How Abandoning the Golden Rule for the Platinum Rule Improved All My Relationships

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I vividly remember the day in kindergarten when my teacher asked the class to repeat after her: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Commonly referred to as “the golden rule,” this phrase means well and does hit on notes of empathy that are crucial to healthy relationships with others. But, as I've realized into adulthood, the golden rule doesn't effectively allow room for the nuance of personal preferences. That's where “the platinum rule” really shines—and why I've adopted it as a guiding light for how to approach all of my relationships.

The platinum rule specifies that we should treat others the way they want to be treated, which relationship experts say make it more efficient for relationship-building than its golden counterpart. Adhering strictly to the golden rule “becomes a problem because what works for you may not work for your partner, coworker, or friend,” says Karla Zambrano-Morrison, LMFT. “Treating everyone how you would like to be treated doesn't take into account everyone else's history, struggles, and experiences,” she adds.

Experts In This Article
  • Karla Zambrano-Morrison, LMFT, Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist
  • Tony Alessandra, PhD, Tony Alessandra, PhD, is the author of The Platinum Rule, a book which encourages people to treat others they way they want to be treated.

I first realized that I should be adhering to the platinum rule when I started taking care of my plants, because I learned that each of them had different care requirements for light, water, pruning, etc. This meant that I couldn’t just treat them however I felt like—if I did, they probably wouldn't make it. Based on this understanding, it dawned on me that this thought should also govern my human relationships. Each person deserves to be treated how they want.

This isn't to say the golden rule is worthless or negative—it just doesn't go as far at meeting people where they are as the platinum rule. Marketing specialist Tony Alessandra, PhD, author of The Platinum Rule, which is dedicated to how the very concept applies to business and sales relationships, says the aim of the golden rule is to encourage folks to treat others with respect, compassion, kindness, and consideration—because that’s pretty much the way we’d like to be treated. But it often falls short because folks tend to take it at face value. “When it comes to interpersonal communication, the golden rule can backfire because it says, ‘I should treat you the way I want to be treated.' And that doesn't always work,” says Dr. Alessandra.

From my experience, he's totally right; I like to process emotions by talking them through out loud, so I would often come to people in my life in this way. But not everyone deals with things like I do, so I may unintentionally make those who prefer to think things through on their own before chatting with other people uncomfortable. With the platinum rule, though, I would take an additional step to tailor my approach to how others would prefer to interact—not how I would.

The platinum rule dictates that we should treat others the way they want to be treated—which makes it more efficient for relationship-building.

When I still followed the golden rule, treating people how I prefer to be treated, I would often find that my efforts  didn't land—and my relationships suffered as a result. “People may have shied away because they're clear on what their expectations and boundaries are,” says Zambrano-Morrison. Because I didn't even think to ask how another person may have preferred to be treated, I wasn’t meeting their expectations or respecting their boundaries.

Following the platinum rule requires an additional step than the golden rule because in order to treat people how they want to be treated, you have to work to understand them. The good news is that it’s not all that difficult to figure out how people want to be treated—all you have to do is ask.

How I use the platinum rule in three types of relationships

How I use the platinum rule at work

With managers, I ask how they prefer that I submit work. I'm glad I've taken this strategy, because I've learned that some folks prefer that I send work through directly to them while others are happy to communicate via a workflow platform. Had I just assumed that I could do the latter with all people, I wouldn't be working as optimally as I am.

How I use the platinum rule with friends

Regular texting isn’t something that I personally require in order to feel close to friends—and this is perfectly status quo in some of my relationships. In fact, I could go weeks without chatting with one of my best friends, and she wouldn’t think anything of it. However, if I were to go MIA on another best friend, he'd be more likely to ask what's wrong. He likes to communicate frequently, because that’s how he knows that I’m okay and that our relationship is, too. And I'm happy to oblige.

How I use the platinum rule with strangers

Sure, it's tough to know how people you have no rapport with prefer to be treated—but with a bit of care, I've learned how easy it is to find out. When I was still following the golden rule, I stuck to being my loud, energetic, in-your-face self—which, needless to say, isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. So now, when I meet someone that I think will be in my life for a while, I introduce myself and let them know that it’s important to me to respect their boundaries. I ask how they like to communicate as well as how they conceptualize respect and friendship.

With the help of the platinum rule, I feel that my interpersonal relationships have certainly improved in quality. And that's all because I'm careful to treat folks the way they want to be treated, instead of assuming that what works for me will also work for them.

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