True story. I was moderating a panel of professional women a few weeks ago and heard the most remarkable comment. A woman with a long career in human resources admitted that for years she kept a cool professional distance from people in the organization. As she became more confident in herself, she learned to think differently.

“Sure, I might have to fire somebody one day, but there’s no reason we can’t cross even that challenge with mutual respect,” she told the audience. “There’s no reason not to see the very best in every person.”

Renown leadership expert John Maxwell always says everyone is a “ten” in his book until they prove themselves otherwise. It’s not so much a golden rule, to treat others as you would have them treat you, as a platinum rule – treat others as they would have you treat them.

It’s easier to treat people with respect when they show you respect in return. I read a story in The New Yorker that would challenge the kindest person. A prisoner who attempted suicide was rushed to a hospital, where he verbally assaulted the very people trying to save his life. As much as I try to live the platinum rule, I read this rooting for the doctor to walk away and let the man bleed to death. What the doctor did instead could revolutionize the success in every workplace.

Removing all ego and personal defense from the situation, the doctor replied to the patient’s seething according to the most plausible cause, “You seem really angry and like you feel disrespected.” Speaking the truth out loud cut through the patient’s hatred like a butter knife. He opened up to the doctor about all the things in his life that fueled his hatred and they talked for hours as the doctor sutured his wounds. As I read this doctor’s highly intelligent response to a tenuous situation, I think of several episodes in my life I would like to rewrite.

I had a boss years ago who embraced a good verbal sparring as fun, but had little awareness that some people felt pinned against the wall by his comments. I left his office in tears many times and his only response was that I needed to see a counselor to deal with whatever is making me cry. “You are making me cry,” I wanted to reply, but didn’t. I thought it was unprofessional to be honest and speak openly with an authority figure. I also believed that I was broken and not a worthy opponent, so I clammed up.

I ultimately left a really great job because I was unaware of how to respond to a strong personality without sacrificing who I am. I’ve left several good jobs because I thought it was respectful to authority NOT to defend myself. If I were coaching someone in this situation today, I’d encourage them to step out of the conversation and reframe it. Instead of building a story in our heads about what we assume someone means, we can slay the dragon of assumption when we deal directly with the facts, which might or might not be spoken. This requires putting ego on the shelf and developing curiosity.

The next time someone unloads their anger on me, I’m going to ask questions that will help me see their motives better. There’s no guarantee I can fix their approach but I can fix my response. Just maybe we can get the work done without having to see everything the same.

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