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How the good people

train others to be bad

My mother was the "good" person; my father was the "bad" one

My mother stayed with a man she didn't love and didn't respect for over 40 years before she finally left him. Two weeks after she left him, we were eating lunch together at a restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. My mother was complaining about all the "bad" things that my father did. I could even agree with her that my father's actions incurred big costs for her (and even for my father) in their marriage.

You let him do all those things

After listening to my mother for five minutes, I interrupted her. "Mama, you let him do all those things." At first, she started to get angry at me. But then she stopped, and said, "Yes, I did."

My mother's "virtues" enabled my father to do "bad" things

My mother trained my father to do all those "bad" things. Through her "virtues" of persistence, loyalty, and feeling sorry for my father, she neglected to say "no" to him, to keep boundaries with him, and even to be willing to leave him. She didn't take care of herself and thereby allowed and trained him to be the "bad" guy.

Good mother Amy was training her son to treat her like a doormat

My friend Amy was recently visiting me with her son Oli (who will be three years old two months from now). I noticed how Oli would often insist on being picked up and carried, both inside the house and outdoors. Sometimes Amy was happy to pick him up, but other times she was tired and wanted to take a rest.

Would you like some coaching?

We were walking back from an early evening snack from the foodcourt at the local mall, when I noticed Oli fussing and squirming for Amy to pick him up...I could see her reluctance and her conflict. "Would you like some coaching regarding this?" I asked. She said, "Yes." 

Follow through consistently when you say "yes" or "no"

"Whenever he asks you to pick him up, if you are happy to pick him up (so that you're still taking care of yourself if you do that), then pick him up immediately without hesitation or resistance. If not, then say, 'no.' Even say 'no' twice. But no more than two times. Then, no matter what he does, no matter how long he persists in his tantrum, do not say 'no' any more and do not pick him up."

Oli had been well trained by Amy

She agreed. I was so impressed with Oli and how well Amy had trained him to treat her like a doormat. He screamed in Chinese, repeating incessantly, "Pick me up, pick me up." He shook his body, almost as if he were having a seizure. He used all his strength trying to climb up on his mother. Passer-byes watched in astonishment, perhaps wondering if the child was being abused. I had some concern about how Amy was handling all this so I asked, "How are you feeling?" She gave me a sly smile and said, "Powerful." 

Gentle, non-blaming firmness and consistency was the key

Amy wasn't quite sure what to do once we were in my apartment. I said, "If he wants to sit in your lap while sitting down, okay, but don't pick him up while you're standing." Oli crawled onto her lap, but it was no consolation for him: she was not standing as he had been demanding. He continued in his tirade unabated. Amy and I continued to talk as best could. When Amy would look at me, Oli would use his hands to try to turn her face away from mine. The tyrant's power was being called into question and he was furious about it.

I got a timer out and setting in on five minutes each time, we played a game to see how long Oli would continue his amazing performance (and make no mistake about it, he knew what he was doing). I'm sure he broke some record at an hour and twelve minutes, but then, without warning, he stopped. Suddenly he became interested in the timer and within another minute, if someone else had entered the apartment, they would have no clue as to the storm that raged for over an hour and just ended two minutes before.

The doormat took a stand for a new role in life (bye bye, doormat)

"Amy, Oli has been treating you like a doormat. Because you have been treating yourself like a doormat." I said to her. I had spoken to Amy many times before about how her #1 job in life is to make sure she's taking care of herself, but somehow those words had little impact, even though she had "agreed" with them. This time, however (with a more dramatic phrasing), she got it. She started crying, expressing her deep sadness in seeing how she was the one who had treated herself like a doormat; she had trained Oli to do that for her. When Oli noticed his mother crying, he took a moment out of playing with the timer to smile at her with curiosity.

The change is permanent

I've checked in a few times with Amy since she returned to her home and husband in Shanghai. The change is permanent. Oli has learned quickly to respect his mother's "noes" when she says, "no." And Amy has a new life where she's showing respect to herself and taking care of herself. Amy so inspires me. I know she chose big courage.

Everybody resented him and tolerated him (except me)

Richard Matist was hard-working. He ran his small computer software company from upper Manhattan. He was smart, he could think on feet, he was hard working, and he could sell himself. When I was 31 years old, he hired me as a consultant programmer (as a specialist in COBOL). We agreed on an hourly rate. 

He was also bad

Richard Matist was also bad (or maybe I should say one of his behaviors was bad). He was always late, often egregiously so. The earliest late that I ever remember for him was only 25 minutes. I remember one time when a first-time appointment was set with some RCA executives (a possible new client). Another of his consultants and I arrived at the RCA offices on time. Richard showed up an hour and 33 minutes later. What often amazed me even more than his lack of punctuality was his seeming unconcern about its impact on others.

I was unwilling to tolerate his behavior; I suggested a solution

The first time I met with Richard, he was 56 minutes late. The second time he was an hour and 13 minutes late. I suspected a pattern. So I said to Richard, "I really like working with you. I am very flexible as to when you want me to be available for work each time. But I'm going to have difficulty not knowing how quickly I can get to work once I arrive (because I had to depend upon him to explain to me what the agenda was for each day). So far I've had to wait 56 minutes at our first appointment and an hour and 13 minutes for this current one. Here's my idea of how to fix this problem. I will show up and be ready for work at whatever time you ask for. Then, if you don't arrive at the time agreed, that will be okay...I will read or do something else and be available whenever you arrive. But I want to be paid my regular hourly rate for the time I am waiting, not just for the time I am working.

Good guy to me; bad guy for others


He agreed. His behavior didn't change. But he paid me for the costs that I incurred because of his behavior and I was happy (I got paid for my leisure reading!). But for others, he was somewhat of a bad guy (I knew this because I discussed his lack of punctuality with a few of his other colleagues). They resented him and tolerated his behavior. 

My teenage son is so rebellious and shares nothing with me

My client John felt powerless, frustrated with, and resentful towards his 15-year-old son Will. He worried about his son's school work and even about who his friends were and what he might be getting into.

How do you speak and listen to Will?

I asked John,

"What do you say to Will when you're trying to talk with him?"

    "I ask him how school is going. And if he might consider not spending so much time on the video games?"

"When he does speak to you, do you listen deeply without defensiveness, with an intention of understanding how he sees you and and his relationship with you? Do you listen with respect? Do you follow Stephen Covey's maxim, 'Seek first to understand, then to be understood'? Do you listen with an intention of understanding and even supporting his Will-Oneself and his Will-Now?"

How has your attitude trained your son to be the way he is with you?

     "I'm his father. He should be listening to me."

"Have you asked yourself how this attitude has trained your son to rebel and to avoid being open with you?"


"Not maybe. For sure. In the past you have consistently demonstrated to Will that you are uninterested in (or would be critical of) how he's trying to get along in the world, take care of himself (especially in trying to take care of Will-Now). You have not spoken to him with respect and with a partnership attitude to resolve any conflicts that may exist between you two. If I were in Will's shoes, I would be rebellious and taciturn with you also. You have trained him well to be this way."

What can I do now?

     "But what can I do now?"

"You could start by apologizing, if you can do that sincerely enough so that he might be open to the idea that a mutually respectful relationship with you could be possible. He might even be willing to play a partnership game with you where he agrees to wink at you to let you know that your way of speaking or listening with him occurs as disrespectful or uninterested in knowing how things are from his side. But it may take a bit of time for him to notice or believe that you are really changing, so that he feels safe to let his guard down. You've spent a long time training him to be the way he is now."

     "OMG, that sounds so hard. I don't want to apologize to him. If anything, he should apologize to me. I've done so much for him."

Anything short of 100% responsibility gives away some of your access to getting what you want with you son

"Yes, it will be a choice of courage for you to even consider doing something like this. But anything short of this is giving some of your power and access (by not being 100% responsible for your relationship with him) that is available to you if you were willing to move in this direction."

     "You're right, even if I don't want you to be."

Her husband doesn't listen

Special note: one way "good guys" create "bad guys" is not because they necessarily train the bad guy to be the way he or she is: it's because they train themselves (by consistently blinding themselves and lying to themselves) so that they see that other person as a bad guy.

Did you try these things?

My client Elaine complained to me about how her husband Jeb of 23 years didn't listen to her. I asked her some questions:

"Can you remember a time when you felt very listened to by Jeb?" 

     "Maybe before we were married."

"When Jeb is talking, are you listening deeply with the intention of him feeling listened to."

     "Maybe not, but I do better than he does."

"At times when you were not feeling listened to, have you respectfully asked him to try to make you feel listened to?"

     "Not really...by that time I am really pissed. So I either snap at him or walk away."

"Have you approached your husband at a good conversation time and asked him to be your partner in figuring out a way for both of you to be happy in those circumstances where you feel not listened to?"

     "Never even thought of it."

Expectations: the source of all upsets

"Elaine, we don't know how Jeb's listening behavior might change if you tried any of these things, right? But there is something even more fundamental here. For 23 years now, you've been setting your husband up to be the bad guy because he doesn't listen to you. Against the pattern of predictability of his non-listening behavior, you kept expecting him to listen to you. You kept expecting him to be different than the way he has been. Who is responsible for your expectation? You or him? Who keeps indulging in that expectation (that makes you see your husband as the 'bad guy') in the face of overwhelming evidence that he's likely to continue with his habitual non-listening behavior?"

Intentions and predictions are distinct from expectations

"This doesn't mean that you can't try the suggestions I made. It doesn't mean you can't set boundaries (even get a divorce if this is a deal breaker). It doesn't mean that you can't get your listening needs met by other people. But it's beyond stupid to continue to expect your husband to listen when he doesn't. That just sets you both up to lose."

Would we have any bad guys left if the good guys stopped training them?

I can't answer this question for sure. However, I am confident that at least 90% of "bad guy behavior" in the world would disappear if the "good guys" kept focusing on taking care of themselves (in their relationship with others) as their #1 priority. If the good guys choose courage to say "yes" when they wanted to say "yes" and "no" when they wanted to say "no," if they choose courage to make requests, if they choose courage to set and maintain the necessary boundaries with others so that they were taking care of themselves in each and everyone of their relationships, if they choose courage to risk being blamed for their "selfish" behaviors, if they consistently looked for ways to support reciprocal selfishness (long-term and short-term) in all their relationships, then the drama writers would be hard pressed to create any believable bad guys any more.

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