For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Romans 3:23

Serving people who treat you well is relatively easy. But serving people who behave badly toward you? That can be much harder.

At one time or another, we’ve all been disrespected. I have. You have. We all have. We’ve experienced behavior that is rude, arrogant, self-serving, jealous, demeaning, dominating, and even manipulative.

It is not easy to serve people when they are falling short of their potential in these ways. But when they show up like this in your relationships, you can lean on your servant leadership orientation to guide yourself and them to higher ground.

Here are five practices to help you stay kind and serve while dealing with awful behavior:

  1. Acknowledge

When people behave badly toward you, it likely has nothing to do with you. It could, but chances are high that it doesn’t. Most often, the bad behavior you can see is rooted in emotional trauma that’s hidden.

People often disrespect others in order to create on the outside what they feel on the inside. In other words, they seek to hurt because they themselves are hurting. This usually isn’t a conscious process. It’s often spontaneous. Whether or not the pain people are feeling is rational or justified is beside the point.

If this idea feels foreign to you, think about the last time you stubbed your toe. When you felt that sharp, intense pain shoot through your foot, what was your first reaction? You had to expel something, right? Maybe that something was a gasp or a yell or a word that can’t be printed in this blog.

The pain came in to your body, and so something had to come out of your body.

That’s often how disrespectful behavior is formed. Life causes people pain and, because they’ve never been taught to “expel” that pain productively, they do it unproductively, through all sorts of negative attitudes and behaviors.

Acknowledge this. Allow yourself to be guided by it when you experience or witness disrespect.

Scottish author and theologian Rev. John Watson put it best: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  1. De-escalate

That said, you shouldn’t be a doormat. No servant leader should. In fact, servant leadership is rewarding precisely because you lean in to situations like this. But before you respond, ask yourself, what is your instinctual response to being disrespected?

If you’re like the rest of us, your gut instinct is either to go on the offense or the defense. The truth is, neither of those positions will serve you. When you react to poor behavior by attacking the other person or defending yourself, you’ll only amplify the emotions that are causing the behavior to occur in the first place.

So, don’t react immediately. Pause. Count to ten in your head. Breath deeply, relax your posture, and allow your spiked emotions the chance to calm back down a bit. If you can wait a few hours before responding to poor behavior, do so. Give yourself permission to calm down and regain perspective.

The other person will feel you pausing. They won’t be able to not feel it. And even if they aren’t yet able to pause their own emotional roller coaster, their inability to hijack you will keep the situation from escalating further.

  1. Invite

Once you’ve regained your balance, invite people into a “different” conversation with you – a conversation based in mutual respect, curiosity, and kindness.

When you talk, wipe the slate clean. Don’t dwell on the past. Give people the opportunity to begin again with you, on equal footing.

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14)

  1. Model

Show people how you want to be treated. Pull out all the stops. Roll out the red carpet. The worse their behavior was to you, the more they desperately need you to show them the way!

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9)

  1. Affirm

When you experience a positive shift – any positive shift — in the other person’s behavior, affirm it. Notice it, lift it up, and give thanks for it.

We all have so much work to do to become the people God created us to be. None of us is perfect. Let people know that you actually believe in their potential to get better. Just as Jesus believed, and still believes. 

“And all are justified freely through his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)