Dignity Part 2: Avoiding the slippery slope

New Year is traditionally a time of reflection and resolve. And perhaps we’re extra aware of our thoughts, emotions and intentions as we anticipate 2021. We’re drawing breath from one year, with all its pain, loss and learning. And we’re facing another year of challenge and uncertainty. But, as we allow hope to bubble to the surface again, which realisations do we want to carry through to shape our approach and contribution?

At the cusp of these two years, my thoughts have lingered on the nature of dignity. My thinking has been guided by my own experience of coaching individuals and leadership teams – I believe that creating a Thinking Environment is one of the most dignifying ways of being with another. And the profound work of Donna Hicks has given me the chance to think deeper about how we honour and secure dignity, for ourselves and others, in our everyday lives. 

If January promises some quiet time and space for you, I invite you to read Dignity and Leading with Dignity and let Donna Hicks’ words provide a framework for your resolutions. If you’re facing a busy month, I offer this article as a mirror to reflect the light her work offers us.

Stepping clear of temptation

What if we could each bring more dignity to the world? What if we could feel secure in our own dignity? What if we could honour each other’s dignity? What would that look like? What would it feel like?

What does it look like, and feel like, when our dignity – our human birthright – is violated? Through her work convening dialogue for parties in conflict situations, and her readiness to shine a torch on our everyday lives, Donna Hicks reminds us that violations of dignity extend far beyond the serious situations we might imagine.

“We have an inborn desire to be treated well because we are psychologically programmed to believe that our lives are dependent on it. We cannot help but react to being mistreated. Our emotional radar is set at a very low threshold for indignities. The second we sense that someone is judging us or treating us unfairly or as if we are inferior, the emotional warning signal flashes on. Research suggests that we are just as programmed to sense a threat to our dignity – to our sense of worth – as we are to a physical threat.” Donna Hicks.

We live with this inborn desire to be treated well. We are programmed to notice others’ indignities towards us. And yet, it seems, we are less aware of the ways in which we can so easily generate or propagate violations of dignity. Our love-hate relationship with social media is a testament to this.

Donna Hicks’ work confronts and explores the common ways in which dignity can be violated. She offers her analysis as ten temptations – slippery paths that any of us can take in our dealings with each other.

Her ten temptations – and the ten elements of dignity that they violate – resonate strongly for me. As I work with others, practising and teaching what it means to be a Thinking Environment, I am struck by the alignment between securing others’ dignity and maintaining the components that allow generative thinking in others. Here I share these temptations and the alternative choices we can make:

  1. We take the bait. We become consumed with others’ ill-behaviour and allow it to determine our own. Instead we can honour our own inherent capacity for good.
  2. We save face. We give in to the urge to cover up our own misgivings or deny our mistakes. We are not infallible as human beings. Being vulnerable is part of our dignity. Think about it for a moment, we are born into this world naked of clothes, knowledge and experiences. And we are born into this world with inherent value and worth. As we develop, we make mistakes, we mess up, we say things we wish we hadn’t, we do things we wish we hadn’t. Instead we can recognise our vulnerability – and our learning – and be honest about our mistakes.
  3. We shirk responsibility when we violate another’s dignity. And we forget that what may not seem hurtful to us can be felt as hurtful by another. Instead we can be quick to apologise for any hurt we may have caused. 
  4. We seek false dignity. We fall prey to our desire for external recognition. We allow our dependence on approval and praise to reduce our own sense of worth. Instead we can strengthen our internal criteria and self-validation.
  5. We seek false security. Remaining in relationships which continually violate our dignity destroys our own value and worth. Instead we can balance our need for connection with honouring our dignity.
  6. We avoid conflict. We avoid confrontation in situations where our dignity is being violated. We fail to stand up for ourselves. Instead we can take action and let others know specifically what behaviour is in violation of our dignity. One of the most compelling examples of this I have seen recently is from US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her response to Ted Yoho’s violating remarks.
  7. We become the victim. We assume we are an innocent victim in a troubled relationship. We fail to ask, “What’s my part in the situation I find myself in?” Instead we can reflect on how we might have contributed to unease or conflict. And by recognising how to we can adapt our personal style and bring others alongside we can set the foundation for stronger relationships.
  8. We resist feedback. We all have blind spots and we all inadvertently, even unconsciously, behave in undignified ways. We confuse our need for approval and praise – false dignity – with valuable opportunities for personal growth. Instead we can regularly ask for feedback about the ways we show up and impact others. We can ask “What do you see in me that I might not see in myself?”
  9. We blame and shame others to deflect our own guilt. Faced with shame – the overwhelming feeling that we are bad – we give in to the urge to be defensive and make others wrong. Instead we can acknowledge that we make mistakes. Through vulnerability we can access the courage to say sorry. Brené Brown’s TED talk Listening to Shame shows how we dignify ourselves and others when we confront our shame and accept our vulnerability.
  10. We engage in false intimacy and demeaning gossip. We are tempted by the deceptive intimacy of speaking unkindly about others. We allow ourselves to be critical or judgemental of others when they are not present. We forget that doing so is both harmful to others and undignified of us. Instead, we can create true intimacy with others by speaking our truth about what is going on for us and how we are feeling. And we can invite others to do the same.

What if we could each bring more dignity to the world? What if we could feel secure in our own dignity? What if we could honour each other’s dignity? What would that look like? What would it feel like?

We would know that we matter. We would know that we have inherent worth. We would know that we can face uncertainty, secure in the value of our contribution to our families, our businesses, our communities and our world.

Thanks for reading!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think others will find it challenging and uplifting, please pass it on.

Photo by Heylo Pistazie on Unsplash

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