How to… Deal with Sarcasm at Work

By Heather Campbell

sarcasmBy Heather Campbell >>

Sarcasm may be described as the lowest form of wit, but that doesn’t stop it being embarrassing at best and hurtful at worst when you are the butt of the sarcastic comment.

We often find ourselves at a loss for words when we experience someone’s sarcasm, or biting back with an even more caustic rejoinder. Neither response tends to leave us feeling good afterwards; the latter can damage the relationship and leaves others involved feeling awkward too.

Before exploring ways to manage sarcasm so that we look cool, in control and mature, let’s consider why it can so easily leave us at a loss for words.

Sarcasm usually takes us by surprise and is a blow to our ego. It undermines our confidence and can easily leave us feeling powerless. It is designed to put us in a ‘one down’ position compared to the person who makes the sarcastic comment.

All of this alerts our amygdalae* to the presence of an immediate threat to our well-being. Remember, our amygdalae don’t know the difference between a dangerous predator, intent on doing us physical harm, and a dangerous predator intent on doing us emotional harm. Because of this, the amygdalae prepare us to respond to the threat as if it is a physical one – they flood our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol, so getting us ready for the well-known ‘fight or flight’ (or freeze) response.

It’s this natural physiological response that makes us want to bite back, wish the ground would open and swallow us up, or leaves us unable to think of any reply, let alone an intelligent one.

Recognising the impact of this ‘amygdala hijack’ is the first step to dealing with sarcasm well. We can remind ourselves immediately that these are just words – they can’t do us any physical harm. This tells our amygdalae they can go back to sleep again – we’re quite safe! Immediately we have more control over our reaction.

So, having regained this control, how might we respond?

1. We can ignore the comment, both during and after the meeting. This is most effective if we don’t expect the person to say anything more, and if the individual has no particular influence over others involved in the conversation.

2. We can treat the comment as if it has been made seriously, acknowledging they have shared their view and asking them to expand on it. This is most effective if we think that the individual may make similar comments again, as it makes it more difficult for them to do so in an underhand way because we have addressed them openly and directly.

3. We can ignore the comment during the meeting and then speak directly to the individual afterwards, acknowledging that we found their comment unhelpful and asking what caused them to make it. This gives the other person the opportunity to share what they really want to say, and it is easier to deal with this in private than in public. It is often the case, too, that allowing someone to say what they actually want to say calms down their negativity. This approach is effective in just about any situation. It shows maturity and calmness on the part of the recipient of the sarcasm.

4. We can acknowledge the comment during the meeting, noting its apparently negative intent, and ask the person to give more background to it. This is quite a challenging tactic, and is a public demonstration of your confidence and self-control. It is most effective when we have a level of power that is similar to, or greater than, the other person – and a good level of influence with others present.

If the person who makes the sarcastic comment has more power and influence than us (e.g. is more senior in the organisational hierarchy or is more influential in the group) then the most effective response is simply to acknowledge the comment and say you are surprised/disappointed that they feel that way, then ask them to say more about their point of view.

Whichever response we choose to give, it is essential that we are responding from the point of being genuine, reasonable and open to the other person. If we appear negative or sarcastic ourselves, we will only increase the damage already done!

*For more about the amygdalae check out our free eBook on dealing with difficult conversations.

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