We often hear the advice that it’s important to teach people how to treat us. But what does this really mean? What does it actually look like?
According to marriage and family therapist Michael Morgan, teaching people how to treat us is a process that involves teaching them “what is acceptable and unacceptable. It is knowing what we need and want and being able to communicate it effectively to others.”
This isn’t the same thing as always being right, said Josephine Wiseheart, MS, a psychotherapist at Oliver-Pyatt Centers, and in private practice in Miami, Fla. “Someone disagreeing with us is not the same as being demeaned, diminished or devalued.”
So how can you teach others to treat you well? Below, Morgan and Wiseheart shared their specific tips.
Start with yourself.
“[T]o teach people how to treat you, you do not begin with them, you begin with yourself,” said Wiseheart. Morgan agreed: “The way you believe about and treat yourself sets the standard for others on how you demand to be treated. People learn how to treat you based on what you accept from them.”
Wiseheart regularly tells her clients to “Be the pebble.” In other words, “to create even a seemingly small amount of change will ripple out and create more change.”
Teaching others how to treat us starts with self-awareness, Wiseheart said. She suggested asking yourself these questions: “How do I treat myself? What do I value? What do I want? What do I think I deserve?”
Remember that you can’t change anyone else. But we can “create a different reaction in others if we change ourselves,” she said.
Talk about your “rules of engagement.”
One of the biggest misconceptions Wiseheart’s clients have about relationships is that others should know how they want to be treated. However, “in order for people in a relationship to be on the same page, they need to have access to the same instruction manual,” she said.
She calls this manual the “Rules of Engagement.” She suggests having “business meetings” to discuss the “rules” of your relationship. Have these meetings when people are at their best: They aren’t in an emotionally heightened or vulnerable situation, she said.
Rules might include no name calling or yelling during a conversation, and taking a break when tempers flare.
Communicate your needs clearly and compassionately.
For instance, many couples criticize, yell, or give each other the silent treatment to communicate their needs, said Morgan, who practices at Wasatch Family Therapy. This not only is ineffective, but it also hurts your relationship.
“Rather than scream ‘you never listen to me,’ it is more helpful to express ‘I feel alone right now and I would be very grateful if I could have your undivided attention for 10 minutes,’” he said. Another example is: “I am feeling overwhelmed right now and would love it if I could get a few ideas from you.”
In other words, we teach people how to treat us when we can identify a need and then express it in a clear and comprehensible way, Morgan said.
“If we use pouting, desperation, or even abuse, people do not learn how we want to be treated. All they hear is pouting, desperation and screaming. The message does not get across.”
Model how you’d like to be treated.
Wiseheart also often tells clients to “Be the person you want other people to be.” That is, treat others the way you want them to treat you, which is reminiscent of the Golden Rule, she said.
“If you want your children to be kind to you, be kind to them; if you want your sweetheart to be romantic and affectionate with you, be that way with them.” If you want others to listen to you, listen to them. Focus your full attention on the person, maintain eye contact, ask questions, validate their feelings and be empathetic, Wiseheart said.
Reinforce behaviors you like.
Reinforcement simply means expressing appreciation when the other person makes the effort to change their behavior, Wiseheart said. For instance, you might say: “I appreciate that you listened to me so intently yesterday.”
“Reinforce [behaviors you like] at the time, 5 minutes later, 10 minutes later, an hour later, a day later, 10 days later. You cannot reinforce a positive behavior enough.”
Pick a role model to emulate.
“Find a role model of someone who demands respect and appears to have a strong sense of worth,” Morgan said. This person might be a parent, peer, friend, teacher, coach, therapist, mentor or even a well-known celebrity, he said. “The important component of a role model is that they are emulating the desired beliefs and behaviors that you would like to adopt or integrate.”
Have realistic expectations.
According to Wiseheart, “You don’t teach people how to treat you in a day, or a week, or a month; it probably takes many months at a minimum to really get someone to treat you the way that you want to be treated.” This process takes lots of practice and patience. And sometimes, people are too caught up in being rigid and defending their own reality to try to act differently, she said.
When you start clarifying what you will and won’t tolerate there’s also a risk that some people won’t stick around, Wiseheart said. “At that point, you need to ask yourself what’s in your best interest — a relationship at the cost of you, or making room for the future relationships that you deserve?”