When you ask most people about what they think would improve their relationships at work or at home, the majority of people will answer either “Communication” (in both places) or “Love” in personal relationships.
Many studies and articles (such as this one from Psychology Today) are indicating that neither of those is what’s most important in improving a relationship.
What those reports more frequently say is that “Respect” is the most important element in improving a relationship.
If you disagree with that, ask yourself the converse, namely: “What is more upsetting to you, when someone fails to demonstrate love, gratitude, support, recognition or appreciation or when they treat you with disrespect or disdain?”
Okay, you get my point?
Why is it that expressing or even failing to demonstrate all of the above — love, gratitude, support, recognition, appreciation — is not as damaging as others failing to show you respect and even worse, their being disrespectful to you?
Perhaps the simplest way to understand this is to consider the two words, “stress” and “distress.”
Stress occurs when you are going about your usual activities, moving forward towards a goal, and then you hit an obstacle or perhaps the goal you were heading towards is changed. When that occurs, you need to stop what you’re doing, re-evaluate the situation, pivot and change direction. But you can keep moving forward.
If you use the analogy of the Waze, the world’s largest traffic and navigation app, you know every day how you have to adjust your route because of obstacles, traffic snags, etc. That may cause you stress, but you nevertheless keep moving forward towards the same goal or if traffic is truly impossible, just turn around, send your regrets and spend an evening at home.
Or consider a domestic situation where as a parent, you’re told that your child was caught cheating on a test and you have to go in to meet with his/her teacher and principal, plus figure out a way to punish/discipline your child so they don’t do it again.
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However, when stress becomes suddenly so overwhelming that you can’t move forward or you become trapped and can’t move in any direction, you become distressed. When that happens, your focus shifts from some external goal to eliminating the distress.
Back to the Waze example, if not making it to a critical event that your boss is relying and counting on you to be at is going to tick him/her off, that’s likely to cause you distress and your focus becomes how to keep your boss from firing you.
What’s my point? And how do these examples relate to respect and being treated disrespectfully?
Failing to demonstrate all of the behaviors in the diagram above can be stressful, but as we said, you can still get through them, even if it’s more difficult.
However, when someone treats you disrespectfully or as we mentioned, disdainfully and/or humiliates you, that immediately triggers distress and pushes you quickly into a “flight or fight” or “freeze” (and then retaliate later) response.
The reason for that “fight/flight or freeze” response is because when people act disrespectfully towards you — when you’re hoping for positive responses — it feels like a hostile attack. Furthermore, when that happens, it not only triggers you in the moment, it reactivates such treatment from past abusive events when you were possibly powerless and helpless to defend yourself against. When that happens, it further adds to your distress in the moment, because you promised yourself in the past that you would not put up with it in the future. And it’s now happened again.
All of this causes you to “see red” rather than to see your options.
What can you do when people treat you disrespectfully and what can you do to cause people to treat you more respectfully?
Legendary football player and coach Mike Ditka said, “In life, you get what you tolerate.” Therefore, the more disrespect you tolerate, the more people will continue to treat you that way.
Here’s how to turn it all around:
- Identify ahead of time all the people you know who are prone to treating you disrespectfully.
- When interacting with them, never expect them to treat you respectfully (when they do, consider it gravy). That way you won’t be caught off guard.
- Hold a part of yourself back so that when they do treat you disrespectfully, they don’t push you off balance and trigger a reaction in you.
- When they say or do that disrespectful behavior, allow them to finish, pause for a couple seconds and respond in a calm tone with either: “Want to run that by me again?”, “Can you please say that again to me in a normal tone, because I found myself reacting instead of thinking when you just used the tone you used.” or “Huh?” Simply saying that demonstrates to them that their disrespectful behavior, which is often used to anger you, so they can manipulate you, didn’t work.
- Request and even demand respect after they have caused you to do something for them by saying to them, “Going forward, I’m fine/okay/happy with doing that for you, however, what I expect from you in return is to speak to me in a civil, respectful and even grateful tone. If you’re not able to do that, I’m not going to be willing to do what you requested.”
Perhaps the best reason for not tolerating disrespect in the future is not only how you can feel comfortable and non-avoidant of people who do it to you, but how much self-respect it causes you to feel towards yourself.
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Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.
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