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How To Teach People How To Treat You

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If you’re old enough to read and write, you’ve been on the receiving end of less-than-desired treatment.

You’ve been deceived or lied to.

You’ve been stood up.

You’ve been given promises that were never honored.

This has happened to all of us.

Some kinds of treatment are a single event. A company that promised to phone you regarding an interview never did. It’s over and they will never have the chance to do it again. You’re moving on.

Other kinds of treatment are recurring. They happen to us on a regular basis. Oftentimes the treatment comes from the same people. Over and over again.

When people treat us these ways, what can we do about it?

Well, first let us quickly discuss…

How Not To Respond When We Are Treated Poorly

There are various approaches we can take to repeated ill-treatment that don’t work.

Here are some of them.

  • We can dish out to others what they’ve dished out to us.
  • We can attempt to make them pay for what they’ve done.
  • We can take measures so they feel the pain of their mistreatment of us.
  • We can try to “one-up” them.
  • We can use passive aggression.

So why would we do this?

Mostly because we think such reciprocal behavior will teach them a lesson.

Perhaps we believe it will potentially reverse their behavior in the future. That it will end the ill-treatment once and for all.

It rarely does.

In fact, it doesn’t correct the problem at all. It may even make it worse.

People generally don’t respond well to retaliation. Or being “taught a lesson.” Or being scolded for their behavior.

They are more likely to be bitter or resentful of what you’ve done.

They will probably think less of you. And their behavior will be lost on them because they will be focused more on your behavior.

This is counterproductive. It’s unkind. It’s cruel. And it doesn’t work very well.

There must be a better way.

There is.

The better way is to graciously teach them what you prefer. Or what you don’t prefer.

Not scolding them, not berating them, not humiliating or criticizing them.

But simply teaching them a better way.

Why Does This Work?

We teach people how to treat us by the way we respond to the way they treat us.

Our response either reinforces their behavior and increases the likelihood it will be repeated…

…or our response decreases the likelihood of repetition.

When it comes to people, what gets rewarded is what gets done. And what gets reinforced tends to be repeated.

Yes, I know this sounds a bit shallow and superficial. But it’s just the way humans are wired.

But it makes perfect sense.

Why would anyone repeat a behavior that offers no benefits or rewards?

Why would anyone continue to do something that doesn’t provide any tangible results?

The short answer is they won’t. Unless they haven’t figured it out yet.

Though it should be pointed out that not everyone figures it out. And though it’s pretty much at cliche status, it remains true that a sign of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

People Tend To Learn From What They Observe

Notwithstanding some exceptions, most people learn from what they observe.

They’re especially keen to learn how people treat them and what it means for the future.

This is why the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said,

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.

He understood the principle that how others treat us tends to impact how we treat them, and how we relate to them.

People who understand this make the connection between actions and results.

They see the connection between what gets reinforced and what gets repeated. Between what gets rewarded and what continues to occur.

So if we want people to treat us a certain way, we need to be sure we reward them for the behavior we desire, and not reward them for the behavior we want to stop.

The Process Can Take A While

This process is not usually quick.

And the longer the pattern has been present, the longer it will take to undo it.

Think of it in terms of a path vs. a trench. When you’re walking on a path, it’s easy to change course.

But when you’re walking in a trench, you must first get out of the trench. This requires more work and more time.

It’s the same with behavioral change. The more deeply the behavior is entrenched, the more difficult it will be to change.

So you’ll want to realize this and accept this as you begin the process.

How We Teach Graciously And Effectively

So we’ve seen why the suggested teaching method works. We’ve seen why it’s best not to treat people the way they treat you.

Unless you want the treatment to continue. Or get worse.

But how do we actually do this?

How do we effectively teach someone how to treat us?

Let’s take a look.

The first and most important thing to remember is that we’re not talking about a formal teaching process.

No lectures here. No syllabus or handouts. The teaching is more subtle.

The essence of the teaching is that it’s indirect. More covert than overt. More through example than through instruction. More through actions than words.

The great doctor and philosopher Albert Schweitzer said,

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.

Schweitzer understood that talk is cheap. That lectures are not appreciated. That our actions speak much louder than our words.

It’s been said that values are more caught than taught. We are far more likely to emulate someone’s good example than we are to adopt their ways through formal instruction.

Poet Edgar Guest said,

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.

So if retaliation is not the answer. If rewarding the behavior merely reinforces it. If lecturing is not the way.

Then how do we teach those whose behavior needs changing?

Here are 5 steps we can take.

1. We Teach By Our Own Example

This has already been stated in different ways. But it’s the foundation of effective teaching.

We are most likely to have success when we model the behavior we desire.

If your friend tends to be late, make sure you’re on time.

If your friend forgets their commitments to you, be sure to remember your commitments to them.

If your friend gossips about other people, don’t offer them an eager ear or repeat what they share.

If your friend is self-aware, the contrast between you and them should eventually become apparent.

It could open the door for candid dialogue. They will be more apt to explore the possibility of their own change if you haven’t berated them in the interval.

This is not manipulation on your part. You aren’t forcing them to change. You aren’t demanding they change. You aren’t “tricking” them into change.

You aren’t using devious or insidious tactics to force them into doing what they’d prefer not to do.

You’re simply living out a better model for them.

No hype. No pressure. No intimidation. Just a better way. A way that is better for both of you.

2. We Teach Through Our Own Consistency

A second way to teach them is through your own consistency.

If your friend speaks harshly to you, you should speak kindly to them. Consistently.

If your friend chronically shows up late, you should show up on time. Consistently.

If your friend doesn’t return your phone calls promptly, you should return their phone calls promptly. Consistently.

Again, your example should carry weight. Your example should influence them in the right direction.

There are no guarantees that it will. But it’s far better than the alternatives.

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3. We Teach Through Our Reinforcement

I mentioned earlier that what gets rewarded is what gets done. And it works both ways.

Whether it’s desirable behavior or undesirable behavior, the behavior that’s reinforced is the behavior that’s likely to continue.

So be diligent in reinforcing the behavior you want, not the behavior you don’t.

You don’t need to make a speech. Just withhold the reward. Don’t reinforce the behavior you want to stop.

You don’t need to express your anger or disappointment. And be careful that you don’t say everything is okay just so you don’t look petty.

When they apologize for being late (which is a great start)… accept their apology and forgive them. You can acknowledge the inappropriate behavior without commending it.

But let it be known this is not the behavior you prefer. Without making a federal case out of it.

4. We Teach Through Our Insightful Questions

The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, managed to teach innumerable impressionable students through a series of questions.

This form of teaching now carries his name, as it’s known as the “Socratic” method.

The idea is to raise systematic doubt and questions that would inevitably lead to the discovery of the truth. Truth more discovered than delivered.

You can ask your friend if they’ve explored the reason why they’re chronically late. Is there a consistent pattern that sabotages their efforts? Is there something you can do to help them?

This approach is less intimidating to most people. It seems directed more toward a solution than to an opportunity to accuse and complain.

Try it and see how well it can work.

5. We Teach By Establishing Clear And Reasonable Boundaries

Whenever we’re mistreated, it’s nearly always a case of violation of our boundaries.

The other person has encroached on ground that is not rightfully theirs to enter.

It can take many forms.

They might encroach upon your time. Taking away time you value without regard to your loss.

They might share things with others that are rightfully kept just between the two of you.

They might treat you with disrespect and not with appropriate honor and consideration.

They might speak to you in a way that’s demeaning, unkind, and insulting.

The list could go on.

Healthy relationships establish clear and appropriate boundaries. Boundaries that ensure mutual respect, accountability, and honor.

Boundaries enable relationships to flourish. Boundaries are not meant to restrict but to set free.

Much as tracks allow a train to function as intended. Much as stoplights and road signs enable smoother traffic flow. Much as rows and seats make for a more pleasant theatre experience. And locked doors keep us safer in our homes.

You’ll want to establish clear and reasonable boundaries in your relationships. They will benefit everyone.

Why Does This Approach Work Better Than Others?

So, now that you know how to teach people how you wish to be treated, let’s explore why this approach is the best approach to take.

You don’t reinforce what you don’t want to continue.

The best way to stop a behavioral pattern is by removing the reinforcement for the behavior.

Young children learn that they can get their way by throwing a temper tantrum. The parent wants the behavior to stop, so they promise the child a treat if they stop.

So the child stops. No surprise there. And the treat reward is given.

Which merely teaches the child that temper tantrums are excellent means of getting a treat.

Or whatever else they might want.

The goal is to not reinforce this undesired behavior. So rather than rewarding the child for the tantrum, we remain calm, firm, and resolute in our convictions.

They will soon learn that temper tantrums are terrible strategies for getting a reward.

And they will abandon their use. Even a child can understand this.

The beauty of the suggested approach is that change is generated from within the person who needs to change.

It’s not dictated to them or forced upon them from the outside. So it’s more likely to be genuine and it’s more likely to continue.

It’s kinder and gentler.

Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of a lecture. Or a scolding. Or to be punished for their behavior.

But most people will respond favorably to gentle teaching through example, encouragement, and kind words.

Even if the person chooses to ignore your efforts and continue the undesired behavior, you will have nothing to apologize for or feel sad about.

It’s more instructive.

People are often guilty of inappropriate or unacceptable behavior without knowing it. No doubt their behavior has been reinforced for a long time.

The alternative approach is more instructive in that it removes much of the confusion and mystery when it comes to the behavior.

When we withhold reinforcement for behavior we don’t want. When we set an example of the behavior we do want.

When we offer plenty of reinforcement for behavior we desire, we teach in a clear and unambiguous way.

Before we can change, we need to know clearly what change is called for.

If not, we are apt to change what should stay the same, leave unchanged what should be changed, or remain ignorant about both.

Clarity is crucial when a change is desired. The preferred method offers more clarity, and therefore better ensures a resulting change.

It’s thoughtful and not reactionary.

When we feel that someone has overreacted to our behavior, we immediately take up a defensive posture.

No matter what we said or did, we feel justified if the person responds in a way we believe is inappropriate.

Our behavior at that point is not an issue for us… their behavior is.

Others feel the same way when we overreact to their behavior.

A lecture or scolding at this point will be almost surely be disregarded. It will seem invalid to them. 

The overreaction doesn’t diminish the legitimacy of your concern. But a gentler approach will more likely be better received.

It will come across as thoughtful and caring rather than self-serving and abrupt.

The person will be far more likely to listen to your concerns, and more likely to consider changing their behavior as a result.

If someone is not willing to listen to us, they can hardly be expected to hear us. Certainly not heed us.

And any so-called teaching at that point will be pointless, ineffective, and resented. 


So what have we seen in this brief exploration?

  • Lecturing, scolding, berating, and mimicking are ineffective ways of bringing about a change in undesired behavior in others.
  • People tend to repeat what gets rewarded. When we reward undesired behavior, we can expect it to continue.
  • People tend not to listen to correction when it comes as a perceived overreaction.
  • Effective teaching comes through personal example, reinforcement, consistency, and thoughtful questions.
  • Gracious teaching doesn’t reinforce what you want to be discontinued.
  • Gracious teaching is a kinder and gentler approach.
  • Gracious teaching is clearer and less ambiguous.
  • Gracious teaching is more thoughtful and less reactionary.


So why not give the suggested approach a try? No doubt you’ve tried the other methods with little to show for it. I’ve certainly tried them plenty of times myself.

And keep in mind that for some people, no amount of good example, gentle teaching, consistent application, or clarity will bring about the change you desire.

Some people will remain resistant to change no matter what you do, say, or try.

But don’t abandon the approach because particular individuals don’t respond well.

The problem lies with them and not with the method.

At that point you’ll need to decide how to proceed. Whether you can live with the behavior and learn to tolerate it.

Or whether the best solution is to say farewell to the relationship.

You will need to decide whether the behavior can continue or whether is must be stopped.

Finally, realize that behavioral change is rarely easy or quick.

Not for you, not for me, and not for anyone else. So be patient with your friend, partner, family member, or co-worker.

Be patient in all your relationships.

Patience is often rewarded with an improved relationship that’s better for everyone.

But it may take some time.

It’s usually worth the wait.

About The Author

I was born and raised in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. My dream as a child was to play professional baseball. I made it as far as a baseball scholarship to a Division 1 college. I’m a teacher at heart, and love to teach anything and anybody who wants to learn. I started out as a public school teacher. But within a few years, felt called to the ministry, where I spent 32 years as a pastor. I love the outdoors. I love to read. I love people. I love to learn. I try to take a long walk every day year-round. I’ve done that for more than 40 years. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. It also clears the cobwebs from my head and the nonsense that tries to take root there. My blog is Quotation Celebration, where I discuss the meaning and lessons contained within great quotes.