How to handle put-downs assertively

womanpointing1Put-downs are more subtle than straightforward criticism. The clue is in the name.

Whereas overt critical comments or negative feedback aren’t (always) intended to diminish, demean or make you doubt or feel bad about yourself, put-downs aim at doing just that. They are the barbed comments, the throwaway lines, the seemingly innocent questions which catch you off-balance.

You may not be clear about precisely what point is being made, or how you are expected to respond. You just know you feel unsettled, put on the defensive and got-at. Here’s how to deal with put-downs.


Don’t fight fire with fire. It’s tempting to shoot back with a counter-insult, especially if there’s an audience and you can sweep out with your head held high to a murmur of appreciation of your witty repartee — yes, in our dreams.

And even if it does work out that way, all we have done is throw down the gauntlet for further exchanges of this nature.

Instead, take the wind out of the person’s sails by remaining calm. Smile, and be seen to accept the put-down.

  • ‘You’re right, that is very typical of me.’

  • ‘Yes, I am a bit of a control freak, aren’t I?’

  • ‘No, I’m not looking my best today, am I?’

  • ‘Yup, you got me.’

The little additions of strengthening phrase such as:

  • aren’t I
  • am I
  • don’t I
  • do I

make it easy for you to end your reply on a firm note, and show you are not going to be further drawn in.

Say thank you

You can adjust the level of sarcasm in your tone to suit the situation. You could use a phrase such as:

  • Wow! Thank you for sharing

  • Many thanks for your insight

  • Thanks for that helpful observation

Put the other person in the spotlight

Ask a question which calls the speaker to account. If there has been some snippy comment about your behaviour at a meeting, or a dig about your out-dated wardrobe, or a lob at your taste in box sets, make a calm response such as:

  • Why does that bother you?
  • I’m wondering how that concerns you.
  • Is that a bad thing?

Only joking

It is possible that the offending comment was genuinely meant as a joke, a light-hearted, even affectionate dig at an aspect of your behaviour or personality.

It’s up to you how far you want to give the benefit of the doubt. We’ve all made a crack that misfires, which comes out not as we had intended and which wounds rather than amuses.

But when this happens, our dismay is immediately obvious and our apology is sincere, and hopefully, accepted.

When the ‘joke’ sours the air, and makes you feel bad about yourself, you might want to respond.

Haven’t you got a sense of humour

If a person’s defence is that you just can’t take a joke, or that you have no sense of humour, be ready with something like:

  • My sense of humour’s fine. What you said wasn’t funny.

  • I don’t like jokes which are harmful/intended personally/not funny

It was just banter

Oh, the b word. Whatever your age, whatever your stage, greet this one with a withering look and a slow, disdainful repetition of the word.

Find out what’s behind the put-down

But sometimes the ‘joke’ disguises real feelings. The person may be hostile towards you, or fear or resent you. Perhaps they just don’t like you (I know, I know, it’s inexplicable, but it happens).

They don’t want to, or they don’t know how to, speak to you openly, so they resort to sniping.

Ask questions

You could help to bring things into the open with questions such as:

  • What are you really trying to say here?
  • For some reason, you seem to want to get at me?

Present an idea

Spend a little time analysing your relationship with the other person, and work out why they feel the need to snipe about your cooking or your parenting style or your relationship with your boss or your body shape.

Armed with this understanding, you could initiate a conversation:

  • I think you’re bothered about…

  • I’m getting the impression that my…annoys you

This can be a more effective strategy than bluntly asking the person about their feelings and motives. By offering an observation, you provide a starting point. Who knows, you might have a conversation which leads to greater mutual understanding.

When a put-down really gets to you

Don’t react. Wait until you feel calm, and think about what was said and how you felt. Choose what word best expresses your reaction. You might feel:

  • hurt
  • embarrassed
  • niggled
  • annoyed
  • angry
  • demeaned
  • attacked
  • undermined, etc

Then find an appropriate time and place, and tell the person the effect of their remarks:

I felt… by your comment/remark/joke…

You can choose to continue the conversation, or you could just ask for the comments to stop.

Be prepared to learn something

You could think about why the person or persons involved feel the need to make you the object of disparaging comments or jibes.

  • Does your behaviour suggest you are an easy target?
  • Do they feel this the only way in which they can express their feelings?
  • Do they find you difficult to talk to?
  • Are they angry, frustrated, worried, envious, insecure, threatened…or just plain nasty?

Dealing assertively with the snipers and carpers in your life will increase your understanding of yourself, and give you some insights into dynamics of your relationships. By trying to put you down, they have given you an advantage.

You might also like:

How To Develop An Assertive Communication Style

How To Be Assertive in Everyday Conversation

Three Words to Help You Keep or Get Back Your Personal Power