15th February 2020


awkward hug

Why treating others as you wish to be treated may be bad advice

I’m pretty relaxed about birthdays. I look forward to my own, of course, and I love the light-bulb moment when you think of the perfect present for that impossible-to-buy-for friend or family member. But getting a present or card on the actual birthDAY itself has never felt particularly significant to me.

That changed a couple of years ago when I was co-facilitating a workshop with a large group of NHS professionals. The core theme of the workshop was personal values; how different people (whether colleagues, patients or relatives etc.) have different values and the more we’re aware of, accept and appreciate those differences, the better we can understand each other and feel understood.

Early on in the workshop, we ask people how they like to be treated. Often, this is where at least one person in the group refers to the well-known and well-used phrase;

“Treat others as YOU would wish to be treated.”

It’s a common saying and the positive intent is to stop us behaving in a way that deliberately upsets someone else. But what happens if the way WE want to be treated is different from how someone else wants to be treated?

That day, Jenny, my co-facilitator, illustrated her point with this example;

“My birthday is the same date every year. But cards from certain people always arrive a few days after my actual birthday. It makes me feel like I don’t matter to those friends. If they can’t send a simple card to arrive on or before my birthday, it makes me question the strength of our friendship.”

I had one of those “clunk” moments. (You know, the kind where you can picture the cartoon sledgehammer knocking a realisation in to your head.) Because I did not mind receiving cards a few days after my birthday, I had presumed others would feel the same way.

I had enough self-awareness to recognise that my “relaxed” attitude to special dates might be perceived as “disorganised”, “inefficient” or even “slap-dash” but the thought that it could make someone question our friendship was a shock.

In the workshop, we then go on to modify the phrase to help people take on a new perspective;

“Treat others as THEY would wish to be treated.”

I had been delivering this content for several years and thought I understood and applied the principle fairly consistently. I was wrong. I’m now careful to note birthdays on my calendar and, more importantly, to write and post birthday cards in advance. (And if I am late with yours, please know it’s not because I don’t care!!!)

So what?

Imagine it’s Monday morning and you approach one of your colleagues, who you don’t know very well, to discuss a work issue. Do you;

– Ask how they are and whether they had a good weekend, have a bit of a chat about it and then move on to the work issue….or

– Get straight to the point because you’re at work and the other stuff is private and/or not relevant

Lots of people select the first option. This approach is generally judged to be more “socially acceptable”. To some it’s friendly and caring and builds relationships and trust. However, this same behaviour can also feel intrusive, manipulative and time wasting.

The second option can be seen as straight talking, efficient, effective, professional. It can also feel rude, uncaring and unprofessional.

So which is right?

There is no single right, wrong, better or worse answer in this scenario. What’s important is to consider HOW we decide which approach to take and whether we’re aware of the impact we’re having. Generally, our behaviour is based on how WE would like someone else to behave with us. This means we’ll be spot on with some people and, potentially, way off the mark with others.

If you want to build rapport with someone, improve the productivity of your team or inject more creativity in the workplace, consider what would work for you then what it might mean for those around you. Or better still, ask them!

And always, ALWAYS make sure your birthday cards arrive in good time.