Weird things happen in life. For example, I have actually heard my parent’s voices channeling through me as I speak with my kids. I have even heard my “past self” speaking through my kids as they converse with me. It is unsettling to hear my parents in my voice or to hear my past beliefs and values being channeled back to me in a fashion that confronts me with the very point that, years ago, I was making with others.
One of the more common themes in these occurrences has been about “respect”. I can often hear my mother saying, “I’m your mother. I expect you to show respect.” As a young teenager I remember thinking quietly to myself, “I know mom…and I don’t care what you expect.”
Of course, I refrained from expressing my thoughts as best I could, but there were a couple of times when my thoughts were revealed and, like gasoline on a fire, a big explosion befell us. The detonation set off strong feelings of anger, rage, fear, sadness, and eventually guilt. The blast constrained any semblance of rational, collaborative, or civil conversation. Courtesy was overrun by the fury that runs through one’s soul during these events.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that I too was trying to command respect. In the heat of the battle with one of my sons, I heard myself say my mom’s words, “I’m your father and I expect respect.” His response uncannily mirrored my “past self’s” thoughts and voice, “Well Dad, I don’t respect you.”
Everything stopped. I backed away and sat down, stunned, regretfully wishing that my voice had learned from my earlier experiences. It occurred to me that there really are ghosts that continually haunt a person with things they drag up from a person’s past.
My son, seeing the pale angst in my face, asked, “You alright?” I told him what had happened. I told him a few of the stories about my mom and how I had vowed that I would never do that to my friends, family, or my kids. But now I just did what I had said I wouldn’t.
What I had forgotten was this: respect is not an expectation. Respect is a gift that others give to you. It occurred to me that I had not been acting in any fashion that would make me eligible for admiration or deference. I was not worthy of his respect. If people have a good impression of you, respect usually follows as a result. It is not a choice, it is an automated response to people we admire and are impressed by. Fundamental to this is that those we respect have almost, without exception, treated us with courtesy and dignity. How could I have forgotten this?
Courtesy is not contingent upon any characteristic of the other person – good or bad. Courtesy is my choice to be polite, to be civil, to listen and understand, to leave untouched the soul and self-esteem of the other without contingencies. I don’t have to agree; I can be assertive and “agree to disagree” with another person without any need for defensiveness or anger or self-justification. And I have discovered that being courteous frees you from the fray and the associated emotions.
Hey, words are easy. I get that. Under duress, courtesy becomes next to impossible without massive effort and discipline. The lack of civility, the attacks on self-esteem, and the abuses of one’s dignity sabotage anybody’s ability to be courteous. It’s a herculean effort to act with courtesy at times. Irrespective of how hard it is, it still is the key to becoming worthy of respect.
Over the years companies and individuals have spent many dollars on leadership development to improve company performance and further personal careers. I can say with certainty that all the leadership development in the world will do nothing to develop effective leaders compared to what “choosing to act with courtesy” will do. Leaders are influencers and the common theme to increasing influence is courtesy – to listen to understand, to be civil, to avoid an attack on another’s self-esteem.
Those who are respected, admired, and esteemed are highly influential. Those who are not, cannot lead. They have nothing to influence people with other than fear, coercion, and discourtesy.
Leaders are needed across the world and we are prepared to assist in the development of a new set of leaders for the challenges that we all face. Call Misty River Consulting for assistance. We can help.
Donald A. Kerper is the President and Senior Consultant of Misty River Consulting. He is an Industrial Organizational Psychology practitioner based out of Stratford, WI and serves clients across the United States.