Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners.  —Laurence Sterne

A recent breakfast alone gave me the opportunity to observe an unfortunate interaction. In the booth next to me was a relatively young man and a young woman having a breakfast meeting. They were both dressed professionally; the man was sitting with his back to me. The conversation was business-oriented and the guy was doing most of the talking. The conversation caught my attention because something in the man’s tone and wording struck a nerve. As I listened to him speak, I realized that almost all of what he said was related to himself and his general disposition toward the young woman was more than a bit condescending.

After about fifteen minutes of listening to himself talk, he finally took a breath so his companion had a chance to respond and I noticed immediately how thoughtfully articulate was her communication. As he repeatedly interrupted her, I felt my pulse quicken – I actually felt defensive for her! It was clear that she either worked for him or was interviewing for something.  He played-up the superior role and she responded respectfully and attentively. His words were boorish, lacked humor, and showed little (if any) real interest in her or her role. She was sincere and clearly intelligent. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: “Why are you wasting your time with this guy?”

Please forgive my harshness on the young man. My thoughts and words may be unfair – I have little to no context for their conversation. My assessment is superficial as a casual bystander. With that said, my question remains: “Why?” We’ve all been there. Remember the time you endured that interview with someone you considered far less talented than yourself because you wanted or needed a job? How about the times you’ve endured a boss who talked down to you, made jokes at your expense, or showed disrespect (intentionally or unintentionally) in tone or word?  Yes, we’ve all been there.

Conditioned

Growing up, we’re conditioned to show respect to adults (hopefully). Teachers, coaches, parents…people older than us. This is right, proper, and necessary. We are taught to follow the rules and part of following them in our society is learning to respect authority. Unfortunately, there are many among us who abuse their authority and it can be difficult to transition from youthful obedience to adult self-assertion. Young professionals are particularly challenged by this and it is difficult to learn how and when to stand your ground when confronted with authority (real or perceived) that impinges on your self-respect.

Why did the young woman endure the churlish behavior of the man? Perhaps she didn’t notice. Perhaps he really wasn’t as oafish as I perceived. Perhaps she felt like she had no choice.

The situation above happens to all professionals at some point in their careers. We have to experience it and learn to deal with it. The man in this situation acted like a typical toddler – overbearing, self-absorbed, and emotionally indifferent to anything other than getting his way. The young woman in the conversation put up with it because she felt like she needed to. She will eventually not put up with it as she matures and builds confidence.

What You Deserve

For any young professional, the problem is the same: we tend to settle with what we see as our available options. My wife loves to quote a line from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” – “we accept the love we think we deserve.” It happens in all areas of life and we are all guilty. Male or female, our self-talk limits us and we tend to aim lower than we should. If the young lady in the conversation above were my daughter or one of my employees, I would give her the same counsel:

  • Demand respect
  • Be prepared to walk away
  • You don’t always get what you deserve and you rarely get what you don’t ask for
  • You have to believe in yourself before anyone else will

Pay, position, respect, and freedom must be earned AND demanded. Since I’m delving into movie lines, another one we love around our house is from the movie “Clueless” – “you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” Chester Karass wrote books on it and it is often true in life and business.

Building Confidence

Of course, you have to build to the confidence to manage such situations. None of us are born fully armed for the battle, it takes time to prepare. Here are some ideas for equipping yourself to improve your self-talk and put yourself in a stronger position when faced with coarse behavior:

  1. Maintain options. Perceived or real, we approach issues entirely differently when we feel we have a plan and options to maneuver. You always have options.
  2. Continuously improve. There is nothing like education to convince yourself of what you are capable. Reading, classes, seminars, and specific training all empower you by increasing your skills but more importantly, increasing your belief in your skills. Always be looking for opportunities for improvement.
  3. Focus on adding value. My father-in-law once told me that the best relationships are the ones formed by complementary capabilities. In other words, one person brings something to the equation that the other person does not have. You improve your standing by adding value to the equation – find ways to complement or supplement your situation or find situations in which you complement the team and organization.
  4. Collect small wins. Convince yourself through successive progress. Build confidence and capability through the small wins. Opportunities for this abound in projects, sales, customer interactions, peer interactions, and tackling specific issues. Seek problems to solve.
  5. Surround yourself with believers. The young woman above was working with or for a man who clearly did not see the extent of her potential value. It is extremely difficult to change your situation if you don’t have someone or a group of someones believing in you. Drop the naysayers and find the believers.

My message to that young woman? Stop selling yourself short. You have amazing gifts and incredible potential. Life is too short to suffer fools. If you’re not getting the respect, recognition, responsibility, pay, or love you deserve, demand it. If that doesn’t work, remember that you always have other options. No, I’m not saying that you don’t have to work at it – the best jobs AND relationships are built over time and take hard work. However, you are far too special and capable to be stuck for long. It is your life AND your choice.