10 phrases that sound supportive on the surface, but are actually condescending

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Communication is a tricky business, and it’s not always what you say, but how you say it.

Sometimes, well-intentioned words come across as condescending, undermining the very support we’re trying to offer.

This is a fine line to walk, and we often stumble without realizing it. To help you navigate this path, I’ve put together a list of ten common phrases that might seem supportive on the surface but can sound patronizing.

Let’s get started. 

1) “At least you tried…”

There’s an art to offering encouragement, especially when someone is down.

We often reach for phrases like “At least you tried…”, thinking we’re offering solace or comfort.

But look closer. This phrase subtly implies that the effort was inadequate or the outcome was expected to be unsuccessful. It’s a disguised criticism, masquerading as support.

Instead of focusing on the lack of success, it’s much better to acknowledge the effort and celebrate it for what it is – a step towards progress, regardless of the result.

Supportive words should uplift, not subtly knock down. So pay attention to what you’re really saying when you’re trying to offer comfort or encouragement.

2) “If I were you…”

This is one that I’ve found myself using more than a few times, thinking I was providing sage advice or sharing my wisdom.

But, “If I were you…” can sound condescending because it implies that I know better than the person I’m speaking to, and that their perspective or approach is somehow flawed.

I recall a conversation with a friend who was struggling with a work decision. I jumped in with, “If I were you, I would…” Before I could even finish my sentence, I saw her face drop. Later, she confessed that my words made her feel as though her own feelings and thoughts were invalid.

This was a wake-up call for me to be more mindful about how my words may sound to others, no matter how well-intended they are. Now, instead of saying “If I were you…”, I try to phrase my advice more respectfully, for example: “Have you considered…?” or “One option could be…”. It’s a small change, but it can make a big difference in how our words are received.

3) “You’re so brave for trying…”

On the surface, this phrase seems like a compliment, lauding someone’s courage. However, it can also subtly imply that the person was expected to fail or had embarked on an impossible task.

The key to understanding this phrase’s condescension lies in psychology. According to research, when we label someone’s actions as brave, we’re indirectly suggesting that the action was risky or outside of their capabilities.

Therefore, instead of unintentionally belittling someone’s efforts as a daring act, it can be more supportive to acknowledge their hard work and dedication. It’s a subtle shift that can make a world of difference in how our words are perceived.

4) “I knew you could do it…”

This phrase might sound like a vote of confidence, but it can also come off as condescending.

Why? Because it implies that your belief in their abilities was the defining factor in their success.

In reality, their accomplishment was due to their own hard work, determination, and skills. By saying “I knew you could do it…”, you might unintentionally send the message that they needed your approval or validation to succeed.

Instead of focusing on your own beliefs, try commending their efforts directly. A simple “Well done” or “Great job” can be much more empowering and respectful.

5) “You’re doing that wrong…”

This phrase, even when well-intentioned, can be a direct hit to someone’s confidence. It implies that there’s only one ‘right’ way to do something – your way.

It’s important to remember that we all have unique ways of approaching tasks. What might seem ‘wrong’ to you could be someone else’s tried and tested method.

Instead of jumping in with correction, consider offering advice in a less absolute way. Phrases like “Have you tried this way?” or “Can I suggest another method?” respect the individual’s autonomy and open up a dialogue rather than shutting down their approach.

6) “You always…” or “You never…”

These sweeping statements can feel like attacks rather than constructive feedback. They generalize a person’s behavior and can make them feel defensive.

I’ve seen relationships strained when these phrases are used frequently. They create a sense of blame and can lead to a cycle of negativity.

Instead, try addressing the specific behavior or incident that bothers you, without labeling the person entirely. Phrases like “I noticed that…” or “It upset me when…” can convey your feelings without belittling or accusing the other person.

7) “It’s not that big of a deal…”

Once, during a really challenging time in my life, a close friend used this phrase, thinking it would help me put things into perspective.

Instead, it felt like my struggles were being minimized and my feelings dismissed. My challenges might not have been significant to them, but for me, they were overwhelming.

In such situations, it’s important to remember that everyone’s feelings are valid. What might seem trivial to one might be monumental to another. Instead of belittling their concerns with “It’s not that big of a deal…”, try acknowledging their feelings with phrases like “I can see you’re really upset about this” or “How can I support you right now?”.

8) “I’m proud of you…”

On the surface, it sounds like high praise. But sometimes, “I’m proud of you…” can come off as condescending, depending on the context and relationship.

It implies a power dynamic where one person is in a position to judge the worthiness of the other’s actions, much like a parent to a child. In relationships among equals, such as between friends or adult family members, it might not be received as intended.

Instead of declaring your pride, consider expressing happiness for their achievements or complimenting the qualities that led to their success. Phrases like “You should be proud of yourself” or “Your hard work really paid off” can convey the same sentiment without sounding patronizing.

9) “You’ve got so much potential…”

This phrase can be a double-edged sword. While it’s often intended to inspire and motivate, it can also subtly imply that the person isn’t living up to their capabilities.

It can create a sense of pressure and expectation, making the person feel like they’re not doing enough or that they’re somehow falling short.

Instead of focusing on untapped potential, try acknowledging their current achievements and efforts. Phrases like “You’re doing a great job” or “I’m impressed by your progress” can offer encouragement without any hidden pressure.

10) “Calm down…”

This commonly used phrase might seem like a call for peace and tranquility, but it often does just the opposite. Telling someone to “calm down” usually escalates the situation, making the person feel dismissed and misunderstood.

In a heated moment, people want to be heard and acknowledged, not instructed on how to feel. The key here is empathy. Instead of asking someone to suppress their emotions, try validating their feelings with phrases such as “I understand why you’re upset” or “Let’s work through this together”. It’s a respectful way of maintaining dialogue while diffusing tension.

Final thoughts: The power of words

The realm of communication is complex and layered. Each word we choose has the potential to build bridges or create divides.

In this context, the phrases we’ve explored, while seemingly supportive, can subtly convey condescension and undermine the very support we intend to offer.

It’s not about memorizing a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather cultivating an awareness of how our words might be perceived by others. This awareness is integral in fostering connections built on respect and understanding.

As the renowned poet Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So let’s strive to make our words count, ensuring they uplift rather than belittle. After all, it’s not just about what we say, but how we say it that truly matters.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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