Think about an important relationship in your life — your spouse, your boss, your mom . . . someone significant.
What are your rules for them?
Most of us have rules. We have a list of ways the other person needs to behave to do the job of spouse/boss/parent “right.”
For a boss, they might look like:
- Be on time for meetings.
- Listen to and respect my ideas. Like my ideas.
- See things the way I do, and buy-in to my priorities.
- Communicate clearly.
- Behave professionally (by my standards).
- Be available.
For a partner or spouse, they might look like:
- Ask me about my day.
- Remember our anniversary.
- Be as invested in house management as I am and do half.
- Show interest in things that are important to me.
I call these rules about how someone else should act a manual. We think of them as the outline of how to do relationships the right way.
But really, a manual is a list of behaviors, created by us, against which we judge whether another person respects, loves, or validates us.
If our boss is on time and supportive, she is doing it right, and we get to feel respected and valuable.
If our spouse remembers our anniversary and makes a dinner reservation, we get to feel loved because they have demonstrated the behavior we’ve decided is the way someone shows love.
The first danger of manuals is that they exist in only our minds, we make them up, and we rarely share them. But we still expect other people to follow every one of our rules. They are completely arbitrary and completely uncommunicated. And yet, we think they are obvious.
The second — and bigger — danger, is that they rely on other people behaving in very specific, uncommunicated ways in order for us to feel the way we want to. They make other people responsible for our emotional experience and allow for only a limited set of behaviors to demonstrate the respect or love we want them to feel toward us.
Think about the anniversary dinner example. If you expect a reservation but say nothing about it because you think it should be obvious, but are relying on that reservation to prove that your person loves you . . . recipe for disaster.
And if your boss needs to be on time in order to prove that she respects you, think about all the suffering that rule causes if she’s chronically late. It puts you in a position of wanting to control or manipulate her behavior in order to feel valued.
But the way we feel and the way other people behave are completely separate from one another.
Their behavior is the result of their thoughts and feelings, and while we might think we know that the act of being on time or making an anniversary dinner reservation would, of course, happen if someone were thinking the right things about us, that’s just not true.
Some people feel deep love and don’t care about marking time in relationships.
Some people, for reasons all their own, aren’t on time. It’s not a slight, it’s just the way they roll.
When we rely on other people’s behavior to feel loved or respected, we abdicate all responsibility for our emotional experience, give away all of our emotional agency, and erode relationships through holding others to an invisible standard.
We also make our love or respect for the other person conditional.
I allow myself to love you fully only if you choose to express your love through dinner reservations.
I will fully respect you only if you show up on time, but will also require that you fully respect me while I sit here in judgment of your lateness.
It’s funny, but it’s true.
If I decided that the way I’d know my husband loved me was through grand gestures, we’d have a major problem. Because I married someone who deliberates for three months over whether or not to buy a new pair of shoes. So planning a major anything isn’t really his style, and more than that, he hates it.
So imagine if I said to him, “I love you so much and I’m going to need you to regularly do things you hate in order to prove you love me back.” Super loving, right?
The same is true of our work relationships. By consistently choosing to make the behavior of other people mean something about us, we treat them with a lack of whatever we’re looking for — respect, compassion, understanding.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask for what you want or share your perspective. Do it. Just don’t do it with a manual in play, believing that the other person has to comply in order for you to feel a certain way.
The solution is to separate your feelings from the other person’s behavior.
You can know that you are worthy of respect, and know that your boss absolutely respects you and address timeliness.
“I’d love to request that we start our meetings on time. If you need more time to transition between meetings, I’m happy to move our start time back 10 minutes. What works for you?”
You can be certain that your partner loves you and still make a request for a dinner reservation.
“Hey, babe. This year, can you be responsible for our anniversary dinner? I’d love to just be delighted and surprised.”
When you know that you’ve already got what you need, you’re just making a request, not waiting for proof that the other person values you.
And you don’t spend time thinking that they don’t.
Think about that for a moment. What’s the upside of regularly believing that someone important in your life is regularly and intentionally withholding their love or respect?
(Bonus: when we receive a request from a person who doesn’t need anything from us to know their own worth, the request is generally a lot more compelling.)
We all have manuals. We have them for those close to us, for strangers, for everyone. And when we can recognize that we’re using them, we can start to dismantle them.
We allow the people around us to be who they are, which is ultimately what we want everyone to do for us.
We stop trying to control other people’s behavior in order to feel different.
We remove the limits we place on our lovability and respectability.
You would never make anyone else responsible for your professional impact. And yet, when we cite the obstacles between us and our goals — our direct supervisor, board, or client demands — that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re saying that those circumstances get to determine how effective we are. Sign up for a coaching consultation and let’s get you into the driver’s seat. You’ve got a world to change, after all.