Ask A Negotiation Expert: To Resolve Conflict, Address Dignity Concerns

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Dignity violations can often be found at the core of interpersonal conflicts, according to Dr. Donna Hicks, an associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. The author of Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People (Yale University Press, 2018), Hicks shared with Negotiation Briefings how we can begin to repair our most deep-seated conflicts through a better understanding of dignity.

Negotiation Briefings: How do you define dignity? How is it different from respect?

Donna Hicks: People tend to view dignity and respect as interchangeable, but they’re actually very different. I define dignity quite simply as our inherent value and worth. Everyone is born with dignity; it’s part of the human condition, and we’re all vulnerable to dignity violations, such as being talked down to or treated unfairly. Respect, by contrast, has to be earned. In international conflicts, people often tell me that they’re fighting to regain the other side’s respect. I tell them that they’re asking for too much, but that they can demand to be treated as a human being with inherent value. When parties believe both sides have inherent dignity, they have the foundation of an agreement.

NB: How does getting people to talk about ways in which their dignity has been violated help to resolve conflict?

DH: I start by telling both parties that I’m going to present to them what I’ve learned about dignity before we talk about their conflict. Both parties sit together and learn the hard evidence about dignity violations, including the fact that the brain processes dignity violations the same way as a physical wound. Dignity violations prompt a desire to retaliate and can lead to conflict. Parties learn how to heal from dignity wounds and how to acknowledge and apologize for their own dignity violations.

Once they understand that we all lash out when we feel threatened, parties become capable of acknowledging how they perpetuated dignity violations and take responsibility for them. It takes just one brave soul to step up and say, “I’m sorry for what my community has done.” Then the floodgates open.

NB: How can people in the business world use the concept of dignity to negotiate deals and resolve conflicts?

DH: I began exploring and writing about dignity to help resolve international conflicts, but people in the corporate world are recognizing that conflict between management and employees is often dignity related. When we look beneath the surface of an issue, such as a salary disagreement, we often find that employees feel their dignity has been violated. Even leaders with good intentions tend to be unaware of the impact of dignity issues on employees. This is something leaders need to understand better. When people feel the organization and its leaders are honoring their dignity, their loyalty, engagement, and productivity rise.

NB: What types of dignity violations are most common in the workplace?

DH: Of the 10 elements of dignity that I’ve identified (which include safety, fairness, inclusion, and independence), employees most commonly say that their sense of psychological safety is being violated. In fact, 80% of the thousands of people I’ve surveyed told me they don’t feel safe speaking up when something bad happens to them at work because they believe they’d be penalized for doing so. “Having my dignity violated is part of my job description,” one man told me.

The simple truth is that we all want to be treated with dignity, and we all suffer when we’re not. When we’re treated well, we flourish. We face a choice: Do I want to contribute to the well-being or the suffering of the world? Most choose the former.

NB: What should you do if you feel your dignity has been violated in a negotiation?

DH: When someone violates our dignity, we want to get even, and we tend to lash out. Resist that strong impulse: Hold yourself responsible for your own dignity and for not violating the dignity of others. Keep in mind that they often aren’t aware of what they’ve done. Once the interaction is over, take some quiet time to cool down. You might then return to the person and say, “My relationship with you is important to me, and I have a feeling you weren’t aware of the impact of what you said to me during our meeting.” Once you’ve said you value the relationship, the other party is likely to respond sincerely and try to make amends.

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