Feeling dissed? Here’s how to raise concerns about disrespect in a way that increases dialogue and decreases pushback.
Twenty-seven years ago this past summer, I met my husband. Sometime in those first months of dating, he casually dropped a conversational bomb one day: Tammy, he said, you don’t treat me with respect when we disagree.
I didn’t know which to do first: Pick my jaw up off the floor or tell him how very wrong he was. Little did I know then that the R word would come up in so many mediations, with so many coaching clients, and in virtually every conflict resolution or mediation course I teach.
Respect, it seems, is a common bone of contention.
The respect problem
The Respect Problem comes in several varieties. These three seem particularly popular:
- Whether or not someone is treating someone else respectfully.
- Whether or not someone deserves or has earned respect.
- How much respect is shown (or not shown).
Take it from a mediator: Trading opinions about the degree, quality, or amount of respect is a black hole. It leads nowhere but to a repeated trading of perception, of offensive move followed by defensive move. It distracts you from the conversation that is significant — the conversation that gets you off the respect/disrespect teeter totter and onto a useful path of discussion.
A respect solution
What to do instead? Translate perception into behaviors, like this:
- Stop the “whether or not respect” argument. Start describing the behaviors that signal respect or disrespect.
- Forget about the quantity of respect delivered or deserved — it’s an unresolvable question. Focus instead on what respectful behavior looks and sounds like.
- Stop focusing on the perception or diagnosis and start focusing on behaviors.
Will angels suddenly sing from on high and the sun burst forth from behind dark clouds? Doubtful.
But when you change the respect conversation to behaviors, you avoid horse-trading on amount (which is ridiculous, when you think about it) and ensure you’re understanding both the profound and nuanced differences in the way people experience respect.
What it looks and sounds like in practice
When someone accuses you of treating them disrespectfully, don’t bother to counter their argument. Instead of a round of “Am not!” “Are too!” “Am not” “Are too,” ask what you’re doing or saying that implies disrespect to them. The answer will usually give you something meaningful to consider together.
When you’re tempted to demand respect, bite your tongue. Instead of “You need to treat me with more respect!” followed by the nearly inevitable, “Well, earn it then,” raise for discussion the treatment or behavior that feels disrespectful to you.
When conversation turns to whether or not enough respect is being shown, don’t get sucked in. Instead, try something like, “Describe for me how I’m not showing you enough respect — I want to make sure I’m really understanding your point.”
It’s this latter approach I took with my husband all those years ago. That’s when I learned I was not hearing his semi-colons! And that was something I could change.