One of the most powerful advantages of solution-focused therapy is its ability to give the client control of his or her therapy. A client learns to see himself through his strengths, and not weaknesses; he learns to apply useful tools he already uses in an area he might never thought he would need them.
I teach my clients that this same control we have over our own solutions also applies to our relationships with others. Over the course of therapy we see ourselves transforming into people of skills and strengths because we have been focusing on how we treat ourselves. It is also true that our family, friends, and coworkers learn how to treat us by what we teach them.
That is, our new golden rule in relationships can be: we teach others how to treat us.
We are always communicating with others, even when we are not saying something directly. When we politely request a special order from a menu of our waiter, when we arrive late to a coffee date with a friend, when we agree to accept an assignment at work that belongs to someone else who is “too busy”: these are messages we send out into the world about what is acceptable to us and what is not.
The waiter decides how accommodating the chef might be if our request is friendly; our friend learns that being on time when meeting may not be important, and possibly that we do not value her time, either; our supervisor takes a perhaps unconscious but careful note that we are OK with accepting more work that isn’t ours.
Perhaps none of these assumptions that the waiter, friend, or supervisor has made would make you embarrassed or uncomfortable – in this case, you would be doing an excellent job at obeying the golden rule. However, what I see in working with clients is the people who want their work life to be less stressful, their friends and family to be more supportive, and for themselves to have more power over their own happiness. We cannot ignore, then, the messages we send that are compliant with behavior we don’t want to perpetuate.
Luckily, the antidote to these issues is simple from a solution-focused mindset. You can look to your life to see where you have healthy and well-respected boundaries. You wouldn’t dream of being late to your son’s piano lesson? Your employees always show up to Monday meeting on time? You and your partner fight fairly and listen to each other? Each of these areas shows that you have good boundaries and respect.
Some clients feel uncomfortable at first about teaching others how to treat them better. It must begin with understanding that we deserve better treatment ourselves. This is not an easy concept to grasp if you have been struggling with depression, addiction, or guilt.
You can practice by asking yourself a few questions:
1. What is difficult for me about making this request or giving this person feedback? Imagine yourself saying to someone, “Hey, I notice when we meet up I always am waiting for 15 minutes. Should I allow more time in the future? Or do I rush you when making plans?”
2. How will my life change when I am able to consistently implement this new boundary or request? Imagine your life when you and your partner agree that you will no longer argue in the car and instead will wait to find a place to talk and listen with no distractions.
3. What will I do when the person responds with surprise to my new request? Perhaps you’ve decided to tell your boss that you will no longer be taking work projects home on the weekends. Can you respond with other ways that you are going above and beyond as an exceptional employee? Practice sitting with the feeling of knowing that someone else is initially ruffled by your new boundary. They will adjust to it, or you will come up with a suitable compromise.
When you are able to understand the messages you have been sending to others about what behavior is acceptable around you, you are then in control to change the situation. Acknowledging our own role in others’ poor treatment of us is the most difficult step. I wish you luck and remind you that persistence when making behavior change works!
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