As a single parent raising three boys, I often felt outnumbered, outsmarted and outrun. I had two rules I didn't bend on, though. Don't go in my purse, and don't talk to me through the bathroom door. The bathroom was my sanctuary where they couldn't get me. And still today as young men, they'll hand me my purse, but they won't open it.
We're constantly training people how to treat us through our response to what they do. If we show them that a certain word or look will get a consistent reaction from us, we're teaching them to use that word or look whenever they want that reaction from us.
In other words, we're telling people where our buttons are, how they're activated, and what our auto-response will be. And when we've shown people where our buttons are and how to use them, it's really not appropriate to blame them for pressing: "Push here."
So if we want people to act differently toward us, it doesn't begin with training them. It begins with retraining ourselves.
Each January, my husband and I make a list of five things that we'd like the other to do differently in the coming year. One item shows up regularly on my list: "Close the bathroom door." I had this need long before feng shui made it popular.
Ron is always pleased to see something so "small" on my list, and he's certain that he can master it for me. A problem arises because he wants the door open in the winter to let the heat out and open in the summer to let the breeze through. Good points, but no deal. It's an item on my list, and we've agreed to do these things for each other.
It's tempting to manipulate him, to train his behavior through force. But that never works. Instead, I have to train my behavior.
I have to do what will get me what I want -- by being what I want.
Nagging or blaming Ron will keep me locked in a knee-jerk frustrated response. And if I keep focusing on the problem, I'll get more of the problem.
The part of Ron I'm vibing with will be the part of Ron that responds to me. So I want to vibe with the part of him that cares about what I want and is in agreement with me. So if I ever find the bathroom door open, I close it -- and I remember that he usually remembers.
Step one in getting what we want is to stop protesting. When we want to let people know that their behavior is unacceptable to us, it won't work to rant and rave: "I won't put up with this! You can't treat me like this anymore!"
Step two is to decide to not be triggered anymore. That means refusing to be available for treatment we don't like. People will get the message, and they'll stop doing it -- because people don't do what doesn't work.
Refusing to be available doesn't necessarily mean walking away from people or situations. It means not providing the response that people are seeking. A predictable response teaches people to treat us in a predictable way. A new response trains new action in us as well as in the other people.
Step three is to consistently acknowledge and reward the treatment we want. Then people will learn how we want and expect to be treated.
Ron is from the Netherlands. And when his daughter was nine, she and I flew from Amsterdam to America. The moment she buckled her seatbelt on the plane, she switched from Dutch to English, even though she didn't know much English yet. And during her month-long stay in the US, she never went back to Dutch.
So she trained everyone around her to teach her English, including her dad who had never spoken English with her. She basically commanded the situation and got what she wanted from it.
We're training others, all the time. The people in our lives who treat us badly are doing it because we've given them permission. And those who treat us well are doing it because we taught them how.
The key is to do it on purpose. We get what we want by being an example of it -- by creating the internal change that we want to see externally.
This post was originally featured on The Good Men Project.