Gracefully Dealing with Disrespect

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Sandy Geroux shares sage advice on how to keep your emotions under control when under attack.

What do you do when you’re being disrespected? Whether it’s an occasional occurrence or a frequent one, it doesn’t feel good when it’s happening and it is often quite difficult to keep your emotions under control when under attack.

Here are a few nuggets to keep in mind that will help you walk away feeling confident, gracious and in control. More importantly, they may keep you from saying or doing something in the heat of the moment that you later regret.

If someone has a habit of disrespecting you, they probably do it to others as well.

While there are times when you need to (respectfully) stand up for yourself or someone else, people recognize bad behavior in others, so don’t feel foolish or weak if you let a few snipes roll off your back without responding to them or lowering yourself to their level.

For example, I was once disrespected while presiding over a board meeting. A board member disagreed with my plans to fix a situation, actually making disrespectful faces and gestures and causing extreme discomfort for the rest of the board. Not wanting to cause any more disruption than necessary by engaging the person at that time, I reiterated my plan and moved on, rather than “defending” myself.

After the meeting, I began second-guessing my decision not to say anything, thinking I must have handled the situation “badly”. As I wondered if I actually deserved to be a leader at all, another board member approached me and said, “[That person] may have taken condescension to a new low today, but you took integrity to a new high.”

Her comment showed me that people recognized who was behaving badly (and who wasn’t), and let me know that the board was grateful that I handled it gracefully and moved on.

That comment has stayed with me for years, helping me remember that it is not necessary to “defend” myself from every criticism or comment made, either in public or in private. Sometimes when others disagree with you, it may feel disrespectful. But if you keep your composure and assertively state your position, the matter usually passes without further incident and all can respectfully agree to disagree.

On the flip side, if no one feels comfortable raising an issue, for fear of someone’s reaction, they may hold back valuable information and knowledge that could mean the difference between success and failure on that project. So, always be open to respectful disagreements and carefully consider your reaction to them.

Keep your eye on the goal… and go first

When you feel your temper rising because an irate customer is taking their anger out on you; or your boss or a colleague has just chastised you (in public); or a loved one has reached their breaking point, ask yourself: “What is my goal?”

Is it to put this person “in their place” or to change your own behavior to match that of someone who is acting boorish? Or is it to maintain your civility, no matter how the other person behaves?

I’m reminded of two movies in which this principle is perfectly demonstrated: The Freedom Writers and The Ron Clark Story. Both are about exceptional teachers who went into inner city US schools to try to change the students’ outcomes. But these students had no respect for anyone in authority and considered it a “badge of honor” to actively disrespect teachers enough to get them to quit their job.

Despite this, these teachers were able to rise above the situation and offer respect to their students first, keeping their eye on the goal they desperately wanted to achieve, and earning the students’ respect in the process. In other words, they went first. Someone had to go first – and it wasn’t going to be the students.

While we can’t always control other people’s behavior, we can control our own and serve as positive role models for the desired behavior. I know this is difficult to do. I also know that whenever I let someone get to me so badly that they cause me to behave in a manner that does not reflect who I really am, I walk away feeling worse… not about them, but about myself.

Therefore, I remind myself that if I don’t eventually succeed, I would rather have failed to inspire someone else to behave better, rather than having failed to keep myself from behaving badly.

Treat everyone as though they’re starting out with a “blank slate”

With a splitting headache, I recently pulled into a car rental lot, hauled my luggage out of the trunk, dragged it into the building, and waited in line to check out, when… ACCHH!!! I forgot to fill up the gas tank! At that point, I had the painful choice of paying three times the normal cost per gallon plus a fuel service charge for them to fill it, or lugging my belongings back to the car, finding a gas station where I could fill up, and driving back.

Ever cost-conscious for my clients, I chose the second option. When I returned to the car, the attendant exclaimed, “Oh no! I almost said something to you, but too many people have yelled (and cursed!) at me lately for doing that, so I said to myself, ‘Forget it! It’s her problem!’ I’m really sorry.”

What an eye-opener! She thought about doing the right thing, and actually wanted to do it, but hesitated because too many disrespectful customers had recently berated her for trying to go above and beyond to help them. They have accused her of “trying to get into their business” and trying to make them feel stupid! Wow!

We often blame customer service people for poor service, but the fact is that as the buying public becomes more disrespectful, these representatives are becoming more gun-shy about trying to help.

The same holds true in other situations, with the bigger point being that the more we hang on to the baggage that rude people throw our way, the more we are tempted to assume that everyone will do the same… and no one receives the benefit of the doubt. My challenge to you is to attempt to do the right thing anyway. Try to let rude actions roll off your back, remembering that each person is different and should be viewed as having a “clean slate”, helpful intentions and a grateful heart.

Summon as much empathy for the other person as you can.

While we should never expect to receive disrespect, and should not tolerate it for long, whenever it happens, try to look beyond the surface to see if a little extra understanding or compassion is needed. Does the person usually act like this, or is it out of character? Can we put ourselves in their shoes, give them the benefit of the doubt and make an attempt at civility?

When my aging parents moved in with my husband and me over two years ago, the transition was difficult (to put it mildly). My dad had suffered two strokes and my mom had an especially hard time accepting the fact that she could no longer handle everything on her own. So, they made the difficult decision to give up their home, lose their “independence” and come live with us.

There were times, especially at the beginning, when mom would break down into tears over things dad did, like forgetting how to make his tea. In light of his strokes, they were unfortunately to be expected and although it was painful for me to watch, I was able to keep my composure when it happened. Now, I consider myself to be an empathetic person, but I caught myself feeling impatient with mom because she couldn’t keep herself from crying all the time… until the following lightning bolt of realization finally hit me: That was my dad… a daughter expects her dad’s health to decline – possibly significantly. It’s sad, but not a complete shock.

But that was her husband! How would I react if it were my husband who was forgetting how to make his tea, instead of my father? Even just asking myself that question brings tears to my eyes. It’s not that I love my husband more than my father, but it’s not the normal way of things. It’s hard enough for people to experience these things with their parents; but no one expects to experience them with their spouse.

This extraordinary need for extra empathy in my personal life – for putting myself in my mom’s shoes – has helped me also be more empathetic toward those in my professional life… and it goes a long way toward restoring my patience and my attitude when others behave in ways I don’t expect – especially if those behaviors aren’t the norm for them.

Most of all, keeping all of these principles in mind has allowed me to be a more gracious person, even when someone else is not.

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About Author

Sandy Geroux

Professional speaker, trainer and author Sandy Geroux has more than 18 years of administrative experience. She now helps others create the WOW factor, become more effective and efficient, and achieve their personal and professional dreams. Since 2000, she has conducted over 100 keynotes, training programs and workshops for more than 13,000 administrative professionals in 41 countries. Her columns and articles appear in many administrative publications. Sandy will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE in Johannesburg, 28-29 February 2020. For further information and to book, visit www.executivesecretarylive.com

16 Comments

  1. Thanks Sandy! Nicely said!
    I´m pretty good at dealing with stranger´s rudeness & unappropriateness. My biggest difficulty is dealing with these attitudes within the family; I´ve been dealing with rude, abusive parents for decades now & feel great frustration each time that history repeats itself…most of the time I remain quiet, but there are times when the frustration levels caused by so may years of manipulation just make me too angry…I also recognize that I lack the ability to act compassionately (I mean to give my parents a hug or hold their hand in moments of distress), and that´s a difficult one for me to overcome. However, I do feel a bit more confortable when my kids are in need of comapssionate empathy. We weren´t brought up in that “huggy, lovey” type of way, and unfortunately I haven´t passed it on to my kids either; am now learning it with my grandchildren!

  2. Thank you for this… I recently was disrespected by a coworker, to my face, in a very passive aggressive catty way. I was so shocked by it, it didn’t register to me for a few seconds, and I didn’t react at all really, except I walked away the second someone interrupted us. I also disconnected from her on LinkedIn the following day. I suspect she thinks I didn’t really catch o to her rude insulting tone. I plan on ignoring her and keeping my distance in the future, thankfully I don’t have to see her very often at all. I was frustrated for myself for not calling her out on the spot, but I’m realizing I’m happy I wasn’t the one who behaved unprofessionally, I took it in stride, and I should be proud of that. Any advice on how to deal with her at an upcoming meeting? Other than flat out pretending she doesn’t exist, I’m at a loss. We’re both teachers, not working on a mutual project, so I don’t really have to interact with her at all. I’d really appreciate your tips. Thanks again for the article!

    • Sandy Geroux

      Erin, I am so sorry I didn’t see this comment (I’m not sure why the notices didn’t come to me when you posted). I don’t know if this situation is resolved by now or not, but you are right about taking it in stride and being proud of your reaction in not being unprofessional. The biggest thing to do is decide whether this relationship is worth going through the potential heartache of confronting her about it. If so, you should have a heart-to-heart with her (or someone else in the future, if this is too far in the past) about the impact of her actions on you and others around you. If not, and you still see each other, you don’t have to pretend she doesn’t exist (or vice versa), but don’t be her buddy, either. Continue to be very professional about it whenever you do meet, but leave it at that. It doesn’t sound like someone you would miss from your life, so keeping a professional relationship (and distance) is probably the best for both of you. I hope this helps – even if not in that situation, but for the future… and again I apologize for not seeing this (and the other comments) before now! 🙁

  3. Thank you for this. I’m struggling to come to terms with several apparent friends and family who have disrespected me in the past and recently. Just little things but I question where it came from because I would never do that to someone. I feel I have 3 choices, to confront them about it and most likely it will turn into some sort of awkwardness or maybe even an argument. Or say nothing and pretend everything’s ok but limit what time I spend with them causing me a bit of stress having to never be available, and cancelling on them in fear of what other insults they may say. Or just completely blank them and never speak to them again. If I had it my way I would like to do the 3rd option as I don’t see why I should have to waste my precious time on people who I don’t want to anymore. But one of them is a sister in law, one is a friend who will definitely be in my life through other friends, and one is a colleague who I will see from time to time. All 3 people I have spent enormous amounts of time with in the past so a sudden change in this would be extremely obvious to them, to our general family and friends and it will be questioned why we are suddenly not as close. I don’t think any of them have any idea just how insulted I am by their comments (with all 3 they can be the sweetest and nicest people in the world but there is a bitchy side to them I find unacceptable) anyway it’s good to even write about this and I appreciate somewhere to turn. Thank you

    • Sandy Geroux

      Hi, Jenson – I apologize for not seeing this comment before now (this and other comments were never delivered to my InBox… unfortunately). I’m glad you found some solace in even being able to write about this, and hope you’ve found a way to deal with the situations at this time. If so, congratulations. If there is still some consternation, I would propose a 4th option – keep seeing them and enjoying their wonderful sweet side, while forgiving them for their human side. If they get too crabby or let that side go on too long, a gentle prod to let them know that “Ouch, that hurt a bit!” (Or use your sense of humor and kid around saying, “Wait, let me take the knife out of my heart!”) could help them see the impact of their words and actions on you (or others). Sometimes people don’t even realize what they’re saying or doing until it’s pointed out to them… so a gentle, diplomatic comment to help them realize it may go a long way toward coaching them to stop doing that to people, and watch what they say and do. I hope this helps – and again I’m so sorry for missing your comment to my article. Thank you for posting!

  4. This is such a great article for me to come across especially at this point in my life. Currently struggling with unrecognisable at work, disrespect from the supervisor and now getting that treatment from even new staff in the department. All the pressure of work lies on me in this department am at a position whereby others should be updating and reporting to me and yet am denied of all that. I don’t wanna loose me in the process so really I was looking for an answer on how to handle all this in a GRACEFUL way as the writer said cause the whole office might judge me for who am not. Am hardworking and yet getting very little salary this makes me unhappy but the awkwardness started from when I was negotiating this with my supervisor. I’m so hurt and down and yet just have to be strong and deal with all this gracefuly. Thanks again for this article

    • Sandy Geroux

      Hi, Jenson – I apologize for not seeing this comment before now (this and other comments were never delivered to my InBox… unfortunately). I’m glad you found some solace in even being able to write about this, and hope you’ve found a way to deal with the situations at this time. If so, congratulations. If there is still some consternation, I would propose a 4th option – keep seeing them and enjoying their wonderful sweet side, while forgiving them for their human side. If they get too crabby or let that side go on too long, a gentle prod to let them know that “Ouch, that hurt a bit!” (Or use your sense of humor and kid around saying, “Wait, let me take the knife out of my heart!”) could help them see the impact of their words and actions on you (or others). Sometimes people don’t even realize what they’re saying or doing until it’s pointed out to them… so a gentle, diplomatic comment to help them realize it may go a long way toward coaching them to stop doing that to people, and watch what they say and do. I hope this helps – and again I’m so sorry for missing your comment to my article. Thank you for posting!

  5. I came upon this article when I typed the words “Dealing with disrespect” into a google search engine! 😂. I have read & re-read this article so many times. It has helped me tremendously! Thank you so much for your insight & I wanted you to know that you have helped me so much. I could never tha k you enough! I felt so isolated, upset, picked on, singled-out and hurt. The fact is its currently the boss I have. I have come to the realization that it won’t change, so I pick my battles. Its okay that I dont have her approval, I dont live my life for that! I have come to a place of just accepting the situation for what it is & to know that one persons opinion doesnt change how I view myself & how I do my job! Ita like the harder I try, the harder she is on me. I get ZERO acknowledgement for anything & a real crummy attitude. With all that being said, I am doing much better & through this article I now have the coping skills & enough self esteem to get through this. My faith takea me far. Ita the only thing that matters anyway!

    • Sandy Geroux

      WOW, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so happy my article has helped you – and I want to let you know how much your taking the time to write this comment means to me. You never know if what you write will impact someone and make a difference, and you let me know that my article has made a difference for you. That means the world to me. Keep having that faith in yourself and I hope you find a position where you are truly recognized and respected for the wonderful person you are!

  6. This all was wonderful advice and very insightful. I need to look deeper for my situation is with my 18 year old senior and my 55 year old husband. He allows her to speak to me with foul language and total disrespect. I have allowed him to treat me the same way. I am sick of it. I have no idea how to have a place in this house. notice I did not say home. I have felt like a second class citizen in this place long enough. I need real help. Oh and my husband is a psychiatrist. His best friends are the kids.

    • Sandy Geroux

      I am so sorry to hear that you’re dealing with this situation at home. I think it’s time to call a family meeting and tell them how their behavior affects you. You might sit down with your husband first and see if he’ll support you during the family meeting. If he’s a good psychiatrist, hopefully this will point out the huge blindspot he has regarding his behavior toward you, and his tolerance of your daughter’s behavior toward you.

      This will probably be shocking to them, since you’ve allowed it in the past, but be honest and let them know why you’ve allowed it, or if you don’t know why, tell them that. But tell them you can’t tolerate it any more and don’t feel that they love or respect you. Hopefully, they do, and will work to prove their love. If not, you’ll need to be prepared to do what you must do if they don’t respond the way you want them to.

      But if this situation really is intolerable, it’s time to have a chat and try to turn it around.

      Good luck… I’m praying for a good result for all of you!

  7. Great Article!

    I’m fortunate to have come across this article during my search. So, I saved its link to my Bookmarks Bar to re-read.

    Thank You Very Much Sandy!

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