What do you do when respect is violated time and time again? I have revisited mutual purpose with a peer, but we always end up in the same loop: I feel disrespected and dialogue comes to “a screeching halt.” Because of the disrespect, I go to silence and remain there. What do you do if another continually disrespects you every time you attempt to have a crucial conversation?
Signed, Seeking Respect
Dear Seeking Respect,
I can assure you that you’re not the only one who’s been driven loopy by disrespect. Since the “loop” you describe often shows up in small, intermittent outbreaks at first, the tendency is to tolerate it initially. “It’s just that once,” you tell yourself, “it probably won’t happen again.” Until it does. And then you’re stuck with it—at least that’s the way it feels. And as you well know, repeated violations of respect cause the conversation to come to a halt as we shift to trying to preserve or regain respect.
But for those who understand this axiom, there’s hope: when people don’t feel safe, they don’t dialogue. This is true regardless of how much power you have in any given situation. When you don’t feel safe, you look for ways to use your power to control the outcome. Your silence is an attempt to control a situation in which you don’t feel safe. But if you can make it safe, you can talk to almost anyone about almost anything. Which means there’s hope.
Feeling safe in a conversation is a byproduct of feeling a sense of mutuality. In other words, when I believe we have mutual purpose—common goals, objectives, and interests—I’ll enter the conversation. And when I feel that you respect me, I’m willing to continue in a conversation even when it turns crucial. The two conditions are essential to maintaining dialogue in the face of disagreement.
Now while you focused mainly on disrespect in your question, purpose is also important. It’s clear how these two conditions are distinct, but not always as clear as to how they are related. When you work on one, you’re working on the other. So, when you establish mutual purpose, it boosts the feeling of respect you have for the other. And, when there’s mutual respect, it reinforces your sense of mutual purpose. And while you can’t fully address problems of disrespect by establishing mutual purpose, it can be a good place to start. Let me illustrate.
There once was a petite and brilliant analyst named Sun Lee. She was considered the “number whisperer” of her team; she could tame any data set she came across. She discovered her affection for numbers during her younger years in China, fully embraced it during her university studies in the United States, and settled into an organization with plenty of free-range data sets to keep her happily engaged.
On that same team resided a mountain of a man who loved to see data tamed: Frank. Frank led the team. He measured about six foot three inches tall and had spent several years filling in his tall frame so he had enough bulk to block out the sun when he stood over one of his team members. He knew he was imposing and he used his size to get things done—but only when it was necessary. Which was becoming increasingly frequent.
Sun Lee knew this all too well. She had both seen and experienced what everyone referred to as “Frank’s style.” She noticed it was becoming a problem for her team, and more importantly, for herself.
One day, Frank came bursting onto the floor. “Sun Lee! Sun Lee, where are you?!” Sun’s teammates instinctively ducked into their cubicles, opening a clear path for Frank to Sun Lee’s desk. Frank started his tirade when he was twenty-five away, which culminated with a dramatic paper throw-down on her desk. “The numbers are wrong! The numbers are wrong! And if these numbers are wrong, then everything’s wrong!”
Again, the thing that was so unusual about this interaction was that it wasn’t unusual at all. Frank was often disrespectful when problem-solving. And notice here, he and Sun have the same purpose: tame a data set. But Frank’s disrespectful approach put him at cross-purposes with others. (Notice the interplay of purpose and respect in motion.)
As Frank leaned into solving this problem, Sun Lee tried something new. She held up her hand to pause Frank and asked, “Frank, do you want those numbers to be right?” (Notice she’s circling back to mutual purpose here.) “Of course I want those numbers to be right!” he shot back. But she didn’t stop there. She realized that re-establishing mutual purpose would only go so far to rebuild mutual respect. She continued with, “I do too, but the way you’re talking to me doesn’t make me feel like getting those numbers right.” Frank stopped, took a step back, and looked at her. Sun Lee asked a few more questions to better understand the problem, identified the mistake and laid a plan to correct it.
What made her approach effective was that she used mutual purpose to frame the real problem, which wasn’t the numbers but the way she was being treated. She made the lack of respect she was experiencing discussable. Sun Lee started a new pattern with Frank. He learned that he didn’t need to loom and boom to accomplish his purpose. It was a new starting point for the whole team.
See if you can establish mutual purpose to frame a conversation about respect. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may take a while for your peer to change how he or she dialogues with you. If you find they aren’t able to make a shift, you may need to alter some of the parameters of your relationship, like how and when you interact. And remember, if this is a coworker you’re talking about and you find the situation completely intractable after attempting the conversation, you can always bring in an appropriate HR person to help. Finally, in extreme cases, you may need to consider distancing yourself from this person.
All the best,