(I first wrote this post for Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling, a blog for women in business. You can check it out here.)
Do you sometimes get infuriated by the way a co-worker treats you?
When this happens, we waste energy in frustration, when we could be putting it toward creating the best work we can. And people with high levels of empathy can find themselves drawn deep into relationship stress.
Relationships are the backbone of nearly everything we do. When respect isn’t there, our work will suffer. It’s easy to think we have no control over how others treat us. And it’s true that we can’t control the opinions or actions of other people.
But if we look closely, we can discover that it is possible to train people how to relate to us. I encourage you to switch perspectives, from one of relative powerlessness and frustration to one of curiosity and responsibility, so that you can begin to craft relationships you enjoy.
Consider what it might be like to (quite literally) teach the people around you how you’d like to be treated. After you recover from feeling shocked and appalled by poor treatment, try to return to the notion that people are doing their best, and that more information would help them do better. Then, offer them that information.
Here are five behaviors you can practice to train people in what to expect from you, and what you expect from them:
1. Speak directly about what is okay and not okay with you.
This is often harder than it sounds for those of us who shy away from conflict, but it gets easier with practice.
When someone crosses our boundaries, our first reaction can be shock. We might have a strong emotional reaction to being hurt, threatened, or offended. In that reaction, we quickly turn to judgment of the other person, and feel justified.
That’s where drama comes in. Interacting from this place may take you into blame, which will escalate drama rather than repel it. So make sure to do your part: recover emotionally first, then take action to correct the situation.
When you make a clean decision to create the kind of relationships you want (without the sting of accusation or judgment), you can directly state what is okay with you and what’s not. Think of it as helping the person to gain understanding, and laying the groundwork for productive interactions in the future.
For example, if a coworker takes credit for your work, under what circumstances is that okay with you and in which situations is it not okay? Make your preferences known. “I want you and our team to look good, especially when there’s a lot to brag about. But it’s not okay with me that you didn’t credit me. I’m an important part of this team, and I ask that you recognize my contributions.”
If the situation is truly offensive, or unacceptable, take charge. Let the person know you’re initiating an important conversation. Mutually create an explicit agreement for moving forward, one that meets both of your needs in a reasonable way. You are in charge of communicating your boundaries; by all means take lead.
2. Painstakingly observe how you treat yourself.
Are you the kind of person who accepts so much extra responsibility with a smile on your face that you work through your vacations? Oh I’ve been there!
If this sounds like you, you may be inadvertently teaching people that you don’t say no. People will understand your boundaries by noticing where you set them. They will learn from you what your relationship to time is. Your actions may tell them you love to work, and you don’t mind skipping vacation, even when that’s not the case!
When we’re sensitive to the emotions of others, and the people in our life don’t share that same sensitivity, it can be easy to stay quiet. Too easy. But when we stay quiet, we actively participate in putting other’s needs above our own. Over time, this causes burn-out… and bitterness.
Take care of how you treat yourself. Practice self-awareness, by stopping to look honestly at your decisions, every time you feel frustrated, unhappy, overextended, powerless, etc. “Am I being courageous, open and honest about how I feel with xxx?” “How well am I valuing self-care and self-respect right now? Where could I be respecting my own needs more?”
Try keeping a journal for a week. Every evening, reflect on how you wish you were treated by others. Then brainstorm all the ways you treat yourself this way, and all the ways you don’t. Are you giving yourself just as much acknowledgment, love, acceptance or pep talks as you wish someone else would? Because I definitely want you taking that opportunity! It’s yours!
It may sound like wishful thinking, but treating yourself the way you wish others would treat you is revolutionary. When you realize how much control you have in creating your own happiness and wellbeing, your life will change.
The point is, people respect people with self-respect. The more you own your power, the more people will respect it.
3. When you want something, say it out loud.
I hear this all the time, from my girlfriends (and I’ve heard myself say it too): “He should know without my having to spell it out.”
Well, he may not. Sometimes, we do have to spell it out. And the clearer we make it, the more chances of success we give others. That’s a win-win.
This is a good rule of thumb for all relationships, not just your intimate ones. If you’re going to take the lead, take lead. It’s okay to want things. Susan B. Anthony didn’t say “What do you think of the idea of women being able to vote?” That’s because she wasn’t wondering what the establishment thought. She wanted the right to vote!
Be transparent. People don’t know what you want until you tell them. And when you do tell them, it may make it easier for them to work with you. Clear expectations create safety. People who aren’t afraid to speak directly and transparently (even when they feel vulnerable) earn trust.
Sometimes, what you want isn’t simple, or guaranteed. But you still want it. So say that you want it. Then follow that statement with a question showing your willingness to co-create it:
“I want to be enter x role by the year xxxx. How can I make that happen?”
“I want to take on more of this kind of work. What possibilities do you see for me?”
“I want to share my ideas with you about where we’re headed. Would you be willing to meet over lunch?”
Choose your language consciously. Don’t say one thing and mean another, because you think it’s more polite. In fact it’s confusing, and it creates work for people.
By all means, advocate for yourself. You matter.
4. Call out the elephant in the room.
Picture this: half your team just got fired, and now you’re in a team meeting. What’s the space like? It’s filled with fear. No one is talking about what everyone is thinking.
That’s an elephant in the room, and you need to speak to it, right away. You don’t even need a plan how to handle it. But you do need to get the conversation started. Acknowledgment itself, when done for the sake of everyone, will make people feel seen and respected.
When something happens that changes the mood, scares people, or is so awkward everyone’s holding their breath, it will bleed into their interactions. You don’t want unspoken thoughts, feelings, gossip, anger, or fear going underground, especially when you’re the leader. That energy gets destructive fast. Call it out right away, and direct it somewhere meaningful.
Naming the thing everyone is avoiding takes courage, and it shows commitment and responsibility. If you do it for the sake of shifting to a more positive focus, you’ll be doing everyone a favor.
When people know you’re looking out for them, and you’re willing to brave a little awkwardness or suffering for the sake of the group’s success, they’ll learn what you’re made of.
5. Always, always, take responsibility for what is yours.
It’s natural to want to hide your flaws, or run for the hills when you’ve messed up big. Who doesn’t have that reaction at first? But those failures are not only your biggest opportunities to learn, they’re also your chance to prove your trustworthiness and integrity.
The more you decide to learn in front of others, the more you will reveal about your character. It takes courage and sturdy self-esteem. This means: owning your mistake, acknowledging your disappointment or failure, forgiving yourself and others, recovering focus, discovering how to correct what’s wrong, sharing what you’ve learned, and making a new commitment based on your insights.
You will feel vulnerable, for sure. But that vulnerability doesn’t indicate a problem. It’s a sign of courage and growth, and the learning you do- not to mention the commitment you model- will benefit everyone.
Always clean up your messes, but at the same time, if that mess is with someone who is committed to keeping a negative opinion about you despite your best efforts to make peace, let them have their opinion. It reflects their decision, and it has nothing to do with you. Take responsibility for your own wellbeing and do what you need to let it go.
Consider that while it may be uncomfortable, showing courage in the workplace also shows respect. Your actions alone, because they give others permission to get real, may shift the tone of your work environment into more transparency and trust.
In short, respect creates respect. It raises the bar for all.
I help people who are stuck in the wrong job find their true purpose and make a life from it, so they can finally enjoy satisfaction and success. I believe every outlier has a purpose, and it's not to fit in- it's to elevate the status quo. I discuss things like: the truth about how change really happens, common traps we create for ourselves (and how to eliminate them), how to own your emotions and leverage them as a leadership tools, and stories of regular people leading from their hearts and experiencing success.
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