03/03/2014 11:00 am ET

Dr. Phil: You Teach People How To Treat You


By Dr. Phil McGraw

Everything we do in life has a payoff. You go to work to make money. You go swimming because you enjoy it, or it helps you stay healthy. The same is true for human interactions. People don't do things independently of the outcomes. Let's say, for example, that you have a coworker who consistently takes credit for your ideas or goes out of his way to throw you under the bus. Or maybe someone is always rude to you or takes you for granted. These people behave that way because they're getting some kind of payoff from you. Otherwise, they'd stop.

I'm not saying that you're responsible for another person's behavior. This is not about blame. But I am saying that you have power over your reactions. So if there is a person in your life who isn't treating you with the respect and consideration you deserve, you have a couple of decisions to make. Are you willing to accept accountability, and do you really want to make a change? If the answer is yes, then you should ask yourself: "What am I doing to elicit this person's behavior or to allow it to continue?" Even if you think you aren't doing a thing, your inaction is speaking for you.

Say your bossy friend always picks the restaurant you hate. If you'd rather keep silently resenting her instead of speaking up, then don't change a thing. (By the way, there is a payoff here for you, too; maybe you don't want to put any effort into making a decision, or you enjoy feeling wronged.) But if you want to see a different result, then you need to teach her how to treat you. Why aren't you challenging her when she ignores your opinion? You're the one who is refusing to say, "Wait a minute, I'm really in the mood for someplace else." The only person you control is you -- which is great news, because you're the one who has been letting her call the shots time and time again.

The same holds true when the relationship stakes are higher. For instance, when Robin and I first got married, she was a pouter. To be fair, I wasn't as sensitive as I should have been to her preferences and beliefs -- but, still, I hated it when she pouted. I would ask, "What's wrong?" and she would say, "Nothing." But the way she said it implied, "Plenty, buddy, and it's all you!" Then we'd waste a day or so being mad at each other and walking around like zombies instead of having a real conversation.

The two of us had to teach each other how we needed to be treated. Finally, I asked myself, "How am I eliciting Robin's behavior or allowing it to continue?" The answer was that I elicited the pouting when I acted like a jerk, and I allowed it to continue when I avoided really talking to her. I said to Robin, "I can't stand it when you pout, so we've got to work together here to make a change." She said, "If you'll always take the time to hear what I have to say and really listen to me, I promise I'll stop pouting and speak up from the get-go." I taught her that I wouldn't deal with pouting, and she taught me that she needed to be taken seriously. It's a deal we made 37 years ago, and we still live by it today.

It's time to take ownership of the role you've been playing. Even if you've spent decades in the same old negative pattern, I guarantee that once you change the payoff, the behavior will change as well. Relationships are mutually defined, and the give-and-take never stops. Truth is, we wouldn't want it any other way.

Dr. Phil: 6 Steps to Self-Assurance