WE UNWITTINGLY TEACH PEOPLE HOW TO TREAT US: So Start Using This to Your Advantage Rather than to Your Detriment

How you see yourself determines your behavior and, reflexively, your behavior determines how you see yourself (and thus, how others come to see you); it’s a feedback loop.

So, if you see yourself as highly competent, you’re going to behave in situations with self-certainty and ease. You’ll be more likely to manage a job interview well because even if you’re asked something that you don’t fully know, you’ll be comfortable describing what you do know, or that you’d like to think it over a bit more, or you might begin to ask the interviewer how she arrived at the answer; that is, you’d be comfortable that not knowing the solution means nothing negative about you, and your natural curiosity might simply make you interested in the problem itself. In this way, you’ve taught the interviewer that you welcome the challenge (and, intuitively, that you’re strong enough to be challenged). And then others’ perceptions of you accrue from there. For people who don’t see themselves that way, I’d coach them to behave more competently  – which is something that can be taught and learned, and then enacted.

Thus, for a recent round of interviews and on-the-job assessments, I coached Mark in doing the very things the ‘able’ person does, even if he doesn’t fully believe it yet. Mark is brilliant in investment banking. In that field, perhaps more than in most, how one proffers what one knows is tantamount to being that. But Mark sits back, doing the work proficiently but never promoting his ideas. Although he behaves as if he’s above all that, he admits that his foreign accent, his short stature and his non-competitive stance make him doubt himself. And then he behaves in a self-doubting and retiring way. Learning to assert more volubly, to participate actively in meetings and to promote his ideas finally got him the highly coveted job he was seeking.

In these ways, you’re constantly (and unwittingly) teaching people how to treat you. So it’s critical to assess what it is that you’re actually teaching others.

The Mechanisms Involved

A piece of this mechanism concerns the expectations we have of the ways others will see/treat us, and then we actually carry it out – making it a self-fulfilling prophecy; your parents saw you as lazy and then you come to act out that laziness… and concomitantly, your teachers and others come to see  you that way.

So if Bobby believes that women won’t want to be sexual with him or will be withholding of sex/affection – as occurred in his marriage – then all the new dating he’s doing is likely going to reap the same outcomes. And it’s not uncanny or mysterious at all: When he’s with a new woman, he awaits her cue of when to become amorous. He’s surprised that this ‘cue’ doesn’t come*, and then becomes frustrated (and angrily ‘needy’), upset with the woman for seeming inaccessible. (Part of what he needs to learn and try out is not seeking cues but rather acting on some of his own predilections; if he likes her, do put his arm on her back as they cross the street, do possibly lean in to kiss her lightly as she’s talking in an engaging way, letting her know as you do it that she just seemed so utterly charming at the moment). It’s about taking a risk at the moment; and it’s essential. What he doesn’t understand is that the woman is coming from a different perspective; she may be awaiting his cues; she may be concerned that he’s not attracted, or that he’s too shy, or, conversely, that he doesn’t feel sure enough of himself to ‘try’ something with her. And then she consequently backs off in response.

It’s an intricate dance that’s going on, and if it’s not grasped more firmly, the outcomes veer toward non-sexual responding.


In another interpersonal example, Melanie thinks she ‘has to get sexual quickly with a guy because that’s all they want of me’. And then she fails to see the feedback loop that she herself creates as a result.  The scenario goes something like this: a guy who’s watched her work – she’s a powerful management consultant who communicates a strong sense of self – becomes attracted to her and wants to spend time with her. Although she’s decisively assertive in her work role, the moment she moves into dating mode she becomes submissive and reticent about setting an ‘agenda’ of any kind; in her mind, it’s now the man who calls the shots. She’d like the man to be interested in some of their business projects, but instead of talking about it – which they could well do because he interacts with her in that venue – she unwittingly begins looking for cues of what he wants from her. Fascinatingly, she doesn’t see the cues accurately but jumps immediately to sexualizing the conversation; her fear is that if she changes topic or re-routes the discussion he’ll quickly lose interest. So she gives him what she ‘believes’ he wants – but in the process, teaching him how to treat her, i.e., “sure, go ahead and just be sexual with me; that’s all I expect (and it’s all I think I’m good for anyway)”.

Sadly for Melanie, she’s come to assume relationships can never be ‘fair’ and that men will always run them – and yet she’s been the true ‘mastermind’ of this whole interaction from the beginning. In fact, it may not surprise you that when she later went to ask Jeff – the man in this interaction – he told her that he’d been caught off-guard when she sexualized it so soon – and that it’s not where he’d have gone that quickly.

Coaching these particular individuals on how to alter the course of things has been relatively easy – by learning that one has far more control over the interaction (in a good way) than previously thought possible. That the outcomes of their interactions had been more a result of the agendas they’d unwittingly set was a game-changing event for them.

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