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When the “Golden Rule” Gets in the way of Effective Communication

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Treat others how you would like to be treated.

You may recognize this phrase as the “Golden Rule." I hear it used most often in situations where communication is breaking down.

Problems arise in situations where you treat others how you want to be treated, but they don’t return the same treatment.

They aren’t kind. They don’t show appreciation. They don’t demonstrate respect. They can be downright…nasty.

While you did your part – you treated someone as you would like to be treated – they apparently still dismiss or reject you. Which may cause you to perceive them as arrogant or unfeeling.

How do you then react when this happens? Does your communication become sarcastic or defensive? Do you find yourself shutting down, or justifying your response? Or possibly attacking the other person’s statements directly or passive-aggressively?

It’s not uncommon. It’s also preventable.

If there’s something I’ve observed and even encountered myself…when it comes to effective communication, the Golden Rule can actually create tension and conflict. This may result in the exact opposite of having others treating us with appreciation and respect.

Allow me to explain…

Talking is something we do every day, but talking isn’t the same as effectively communicating.

When it comes to communicating effectively, the one factor within your control is you. Understanding yourself -your triggers, and your preferred communication style – is key. It can also get in the way, which I’ll explain more in a minute.

Personality Preferences

When it comes to understanding your personal communication style and triggers, the model I find most practical is the DiSC model. DiSC itself is a highly-researched model, with layers as complex as human beings.

Since I’m not certified in DiSC, I’m simply going to offer my insights from my 15+ years of exposure, where I’ve seen it successfully applied to help improve personal communications, my own included.

It’s not as complicated as it may look at first glance. There are four styles, representing four quadrants of the circle, each with their own preferred style and triggers.

Let’s see if, just by the descriptions below, you can pinpoint which communication style sounds most like you.

Dominance – D’s

Those who prefer this style may:

  1. Talk fast and think faster

  2. Want to focus on the task first, then the people/relationships later

  3. Like having control and making decisions – quickly

  4. Dislike being controlled, having too many details and lengthy explanations without clear action steps

  5. Be strong in “crisis mode” as they can make quick decisions confidently

  6. Value progress and outcomes

  7. Be perceived as arrogant, rude, or stubborn; due in part to a style of communication that can be direct, authoritative, and with minimal small talk

Influence – I’S

Those who prefer this style may:

  1. Think fast and talk fast, much like D’s

  2. Are strong storytellers

  3. Value influencing others to achieve outcomes

  4. Not handle rejection well, since they perceive it as not being able to successfully influence the outcome

  5. Enjoy working with people as much as getting the task done, though are prone to over-promise and under-deliver

  6. May communicate with stories at the cost of hard data; this may lead others to not trusting the details, or for others to perceive that they are being “sold” something – this may get in the way of forming an authentic connection

Steadiness – S’s

Those who prefer this style may:

  1. Have a more thoughtful approach to processing information, needing more time to consider what is being said or asked of them

  2. Focus first on relationships and bringing stability to the group or team

  3. Be very capable of achieving the task at hand

  4. Like to have documented processes – having processes creates efficiency

  5. Tend to ask a lot of questions – they are wanting to fully understand how the change(s) will impact the overall team

  6. Enjoy small talk, social interaction, and getting to know teammates personally

  7. Be perceived as resistant to change, even when they aren’t; this is due in part to their focus on people, which causes them to ask a lot of questions about what is changing in order to look out for the greater good

Conscientiousness/Compliance – C’s

Those who prefer this style may:

  1. Have a methodical approach to processing information

  2. Take the time they need to analyze the data and their experiences in order to be “accurate”

  3. Prioritize the tasks to be done over the relationships at hand, though they can also focus on relationships

  4. Have thoughtful, analytical conversations going on in their minds (that they may or may not share with others) as they are always processing

  5. May be perceived as having “analysis paralysis” or resisting a decision; this is due to the personal need for accuracy and needing time to process for themselves

  6. Enjoy details, research, and collecting and processing information about the decision needing to be made

Again, these are just generalities. Chances are, from the descriptions above, you notice that you likely have characteristics from each of the four categories. We all do.

We also typically have one primary category that we will default to, especially under pressure. When we feel we’re in conflict, we tend to “retreat to our corner” as it’s the most comfortable to us.

As you look back over the four categories, can you see which one feels most like you under pressure?

If not, take 5-10 minutes now and complete this free online DISC assessment. It will provide you a breakdown of all four categories and the % to which you use each today.

Have your default category – or even your full DISC results- handy as we move into the next section.

Natural Communication Conflicts

Given the four descriptions above, you may get a feel for where some natural conflict could occur, such as:

  1. Pace – (D/I) pace is faster, (S/C) pace is more thoughtful

  2. People-focused (I/S) vs. task-focused (D/C)

  3. A value for thoughtful analysis/processing time (C/S) vs. quick decisions (D/I)

The way I learned it, the quadrants diagonal each other possess the highest level of potential communication conflict because they are the least alike.

So, a D style may tend to find they are most often at natural odds, or in conflict, with an S style. An I style may have most natural conflict with a C style.

I can say this is true for my personal experiences. I’m very high in both D and I. This means I enjoy influencing others and making quick decisions, then getting to work on the tasks at hand in order to get to the goal – quickly.

Having this understanding helped me understand why I get along with certain people better than others. We tend to gravitate toward those who are most like us, because they understand us and communicate like us.

It also made me realize why the Golden Rule doesn’t work as well when it comes to effective communications.

Golden Rule to Platinum Rule

When you apply the Golden Rule to your communications, you “communicate with others they way you would want them to communicate with you.”

When you perceive that someone isn’t hearing you, or they may be rejecting what you are saying, you may find yourself talking more, talking louder, or saying the same thing in different ways, hoping they will “hear” you.

Maybe you seek out those who are more like you, so you can get validation on your perspective. You may also find yourself forming alliances with those who communicate like you and agree with you, to prove the other person “wasn’t listening.” It can be exhausting, and you see the other person as the issue.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s not that what you are trying to communicate isn’t valid. It’s that you run the risk of not being heard because you are trying to communicate it the way you would want or need to hear it.

The Platinum Rule

Effective communication goes beyond the Golden Rule to the Platinum Rule:

Treat others as they wish to be treated. Dr. Tony Alessandra and Scott Zimmerman

It goes beyond understanding you and your personal style. It gets to empathy – understanding someone else and their preferred style.

So, when you find yourself feeling unheard, misunderstood, resentful, etc. take a minute to consider the degree to which your preferred style may be getting in the way of what you’re really trying to say.

Even if the other person’s perspective and/or position is different from yours, if you are willing to communicate with them using their preferred style, you run a greater risk of being heard and understood.

This isn’t something that comes naturally, which is why communication can erode quickly when two styles – naturally at odds – try to talk about a topic that could escalate quickly.

The good news is that you are always in control of you, so if you find yourself needing to communicate effectively with a style least like yours, find someone you trust that has that style and practice delivering your message. The person with that style will give you insights as to how they think and how they heard what you shared. Then you can work together on the best approach.

Not only will you learn valuable skills, you’ll gain the empathy that comes from taking another perspective. And you’ll find yourself being heard.

In my personal experiences, while I have a lot of “D” in me, I found myself taking things personally when “Pure D’s” wanted to cut out any and all chit-chat and just hurry up and make decisions. They didn’t want to hear the heroic story leading up to why we’re now in this situation, they just wanted it to be “fixed.” Once I realized this, I was better able to adapt my style to their needs. Then we both felt like the outcome was accomplished on our own terms.

To this day, I have the hardest time adapting to “High C” styles. I personally dislike a lot of data and it drains my energy to go over processes and procedures in great detail. That said, if the person I need to influence needs this, I will first meet with my other C friends to learn how to best position my story and details in a way that builds trust around the data and the recommendation. I also have to recognize that I likely need to build in time to allow the C style to process the information on their own terms. This is also hard for me as I tend to be a “last minute” person. If the goal is effective communication, I have to invest extra time to adapt my style in order to be “heard.” I’m admit I’m still not GREAT at it, but I’ve come a long way since recognizing it wasn’t a personal issue, it was all due to personal communication preferences.

Applying the Platinum Rule

As a take-away, here are some tips for each style on how to apply the Platinum Rule.

NOTE: Some suggestions below may feel more applicable to work or more structured conversations. The same approaches can apply to less formal conversations.

Dominance – D’s

  1. Build in time for small talk with I’s or S’s, just in case. They may not need it, but if they do, you will know you can still stay on task since you built in the time to do so.

  2. You thrive in crisis, but pick your battles. Not everything is a battle. Don’t treat it like one.

  3. C/S’s don’t appreciate quick decisions as much as you do. Find opportunities to build in time between when you present the plan and when you need a decision. Allow some time for analysis and processing relative to the task at hand (it may only be 10 minutes, or it may need to be days or a week, depending on the size of the decision and the research needed.) If you have to deliver and decide in the same meeting, expect escalated emotions and ongoing questions. Gracefully address each, recognizing that this is part of the other style’s process and not a personal attack.

  4. Show appreciation. Let others know that you recognize their efforts and appreciate their perspective and the value it brings. Practice praise.

Influence – I’s

  1. With D’s, get to the point quickly. Less is more, especially with stories. Stick to the facts and outcomes.

  2. With C’s and S’s, do your research and homework, then present with the details and in a logical way. The more documentation, the better.

  3. S’s may appreciate a good story; C’s and D’s may not.

  4. If you have a C/S/D in the same meeting, plan ahead.

  5. Email the supporting details ahead of time with enough time for the C’s to review. (If you send it just prior to the meeting, the C may feel you are trying to “pull one over” even if you aren’t. You’d want to offer them more time to process the information, either during or after the meeting in order for them to feel acknowledged.)

  6. If you expect a decision during the meeting, set these expectations ahead of time.

  7. If the goal isn’t to reach a decision during the meeting, let the D know this ahead of time. Otherwise, they may feel obligated to jump in and “make a decision and move on.” They may also say they will just read the email, provide their response, and skip the meeting. That may be ok. If not, let them know why it’s important for them to attend in person.

  8. Use your power of influence to reach the others where they are at and set appropriate expectations.

  9. Let others know that you recognize and appreciate their perspective and the value it brings.

Steadiness – S’s

  1. Recognize that D’s and I’s are wired to offer quick insights and new ideas in the moment, which is different from your default approach. This may trigger you to feel obligated to follow through on each thought/idea, though D/I’s don’t typically expect that. Acknowledge the idea(s) and reinforce that while you may not pursue each one, you appreciate their contribution.

  2. D’s like to be in control – find opportunities where they could help make the final decision or ways where can offer quick insights to keep things moving.

  3. When processing a new change, write out all your questions beforehand. Pick your top 3-5 and make these the focus of your next conversation, then stick to your list. C’s will appreciate the structure; D/I’s will appreciate the emphasis on a focused agenda.

  4. Project confidence and authority while still seeking others’ perspectives (i.e. “I appreciate you bringing that to my attention. Can you help me understand why you think that approach may be better…?”)

Conscientiousness/Compliance – C’s

  1. Acknowledge your preference for details and accuracy; also accept that other styles aren’t wired the same way. It’s not personal. It’s also not less professional for other styles not to want the same level of detail as you.

  2. To stay authentic to yourself, when going into a meeting with D/I’s, go ahead and fully document the details you feel are needed to support the decision being made. Then:

  3. Provide the full documentation in advance of the upcoming meeting (email or hard copy).

  4. Also provide an agenda, including the top 3-5 topics needing to be discussed and how long you expect it to take to cover each topic. Stick to your agenda.

  5. As topics surface that need to be discussed in greater detail, continually go back to the original agenda and engage the D/Is to determine the priority and what needs to be discussed before the end of the meeting. They will appreciate having that control and being engaged in quick decisions, even small ones.

  6. Let others know that you recognize and appreciate their perspective and the value it brings. S’s will appreciate the personal touch.

When I recognized my preferred style and how it could actually get in the way of effectively communicating with other styles, it empowered me to take action toward better outcomes. It takes work, but the reward is increased empathy and positive interactions.

How Do You Apply the Platinum Rule?

Consider a free, 30 mn consultation to talk through your specific scenario and what actions you could take to make progress on more effective communication.


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