As I said last week, do as you would be done by (to use Charles Kingsley’s terminology from his novel The Water Babies) is a great rule of thumb: treat others in the way you would like to be treated yourself. However, there are pitfalls in this unnuanced approach because people are all different. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
It took me forty years to understand that other people can see the world in a radically different way from me – and still be right! Their reactions, expectations, hopes, dreams and fears may not line up with mine at all. I find it extraordinary now that something so obvious had never occurred to me but I was brought up that X,Y and Z perspectives and feelings were the correct ones and anybody who perceived or felt otherwise was misguided and weird.
Before I grasped this fundamental truth, I was frequently surprised and upset when I gave what I would have wanted and it was not well received. And I was equally perplexed and offended when what other people gave me was not what I wanted but – I realise now – what they would have wanted in my position.
The most successful relationships are those in which the channels of communication are wide, unblocked and in constant use. In order to treat other people in the way they would like to be treated, we have to know what that way is. As we get to know them, we may be able to guess with increasing accuracy, but the safest course is to ask. Conversely, if our own needs are not being met, we have to explain to the people around us what we’d like them to do. It’s only through talking and listening that we’ll all learn to get it right for each other.