell them how to parent. 

The bottom line

Even if you have the best intentions, what you say and how you say it could be perceived as patronizing rather than helpful. Thinking about why you want to offer advice and listening to the other person can help you get your point across the way you intend to. If you would like to talk to a behavioral health professional to learn more about communication styles, reach out to Banner Health. 

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