The glue that holds all of our relationships together

We all have the desire to be seen, heard, listened to, and treated fairly; to be recognized, understood, and feel safe in the world.

Some time ago I worked with a company to help build a narrative to diminish turnover and create lasting impact. It’s the kind of work I love to do—help a team and company flourish.

And in this company, I came to realize that what they needed for that to happen was dignity. I did what I could to begin the process of many shifts in perception, talking, and sharing stories among the people in the team, but I knew I could not effect lasting change as an outsider.

Then one day I met a person who had been beaten down to the point of soulful exhaustion working in this company for so many years. We spoke because he was giving notice that day.

I could not promise I could do anything, I was only advising, and who knew for how long. But I could identify the point where this person’s soul could no longer tolerate living without dignity. When I mentioned this, tears dropped, because someone finally understood.

Desmond Tutu says that ‘nobody can take your dignity away.’ Tutu was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996. He’s intimately familiar with the human desire to be heard and seen.

“Our universal yearning for dignity drives our species and defines us as human beings. It’s our highest common denominator, yet we know so little about it. It’s hard for people to articulate exactly what it is. What they do know is more like an intuition or sixth sense. ‘Yes, dignity is important,’ people tell me, but they come up short when I ask them to put their intuition into words.

What people usually say is that dignity is respect. I get that response every time I ask an audience. But dignity is not the same as respect. Dignity, I argue, is an attribute that we are born with—it is our inherent value and self-worth….

Respect is different. Although everyone has dignity, not everyone deserves respect. Respect must be earned…. Dignity is something we all deserve no matter what we do. It is the starting point for the way we treat one another. To clear up any confusion, I think it is imperative to respect each other’s dignity.”

Dr Donna Hicks’ work as international conflict resolution specialist consisted in facilitating dialogue for parties in conflict. She was in the Middle East, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Sri Lanka, in Columbia, she did some U.S.-Cuba dialogues, northern Ireland. Anywhere there’s a hot conflict she and her organization at Harvard were involved in some way. Recently it was in Libya-Syria.

One of the goals in bringing these parties together in dialogue was to see if they could get the parties to come up with a jointly thought-through answer to the issues that divide them.

Typically when you have a negotiation between two parties, each brings their proposals. Then the conversation is about how to wrangle and merge them. But their method was about coming up with a joint agreement from the get-go.

However, there was always another conversation going on in the room. These were highly emotional reactions to what was taking place in the discussion. And they were derailing the dialogue.

The challenge was to bring this to the attention of the high-powered negotiators. They’d likely say, “these are the political issues we need to discuss.” Rather than trying to discuss the emotional reaction that upset them, Hicks brought up dignity.

Everyone then wanted to tell a story, theirs and the stories of their ancestors’ dignity violations. So the conversation needed to be about dignity. The next step was to find practical applications to questions like: how do we honor dignity?

How do you know if you’re treating someone with dignity?

After doing some research, Hicks found a simple definition of dignity—our inherent value and worth as well as your inherent vulnerability—and a framework to express ways to honor someone’s dignity. You can find them along with examples and practical applications in her first book, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Ending Conflict.

“We are often unaware of the ways we routinely and subtly violate each others dignity. At the same time, we are to fully aware of the power we have to make people feel good by recognising their worth.”

Inherent value and vulnerability means we’re all born with them. But we don’t necessarily know how to act with dignity. So it needs to be part of our education. I remember thinking my niece could use the information when I read the book. I even reached out to Donna Hicks to find out about translations in other languages.

Beyond conflict resolution and international relations, each of us wants to be treated with dignity. The thing is that each of us starts a cycle of dignity with our own behavior. Mistreating others reflects back on us. Which is the principal reason why I wanted my teenage niece to read the book.

Common reactions to threats

As I learned in human development, whenever we feel under threat, we react. Some of the some common reactions we have are likely familiar. And they’re examples of how our ‘emotional brain’ never grows. Donna Hicks outlined ten:

  1. We take the bait. We let the someone else’s bad behavior influence our own. Getting even is tempting. But restraint is better for us long term.
  2. We want to save face. This is easy to see: we lie, cover-up, or deceive ourselves. When telling the truth could provide the relief we seek.
  3. We shirk responsibility. When it’s actually better to admit when we’ve made a mistake. And apologize if we hurt someone, without weaseling out by saying “I’m sorry if you felt bad.”
  4. We seek false dignity in external recognition. Approval and praise may feel good. But they make us dependent on others for our own dignity.
  5. We seek false security through our need for connection and relationships. When someone violates our dignity routinely, they have no place in our network.
  6. We avoid conflict. This is a big one, because it prevents us from improving our relationships. Change can be good.
  7. We assume innocent victimhood. Which prevents us from seeing our role in contributing to the problem. It’s hard, but healthy, to try to look at ourselves as others see us.
  8. We resist feedback. Which opens us to blind spots where we unconsciously behave in undignified ways. To overcome our protective instincts and accept constructive criticism we can see feedback as an opportunity to grow.
  9. We blame and shame others to deflect guilt. We defend ourselves by blaming someone else. It may work, but it will make things worse.
  10. We engage in false intimacy and demeaning gossip. Being critical and judgmental of others who are not present is harmful and undignified. Speaking the truth about yourself creates intimacy with another. Talking about what is happening in our inner world invites the other person to do the same.

The idea that we all want to be treated like a human being is at odds with the belief that ‘respect is earned.’ If we agree that a baby is invaluable, we also need to acknowledge that there’s inherent value and worth in every person.

How can we reconcile the narrative of earning respect with the principle that each human should be treated with dignity? Can how we should be together reach a broader level of social consciousness? What does it mean to lead with dignity?

In this conversation on value Dr Donna Hicks and I talk about the value in embracing our own dignity and upholding that of others to heal human connection.

Watch the conversation with Dr Donna Hicks here.

0:00 Defining dignity 5:03 Our dignity belongs to us 9:50 Dignity in conflicts 19:07 Dignity education 28:28 Reactions to threat 37:36 Dignity violations

“The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of the expanding concept of what it means to be human.”
– John Naisbitt

Native American Wisdom by artist Dale Lamphere.