by Donna Hicks
Dignity is a missing link in our understanding of how to resolve conflict. The role it plays in the breakdown of relationships cannot be overstated. Being treated with dignity is something every human being yearns for; yet knowing how to honor and recognize it in ourselves and others does not come naturally. What appears to come naturally is our ability to do harm to one another. While we all enter the world with inborn dignity, it is our responsibility to learn how to act like it.
Dignity matters to us all. It is something we share, no matter who we are, where we live or how much money we have. The definition is simple: dignity is our inherent value and worth. The fact is, we are not only valuable, but invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable. So, how do we treat something that is invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable? We give it our utmost care and attention. Sadly, this is not the norm we see in our everyday lives. How many times have we experienced being treated as if we didn’t matter by others? How many times have we lashed back and returned the dignity violation? How many times have we walked away from an interaction with someone and are left feeling bad? Most likely we have experienced a wound to our dignity. These wounds to our dignity prevent us from resolving conflict if they are not acknowledged and addressed.
Our ignorance of all matters related to dignity has caused so much human suffering. It has had a devastating effect on our relationships, yet very little attention has been paid to it. There is no where in our school systems that teach us about dignity and the result is that we have unresolved conflicts everywhere we turn–in our families, in our friendships, in the workplace, in our schools and between nations. What can we do about it? How do we stop the epidemic of indignity that has prevented us from having the kind of loving and respectful relationships we all yearn for and deserve? How do we learn to recognize and embrace our own dignity and be convinced that we are worthy?
I have introduced what I call the dignity model to thousands of people all over the world who are searching for ways to resolve conflict in their lives. The conflicts are either internal where people are plagued with a sense of self-doubt and unworthiness or they are in their relationships with others. The root of the internal conflicts often can be traced back to being treated badly as a child. Kids need to be shown that they are worthy by their caretakers. When they are abused, mistreated and neglected instead, they think something is wrong with them; they believe they are flawed, not smart enough, or not worthy of their caretaker’s love and attention. At the root of relationship conflicts is this: a lack of awareness of the negative impact we have on others. We often feel justified in mistreating those who mistreat us. But that only perpetuates the cycle of indignity.
Here are a few things we can all do that would not only help resolve our conflicts with dignity, but prevent them from happening to begin with:
1. Recognize and accept the inherent value and vulnerability of all human beings. Know that when we treat others badly, it creates a wound as serious as a physical injury. On the other hand, when we treat them in a way that recognizes and honors their inherent worth–their dignity–you improve the relationship. Also, when you honor someone’s dignity, you strengthen your own.
2. Develop an awareness of the ten ways that you honor the dignity of others.Use the ten essential elements of dignity as a guide for how you treat others These are ways to show others you that you value them and recognize their worth.
- Acceptance of Identity. Approach people as being neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age and disability may be at the core of the other person’s identity. Assume that others have integrity.
- Inclusion. Make others feel that they belong, whatever the relationship–whether they are in your family, community, organization or nation.
- Safety. Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
- Acknowledgement. Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating and responding to their concerns, feelings, and experiences.
- Recognition. Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness and help. Be generous with praise, and show appreciation and gratitude to others for their contributions and ideas.
- Fairness. Treat people justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way according to agreed-on laws and rules. People feel that you have honored their dignity when you treat them without discrimination or injustice.
- Benefit of the Doubt. Treat people as trustworthy. Start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
- Understanding. Believe that what others think matters. Give them the chance to explain and express their points of view. Actively listen in order to understand them.
- Independence. Encourage people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility.
- Accountability. Take responsibility for your actions. If you have violated the dignity of another person, apologize. Make a commitment to change your hurtful behaviors.
3. Don’t be afraid to speak up when someone violates you. There are ways to defend your dignity without violating the dignity of the person who violated you. There is nothing noble about taking abuse.
4. Take responsibility for when you have violated someone’s dignity. Don’t try to save face by acting like you did nothing wrong. If someone tells you that you hurt them, apologize and commit to changing your behavior.
5. Take feedback from others. We all have blind spots that get us into trouble in our relationships. We need the loving eyes of others to help us see the ways we are unknowingly hurting them. An essential part of learning about dignity is to know how to give and receive feedback.
These are just a few things that could improve our dignity awareness and skills. Recognize that we can do much better at how we feel about ourselves and our relationships, and we can do it with dignity.
Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and the author of Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict. She also conducts workshops worldwide on all matters related to dignity.
Web site: drdonnahicks.com