How to accept good advice given badly
May 21, 2020 12:28 PM   Subscribe

I work with a lot of smart people, who are all across the board regarding social skills. As a woman in a junior position I will often get advice and feedback presented in layers of condescension or other unpleasantness that make it hard for me to separate my initial annoyed reaction from my judgement on whether or not the content is valid, which it often is! It is easy for me to shrug off people who are both annoying and wrong - much harder to recognize comments that are annoying but right. How can I get better at this?
posted by btfreek to Human Relations (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You’re not wrong Walter, you’re just an asshole

This is my mantra for that kind of thing, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:43 PM on May 21 [13 favorites]

It sounds like you're on the right track, as you can already identify the difference between content and context. To help remove the emotion and context, I find it helps to write down what they say, then come back to read it later. It's fine to paraphrase. If the content of their message is really just "be more assertive" then you're free to ignore it and think they're an asshole. But if it's "be more assertive in this particular type of meeting so your issues actually get addressed" that's potentially useful feedback and they may just be bad at presenting it
posted by JZig at 12:44 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

What I try to do is put their whatever aside until I'm less annoyed, and then later on assess what they said and see if there's anything inside this bag of garbage they gave me that I can repurpose to help me help myself. I don't look at it as taking their advice, but as using whatever I come across to my advantage, like using an old tin can to boil water if I have no other vessel for boiling water.
posted by bleep at 12:47 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

Your question is basically, "How do I cope better with sexism both overt and subtle in the office?"

There are no good answers. You're not doing anything wrong; you're being expected to be polite and grateful to people who are being jerks - and sometimes, to people who are being inaccurate jerks.

Reacting to condescension in kind is likely to get you fired, or at least to stall your career, so that's out. Being overtly thankful is likely to get you the same kind of actions next time, which you don't want. It's a constant balancing act of deciding how to appreciate the content while not reinforcing the delivery method.

Keep reminding yourself that they're being assholes. Keep a log book - write down the details so you don't accept the inevitable gaslighting when one or more of them crosses the line between "being snide to junior employee" into "harassment of junior employee."

In the meantime, stock up on phrases like, "Thank you for letting me know" and "I got your attachment; I'll review it and get back to you" and *gets out notebook* "Can you spell that name for me so I don't forget?"
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:48 PM on May 21 [11 favorites]

Talk to other women and People of Color at your workplace. Many states have required annual harassment training (they never call it anti-harassment training, weird) and perhaps they could add some training on how not to mansplain, how to reduce racism, etc. I am assuming good faith, it isn't universally present. Consider being a bit more assertive. Women who are perceived as weak can get trampled.
posted by theora55 at 1:04 PM on May 21

I'm not going to threadsit, but I just wanted to say that I don't think this is primarily about sexism, insofar as any interaction can be divorced from the age/gender identities of the people involved... The sort of person I deal with most often is the type who thinks everyone is a moron, but maybe is a bit different in expressing it to me than my work buddy who's got 30+ years of experience in the field. The comments I field are less "hey btfreek can you be the secretary and take notes in this meeting" and more "ugh, why did you do XYZ instead of ABC, EVERYONE knows that XYZ is dumb!!" Often the comments are about technical things in this field I'm still learning about, which is why I want to get the most out of them.

For instance, if someone leaves me a barrage of snarky but genuine comments on my work, I'll grit my teeth through making a list of actionable items from their comments and then refer to that instead of having to look at their words. I wonder if there's an equivalent strategy for in-person (or, well, at least real-time) interactions.
posted by btfreek at 1:15 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]

Are you actively asking for advice and feedback? The way I have handled this is to actively solicit it, so that I feel more empowered and autonomous. It's something I want and asked for! And then if someone tries to give me feedback outside of when I have asked for it, I set a clear boundary: "Actually, this isn't ready for feedback yet. I'm planning to share it around/present it on Friday for input. Thanks for holding your comments till then." Also, share it privately with the people you trust not to be condescending first, so that by the time the jerks see it it's already had a round of input from people.

Can you also give feedback to this person on their style? Pull them aside immediately after a call when this person does this. Send them an email or a Slack in our current work situation. "Hey Jim/Jane, would you be open to some feedback?" They'll have to say yes. "I really value your input on my projects. But it's hard to receive it when you say things like [must be a word for word quote here.]. Can you try to give me feedback without using words like "dumb"? I'm really trying to learn here."

If they say "Why did you ____ everyone knows_____ is DUMB", in a meeting, sit silently and raise your eyebrows as if they have just said something ridiculous (because they ARE being super unprofessional) while waiting a beat to answer. Then answer cooool as a cucumber as if you are completely unfazed by their childish approach. Ignore the second part and answer the first. "I did ___ because ____. How would you have done it?" or even better, rephrase it in a professional way to highlight how unprofessional they were. "Sounds like your perspective is that ____ is not the best approach." (silence) Do this slowly, patiently, making it clear that you are re-wording what they just said.
posted by amaire at 1:33 PM on May 21 [6 favorites]

Know-it-all developers are one of the reasons we can't have nice things. This is a field of nuance and grays, but they treat everything as black-and-white.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:50 PM on May 21 [6 favorites]

I suggest really trying to separate what will be useful to you from all the other comments.
And reply in this same manner.
"Addressing the _______ issue, I did _______." [and ignored how you said it.]
"To address the valid concern of ____________..." [and I ignored your petty attitude]

"Joe, I will send an email in just a moment addressing the question-- 'why was the blue truck used on this job?."
"Jane, I am addressing the staffing question you raised." [and ignoring the other crap you said.]
"So your concern is _______? OK, this was the thinking at the time... " [ignoring the other crap you said.]

I really try to zero in on the issue or problem. My thinking is that I can focus the discussion on what I think is important by replying only to the facts and not the attitude or other crap.
posted by calgirl at 1:51 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

I've had a person like this in my office for going on about 8 years now. I don't know if this resonates or not, but in my case, this person is extremely brilliant and feels that their attitude boils down to "I don't suffer fools." Except everyone other than them is a fool until proven otherwise :) Believe it or not, I actually grew to really like them, after the first year or so?

In light of some recent comments and your latest update, one of the things I appreciate most about this person (ok, there's no way to write around it now) is that he truly does not discriminate on the basis of sex. In a field and a company where the ratios are extremely skewed, I have always felt that this guy is... equal-opportunity, I guess. That alone might be worth a different perspective on your person, potentially. Sometimes men who have figured out how to hide their contempt for other men are just honing skills they learned hiding it from women.

I have more thoughts but I'd like to take it to memail if you're interested in hearing them.
posted by slenderloris at 3:13 PM on May 21 [6 favorites]

I find it helps to imagine that I am a spaceship with an airlock. I open the outer doors to let stuff into the air lock but then I close the door and decontaminate it before it gets inside to the real me. All the garbage gets incinerated and the ashes ejected back into the cold depth of space.

This helps me tell myself not to believe anything that person says. Just take it in for now, process it later and then decide what fraction is deserving of consideration. Somehow the image of ejecting the stupid stuff back into space is very satisfying.
posted by metahawk at 3:38 PM on May 21 [14 favorites]

Hmm. Couple things, I guess:

In my experience, most people like this will crack eventually if you don't overstate your abilities but also don't grovel, and you'll get to a point where they're not rude for fun.

Also in my experience, people like this lead kind of sad lives - they often don't much social life outside work but they don't generally have friends at work either, and when you meet them they tend to be as high career-wise as they will ever progress in their life - you're likely to surpass them by midway through your career since you're capable of working with other people. (You may well be in a position at a later job to weigh in on whether they should be hired there, which puts a different weight on the skills-vs-personality tradeoff - I've had that happen.)

In general I find it can be kind of a fun experience to try to work with somebody who has a reputation for being rude if you don't take it personally (and it's very rare that they mean it personally) - it's sort of a combination of intellectual puzzle and cultural experience. If you haven't read you might take a look and see if the attitude resonates with this at all.
posted by inkyz at 4:59 PM on May 21 [9 favorites]

Ask them for more info, and where you could go to learn more. Sometimes people are like this because they DON'T actually have a strong grounding for what they're saying and they've gotten in the habit of being loud and dismissive since it gets their "gut hunches / years of experience (in which they worked with this type of thing exactly once)" taken more seriously. So if they see something they would have done differently, and it goes badly, they can just yell "EVERYONE knows you have to use pipe dope to seal a joint!" and ignore that this is only true for certain types of fittings, sometimes actively harmful, etc.

There's usually a kernel of knowledge but it's often overstated for effect, and the way to find out more and also make a positive impression on anyone watching is to ask for references to where you could learn more. Google it first in case "everyone" really does know, and then follow up with the request for references later one on one, if they're yelling at you in a meeting. Maybe they'll have a good reference book or be willing to teach you WHY the thing is a bad idea. If all they have is "it's just better, everyone knows that!" then that is what we call an "opinion".
posted by Lady Li at 12:52 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]

Being able to learn from people who are not making an effort to teach or who are just straight up bad at it is a useful skill. But it does require you to remember that YOU are the active party - thinking critically and researching on your own, not just parroting, however much the bombastic lecturer wants everyone else to be a perfectly made clone of them.
posted by Lady Li at 12:57 AM on May 22 [4 favorites]

Give yourself time to react to the annoying outer shell of the advice in private, and then take what you can from it. So, for example, if this is happening in a meeting, take it in, give some kind of neutral/short acknowledgment (“Thanks Bob, good to know”) and then go back to your office or back to your home after work and let yourself vent through it. For me it helps to talk it out, even if I’m just telling the dog that “Bob is THE WORST!!” After an hour or so of that I find I can engage with the actual advice. If you have follow-up questions, you can always talk to Bob the next day or week and say you thought about what he said and wanted to follow up.
posted by sallybrown at 10:31 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]

I read a blog post a few years back which suggested (heavily paraphrased, as I can't find it again) that people who annoy you are there to help you towards enlightenment. The idea was that each of them were giving you a gift - the ability to grow beyond the annoyance. I can't say I've applied this consistently, and am no where near enlightened, but I have found it helpful to think "this is me becoming more patient" and "better skills at dealing with this [pain in the arse humanoid] is going to make my future life and career much easier". But if that's not working I go with "this is the reason they pay me" - part of the paycheque is putting up with other humans.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 9:34 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

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