By Jenny Chiang, M.Ed.
We’ve all heard the phrase: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' The Golden Rule is an endearing principle that has been passed down through generations because it’s helped many people navigate their relationships, especially when encountering new situations. Sometimes, the Golden Rule gives us a place to start when we don’t know how else to act.
Yet while the Golden Rule is useful, I’ve learned that it is also unsustainable. By nature, the act of loving requires us step beyond our boundaries and beliefs. Therefore, supporting our loved ones may require us to act in ways that are contradictory to how we would wish to be treated. The clearest indication of this dichotomy occurs when our expressions of care are met with exasperation, frustration or indifference. Like when your teen rolls their eyes after you ask how their day is going. Or when your parent scolds you for not spending time with them when you’ve visited as often as you could over the last month. Or when your spouse tells you to do yet another chore instead of thanking you for washing all of the dishes.
If the reaction is unexpected or if it’s become a consistent expectation, these experiences can be devastating. We can start to feel insufficient, to question who is at fault, and/or to make assumptions before asking for clarification. Making the other person happy becomes an obligation, not a joyful means of conveying appreciation. Inevitably, unresolved circumstances accumulate and eventually lead to conflict.
So…what do we do when the way we express love doesn’t feel like it’s enough? When the Golden Rule doesn’t work for you, the first thing to recognize is that it just means the other person is an individual with their own needs and desires. We’re all human. We’re all unique. It’s pretty cool. Thankfully, there is a simple answer: Communicate. The not-so-simple answer is: Communicate effectively.
Use these 6 steps to get started:
1. Acknowledge how you feel without judgement.
When you clarify and accept how frustrated you feel, you are taking the time to recognize your inherent value as an individual. Acknowledging how you feel (without judgement) will allow you to do two important things: 1) Assess a situation more objectively by taking a step back from your identified emotions to see the whole picture, and 2) Impart the significance of your message more effectively because you’ll be able to focus on the other person’s needs instead of struggling with your own.
That said - Acknowledgment is not validation. Refrain from taking action that is based solely on the emotions you feel. Instead, take a deep breath and move on to step 2.
2. Assess objectively.
Assessing a situation objectively first requires you to acknowledge and take a step back from your emotions so that you can clearly redefine the goal. (Note: You can’t take a step back from your emotions if you don’t know what you’re feeling.) Effective communicators often seek information before allowing their preconceptions and assumptions to color how they perceive a situation.
This step empowers you because it allows you to take responsibility for the choices that you’ve made without beating yourself up. I think of it this way: When you know that you are partially responsible for a situation, it means that you are partially capable of changing it.
Conversely, you don’t want to fall into the trap of taking all of the responsibility. There are always multiple factors that impact human behaviors. Rather than judging yourself or others, focus on identifying and mitigating the factors that impacted your behaviors so that you can prevent future unpleasant experiences.
3. Ask the pertinent questions.
Rather than asking why someone doesn’t appreciate your expressions of love, refocus on the goal by asking, “How would they like to be shown love?” This question eliminates the need for judgement and prompts you to step away from the Golden Rule because it forces you to think about what they want.
While you don’t need to walk on eggshells, you do want to be considerate of how and when you approach the other person. Be tactful by answering the following:
Why are you asking this question?
What is the best method of communication? (E.g. Text message, face to face, etc.)
How should you phrase and say your question?
When should you ask?
4. Prepare mentally.
Regardless of how much energy and thought you put into your approach, you’ll want to be ready for things to blow up or go sideways… Or to not happen at all. Take the time to vividly imagine different scenarios and think about how you’d hope to react to each situation. Be prepared to give the other individual time to process your questions and ideas before asking for a response.
5. Communicate productively.
Agree to a timeline. By communicating when you hope the individual will respond to you (or when they’d be okay with you checking in with them,) you respect their need for time to process information while respecting your own need for a response within a reasonable time frame.
Create boundaries. Communicating boundaries at the beginning of your discussion allows room for creativity. Rather than bumbling through each other’s boundaries, save that time and energy for brainstorming acceptable solutions to both parties.
What word choices are you hoping they’ll use or avoid?
Based on the reactions that you’ve anticipated, what actions are you willing and unwilling to take?
What actions would you suggest instead?
Redirect conversation towards actionable solutions. Creating actionable solutions provides a natural opportunity to recognize each other’s contributions. Instead of saying, “I’ll clean the room,” say “I’ll fold and put away the laundry this Saturday.” This tells your loved one the specific behaviors that you want them to notice, which increases the likelihood that they’ll notice it!
Give examples from your own life. Saying things like, “Usually, I pull out my phone if I need some time to wind down. What kind of signals should I look for when you need time to wind down?” mitigates the stress of having an uncomfortable discussion and models the kind of answers that you wish to receive.
6. Wait patiently and compassionately.
Just like you, your loved ones have their own thoughts and questions to process. Give them the gift of time and space before expecting a response. Last, but not least, be patient and kind to yourself.
Jenny is a coach at the Hallowell Todaro ADHD Center. She values diversity of thought and loves to work with her clients to explore strengths, embrace challenges, and cultivate curiosity and metacognition. She believes that people thrive when given the opportunity to creatively problem-solve while provided with individualized, holistic, and strength-based support.