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In emails or in virtual meetings:

It can be helpful to repeat oneself to add clarity to a conversation. However, I find when I repeat myself, I often come across as condescending, when really, my intentions were earnest:

  • “Like I said...”
  • “Again, ...”
  • “As mentioned earlier...”
  • “I think we’ve discussed in the past...”

Is there a way to repeat oneself in a way that makes it clear the intent is earnest, rather than condescending?

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  • 83
    Why not just drop those forewords and repeat what you want to repeat?
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 13:11
  • 8
    @TymoteuszPaul: I find it often useful to know that we have discussed this before (or be reminded that I was asked it -- maybe I thought about the issue) and that it's not something new.
    – guest
    Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 14:16
  • 4
    Is this about immediately repeating something you just said, or about bringing up something you said in a past conversation?
    – usul
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 5:55
  • 5
    More people should read this question and it's answers because some don't even realize how condescending they act while "explaining" stuff.
    – hopsinat
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 8:25
  • 4
    As per my last email... Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 16:42

10 Answers 10

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By saying things like "Again" or "As we discussed" you are putting the onus of the misunderstanding on the listener. You are simply repeating the explanation that presumably the listener didn't understand the first time. Instead, put the misunderstanding onto yourself, by saying something like "I didn't explain that very well" or "sorry for the misunderstanding" and explain it differently.

I've used that often at work when there was a misunderstanding. And usually what I found in reflection was that it was true. Maybe I had skipped over some logic step or assumed that we were on the same page when we weren't. It's certainly never harmful to review how you are explaining something when there's a misunderstanding, and turning the explanation into a discussion rather than a lecture.

It can be difficult to step back and realize that the problem may be on the sending end, rather than the receiving end. Remember the end goal isn't to "win" or be confrontational, it's to get information across.

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    Exactly, both this answer and Joe Strazzere's below nailed it on the head. The key to not coming off as an ass is simply to assume that the mistake was yours and that you explained poorly. About 9 times out of 10 you will be right (from experience at both ends of communication.) The preludes are a red herring, they would be unusable/nonsensical if you made this assumption to begin with.
    – ldog
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 7:02
  • 7
    If you know that I've understood your point of view perfectly then saying "I haven't explained very well" can be just as condescending. So make sure you're using this in the right situation. Have the people you're talking to actually NOT understood and you need to rephrase it? Or, have they just dismissed your idea/opinion for one reason or another (in which case you need to address the dismissal, was it correct to dismiss? Has something changed in the meantime that re-legitimizes your view etc)? Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 8:16
  • 5
    +1 for raising the concept of ‘winning a conversation’. It’s something I have seen with increasing frequency in the last 20 years and it needs to be called out and decried for the truly toxic behavior it is.
    – jwpfox
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 7:52
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    Unfortunately, this is incorrect. When you use "I didn't explain that very well" or "sorry for the misunderstanding" ... it simply reads as "I am politely pointing out that I already covered this." The take away is still "You are a dumbass."
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 13:33
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    @Fattie how could you possibly be more kind and polite than this? Do you have a better suggestion? Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 16:42
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Is there a way to repeat oneself so that it’s clear the intent is earnest, rather than condescending?

Of course there is.

First, drop all the preludes - they come across as snarky.

Second, assume your first statement was confusing. Find a new way to better convey your meaning, rather than just using the same words a second time.

Third, watch and listen for understanding. Sometimes you might need to ask for confirmation using something like "Make sense?". If you don't get a sense that the other party understands start with "Let me try a different approach..." and come up with a third way to say it.

Finally, if you still aren't communicating your thoughts well enough, suggest a different discussion offline using a different medium where you can go back and forth until clear.

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    To me, Make sense? at the end, or starting with Let me try a different approach, would seem condescending, but it might be regional. I'd use something like specifically or 'more accurately`, even if you're not being more specific or accurate, since that still sounds like a "it's my mistake" type thing. Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 0:37
  • 4
    @RedwolfPrograms I find a simple ”i.e." or "e.g." works wonders. I.e. try using i.e. to repeat what you're saying directly. Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 1:13
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    @RedwolfPrograms Please do not use backquotes to highlight quoted text in comments. This syntax should be reserved for code or data, not normal text. Abusing code markdown has ugly results, causes problems for parsing tools such as screen readers for the visually impaired, and is easily avoided by using italics and quotation marks instead.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 8:34
  • 2
    @Lilienthal Ah, sorry about that. Too late to edit now, I'll keep that in mind for the future. Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 15:39
  • I tend to finish with something like if you know what I mean when I know my sentence is confusing
    – Clockwork
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 6:55
8

As a developer, I just turn a gray stone face and say it again, and sometimes they figure out that I've told them before and sometimes they don't.

I might say, "We need to create a new layer for the Accessdata," and then they might say, "Oh, you said that earlier, oops. Sorry but I don't know the technical part that well."

It is natural to feel that you are mean or condescending, but in a company straightforward communication without emotion is the only way to be goal-oriented and efficient. However, being cold and honest can also show earnest intent. You are just communicating. No feeling involved.

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    This only works if all your other co-workers are not feelers. Otherwise you will just repeatedly be "stepping" on them using this approach. Use with caution.
    – ldog
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 7:08
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    I agree with @Idog. This is part of the reason us devs are often viewed as rude by non-devs. Just as we devs need to use the right syntax to ensure computers do what we want without issues via programming (please excuse the very rough analogy), we need to use the right verbal and non-verbal communication, while considering the emotional needs of others, to ensure that people do what we want without issues (though it's important to note that it's ok to use computers, but it's not ok to use people--it's important to give and take, aiming for win-wins; so it's a very loose analogy).
    – bob
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 16:33
  • 1
    "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"
    – DaveG
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 15:12
  • 2
    @DaveG RawMouse gave an example where repeating something did give different results. Just checking: you know that's not the definition and wasn't said by anyone famous? It has the same weight as "Snitches get stitches". Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 19:11
  • 3
    I've seen this approach way too often when coworkers are dealing with non-technical people. They just repeat technical jargon/short hand over and over and then think when the person stops asking that they've understood. They haven't, they've gone elsewhere for an explanation. This isn't an efficient method. If you truly understand what you're talking about then you can explain it better. If you find you can't explain it to a layman then find someone who does understand the process better and ask for their help. Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 9:08
3

The best way in my opinion is to reword your sentence. So for example if you said 'we're going to the supermarket' you could say 'we're gonna pick up some stuff from the shop'. It makes the other party feel less guilty about having missed your message and doesn't irritate third parties as much because even though you're saying the same thing, it sounds new.

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First off, I don't know what kind of communication you do, which may be relevant. I'm making some sweeping assumptions and generalizations here.

You should first ask yourself if you actually NEED to repeat yourself. If you don't want to come across as condescending, you have to shift your own mindset; assume the reader understood what you said or wrote the first time around.

Review your e-mail before sending; if you feel like you need to repeat yourself for clarity, you (subconsciously?) realize your e-mail may be too long, complicated, or inactionable. Be concise and to the point. Meandering text implies insecurity.

Start your e-mail with a conclusion, summary, or actionable items. "In response to our meeting at x, let's do y", then follow up with more details.

If none of those apply and you still need to summarize yourself, just finish your e-mail with "In summary, something something something something".

In speech / virtual meetings, take a little more time to think before you speak; don't think while speaking because then you're asking your audience to spend more of their attention span on you while you figure out what to say. Be confident, and speak (write) in statements instead of exploratory stream-of-consciousness.

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I find it often helpful to repeat the other person's words or questions: "If I hear you correctly, you're concerned about problem A? Is that right?" That gives the other person the chance to either correct your understanding of problem A, or reflect on his or her own anxiety. Once you are all in agreement on what exactly constitutes problem A, you can then say: "Earlier I suggested solution B, because it addresses issue A(1) and A(2), although perhaps not A(3). How does that sound to you?"

It's also possible that in listening to the other's take on the problem, you realise that your earlier solution does not fit as well as you had thought, so then you can say: "Earlier I suggested solution B, but now that we've talked it over, perhaps C would fit better. Allow me to explain why ...". And then walk through the pros and cons of solution C, checking regularly that the other is still able to understand how your proposal pertains to the problem.

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Others have answered for a situation where an explanation is asked that was given earlier. I often give more or less repeated explanations without being asked.


I often have situations where I explain some effect and want to explicitly express different views on that point. Some people may think the explanations pretty redundant, others may think that rewording opens new perspectives.

  • In other words ... makes clear that a reformulation (with possibly a new insight) of the last statement follows.

  • That is, ... also signals that a new explanation of the already mentioned point comes.

Providing a bunch of alternative explanations is providing an important service to your audience. IMHO, if your mindset is on providing such a service, the risk of coming across as condescending is small.

Different people find different explanation approaches more or less intuitive, simple/complex or understandable. There's nothing wrong with this. It may be that everyone of us has their favourite explanation approach for a certain topic. IMHO it is important not to forget that there are often other approaches as well that are just as fine - and that other people may find a different one more intuitive.


I use Like I said, ... or As I mentioned earlier, ... to connect/provide cross references.

For example: We have two options to tackle this, O1 and O2. [Explanation of O1] As I said before, O2 is an alternative. This is what we need to do...

There is nothing condescending in giving people cross references.


What is IMHO condescending is stuff like using "it follows trivially" for "plan pencil + about 4 sheets of paper", or "just" as abbreviation for hours of exacting work for a beginner... You can "just" avoid that... ;-)

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If you are at a point where people are commenting that you come off as condescending, it is probably because you are repeating things that don't need repeating.

These situations normally looks something like this:

Bill is Peter's manager. Yesterday Peter did not put a cover page on his TPS report, so Bill thinks that he needs to repeat himself to make sure Peter knows to put the cover page on the report. The more times Peter does not include the cover page, the more Bill feels he needs to repeat himself. Since Bill is telling Peter something he already knows, Bill comes off as condescending and Peter becomes less motivated to include the cover page next time instead of moreso.

It does not matter how Bill chooses to repeat himself, the problem does not change if Peter already knows about the cover page. Where the Bills of the world go wrong here is by repeating the goal instead of asking questions about the problem.

Now imagine if Bill were to ask Peter why he forgot the cover page. If Peter responds by explaining that he thinks the cover page is a waste of time, you've now opened a dialogue about a problem that Bill did not even consider before. This gives Bill the opportunity to either re-evaluate the necessity of the cover page (which could improve the company's efficiency) or open up the opportunity to explain its importance. If Peter can be convinced that the cover page is important, he is MUCH less likely to forget it.

If instead Peter responds to the this question with something like "I just keep forgetting", then it might be time to talk to Peter about organization skills which could help him. This part might still come off as condescending, but is much more likely to solve the problem long term, meaning much less total friction you have to deal with.

Either way, the solution has nothing to do with repeating yourself.

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I prefer: "Sorry, maybe something got lost here" or "I would like to put focus on ....", depending on you position.

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The fact is:

In English there is no way to "absolutely politely" achieve this.

Anything you say, it is unfortunately absolutely obvious that you are "just being polite".

--

One formulation I use is to "make it my fault", So:

"Ahh, damn, sorry I was not clear enough, the server can't be NT..."

However this is NOT a solution.

My suggestion, or any suggestion, clearly reads like this:

"You screwed up. I already explained this."

The factual answer to this great question is that anything you say, it is unfortunately absolutely obvious that you are "just being polite".

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    Ah, of course, it could never be that your explanations/requests weren't clear, no point giving the benefit of the doubt and trying one of the tactful methods already suggested. Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 9:14
  • ? You may not have read the answer Lio. I literally suggest saying that it was YOUR OWN fault. Unfortunately, even if you do say that, unfortunately the only message that comes across is "You screwed up, I already explained this."
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 15, 2020 at 13:12

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