“I’m not saying you’ve got poor taste in clothes…”


“Of course, darling, you know I love your taste in clothes… I’m just saying that some of my colleagues have remarked on how they feel woman in her forties should dress… err… to reflect her husband’s professional position…”

Donna’s non-verbal response to Mark’s comment suggested we were in for a pretty serious ‘domestic’ at our  little get-together when, happily, Karen came to our rescue with a humorous distraction which broke the ice and changed the subject. Though I suspect the issue was raised once they got home. (Names have been change for obvious reasons).

A nasty, sneaky tactic

Probably without being aware of it, Mark was using a particularly nasty and insidious language pattern; one which is also quite widespread. In this pattern we criticise somebody but in a way that makes it very difficult for them to defend themselves.

How? By pretending it’s not our opinion. It’s a sneaky and underhand verbal ploy called a ‘Sneaky Judgement’ and one of 13 identified in the wonderful NLP Meta Model.

As it happened, Mark wasn’t being very subtle in his use of the pattern – but other people are able to take the skill to a very subtle level!

“Office politics”

When I used to work in accounting I came across the pattern quite a lot in the various offices in which I worked: it seemed to be rampant as a smiling put-down or pull-down tactic among the office gossips.  Interestingly, as part of my long sabbatical from accountancy I also worked on quite a few building sites and rarely came across the pattern there.

The pattern goes along the lines:  “I’ve heard people remark on your… (appearance, quality of work, timekeeping, etc.) – I just thought you should know, that’s all.”

It’s a sort of “don’t shoot the messenger” tactic in which the person who is aiming to undermine you or put you down pretends to be your smiling friend; a friend who is merely passing on things you should know that “other people” are saying.

Sneaky Judgements in the NLP Meta Model

Mark was using one type of Meta Model Sneaky Judgement when he was attempting to undermine Donna in front of her friends. This version works like this:

  1. You make a critical and undermining comment on something about the other person.
  2. But you do this in a way which makes it difficult for them to confront you or even challenge what you have said.
  3. And you achieve that by denying responsibility for the opinion you have expressed – and claiming you’re simply doing them a favour by passing on what’s being said about them!

Sneaky, isn’t it!

How it works

Let’s say that we work together in the same team or in the same office.  I want to undermine you while at the same time pretending to be your friend.  So while we are having a general chat I casually slip in “Actually, a few people have remarked that you seem to have put on a few pounds recently… Mind you, it’s not something I’ve noticed myself and I certainly don’t agree with them – I think you look fine…”

In this situation I’m positioning myself as being the Best Friend telling you the Bad News – while knowing it’s going to undermine your self-confidence or self-esteem. But because of the sneaky way I do it we get to continue to be friends. After all, I’ve told you this for your own good. And so I’ll get lots of more opportunities to show I’m your Best Friend while pulling the metaphorical rug from under you.

Common examples of this Meta Model pattern:

  • I’ve heard some people have been commenting on your timekeeping.
  • It seems that your under-performance was again commented upon in today’s management meeting…
  • They were saying that you certainly get a lot of mileage out of that suit… though personally I think it’s fine… really…

Where does the pattern/tactic occur?

As I’ve said I’ve noticed it a lot in offices and I’ve worked in quite a few of them. You don’t tend to get it at school, either, because young people tend to be more inclined to “own” their opinions. You often get it among friends. And, unfortunately, it frequently occurs in families.

But it does seem to be very common among work colleagues – and more usually in places where the overall morale is low. Highly motivated businesses or teams don’t tend to bother with nor have time for such pettiness.

What to do when you’re on the receiving end?

1. They’re simply unhappy people

Recognise the tactic for what it is. A mealy-mouthed comment which is intended to undermine you but, at the same time, raise the status of the person making the comment – a person who is too timid, too unconfident to take ownership or responsibility for their opinions i.e. someone to be pitied for their inadequacy.

Now, when you recognise this it does raise the question – do you really want to engage with, let alone confront, somebody of this calibre.  It may be that you do need to work alongside them but maybe it’s enough to simply be alert to their tactics – while keeping them at a distance.

2. Ask for their opinion…

Sometimes the issue is too important to be allowed to go unchallenged. This will be the case where the tactic is being used to professionally undermine you. Examples would be where your manager or team leader

  • Expresses the opinion in front of others
  • Frequently expresses such opinions “on the run” so that there is no opportunity to respond to them
  • Expresses them in an appraisal session.

In this case your response must be quite simple, quite direct and quite difficult to dodge.  Using a neutral tone of voice and in a straightforward manner, ask them if they believe the opinion they’re relating is one they support: “So, I see, this is what you’ve heard – what do you think, yourself?”

Here you are suggesting to them that they either own their opinion or shut up.

Not surprisingly you only need to use this approach a couple of times before they get the idea and look for another potential victim for their pettiness. Leaving you in peace.


  1. NLP on 11th September 2012 at 6:29 AM

    Are you trying to imply that each of us should dress appropriately by age?

  2. Reg on 11th September 2012 at 5:46 PM


    That is a truly fascinating interpretation of the article 🙂