2.4 Building Your Conversations On A Foundation Of Mutual Respect

Conversations take place in a climate. Some climates are negative and have a corrosive influence on the conversation. For example, conversations whose climates are based on suspicion or distrust have little chance of producing a worthwhile outcome. On the other hand, conversations that take place in positive, supportive climates — such those based on mutuality and trust — have a much higher chance of success.

The biggest influence over the climate is the degree of respect present in the conversation. The moment someone in a conversation feels disrespected, the communication is in danger. The feeling of being respected (or disrespected) is a very powerful emotion that can easily override any other consideration. If you feel disrespected, it’s easy to lose your temper or give up on the conversation altogether. It’s also very difficult to listen well in this frame of mind.

For example, Seb finds it hard to respect people who’re not as smart as he is, so he finds dialogue with many people difficult since they often feel discounted or patronised by his manner. Simone has a similar problem. She is scornful of elderly people, whom she sees as ‘slow and boring’. This attitude comes across very clearly in her conversations with anyone over 50, where it is perceived as very disrespectful.

a. Everyone deserves respect, including you

Everyone responds positively to being treated with respect — from a five year old, to the chairman of the board. There are no exceptions. The desire to be recognised as a valuable individual is at the heart of human nature.

Unfortunately, the word ‘respect’ has been hijacked by some sections of society to mean something akin to ‘fear’. So when a gang leader demands respect, what he actually wants is for the other person to feel frightened of him.

Feeling disrespected can exert a powerful influence over people. A recent television documentary contained an interview with a 20-year-old man who had just been convicted of stabbing another young man to death, for the offence of talking to his girlfriend. His justification for the murder was simple. “He dissed me in front of my friends. I had no choice but to kill him. Otherwise, everybody else would have started to diss me.”

That’s obviously an extreme case, but never underestimate the impact that disrespect can have on the climate of a conversation.

To look on the more positive side, there's a simple rule for establishing the right kind of climate for conversations. It's at least as old as the Bible.

Treat other people in the way you want to be treated yourself.

For instance, do you want other people to respect your right to hold your own opinions about things? Of course you do. Then by the fairness principle (everyone plays by the same rules), you must respect other people's right to hold points of view different from yours. This doesn't mean you have to agree with them, by the way. But it does mean you should devote the time and energy to understanding them, in just the same way you'd like to be understood yourself.

Creating the right climate for conversations begins with the assertion that all people are worthy of respect. Our need to communicate runs from routine conversations with a waiter, to complex conversations with family members, friends, co-workers, and employers. All deserve your respect and you deserve theirs.

Respect — and disrespect — has many faces.

We can display our respect, or lack of it, in a myriad of ways. Indeed, you could say that every aspect of how we communicate has the potential to be can be done in a respectful, or disrespectful, manner.

Take the basic function of paying attention — the bedrock of effective two-way communication. The disrespectful way to pay attention is to do it badly, to let your mind drift. In effect, this is a way of saying “I don’t think what you say is important enough to pay attention to, because I don’t think you are important.” The respectful way is to pay close attention, because this is a way of saying, “I value what you say, since I value you as a person.” Your body language radiates signals about your state of attention. For instance, a look of concentration is respectful. A yawn is most definitely not.

By infusing a conversation with genuine respect, you can go a long way towards having a successful dialogue simply on that factor alone.

b. The range of respect: from civility to love

While all people are worthy of respect, there are different modalities of respect. At one end of the scale respect takes the form of civility. At the other end, there is love and devotion. Civility is the basic requirement for engaging others in conversation. On the other hand, life would be rather bizarre if we had to treat everyone, everyday, with love and devotion.

Stephen Carter, in a book called Civility (1998) defines civility as, "the sum of the many sacrifices we are called upon to make for the sake of living together." That includes working together. Conversation is part of this bigger picture. There are sacrifices we must make in order to have effective dialogues with one another. Later in the book Carter says that, "Anything that interferes with dialogue is bad for civility." Carter believes that disputes are, in the first instance, best handled by conversation rather than legislation. Or edict. In sum, effective dialogue is impossible without the self-discipline required by civility.

Consider all those people who play a role in your life but are not family or close friends. There are clerks in shops, waiters and waitresses, counter people in fast-food outlets, ticket sellers at theatres, conductors on trains, flight attendants on airlines, and so forth. We hardly ever become fast friends with people who fill these essential roles, but they still deserve our respect. Civility? At least. Perhaps a little more. In the workplace some people become our close friends. We shy away from others. We may not like them and perhaps for good reason. But the starting point is still civility. Consider the following example.

Rowan has a problem. He's terrible with waiters and waitresses. In restaurants, he's demanding, short-tempered, never satisfied. Embarrassing for his dining partners. On the other hand, Jade inevitably strikes up a cordial relationship with people working in restaurants. No, she doesn't become fast friends with them. These relationships are necessarily short-term. But because of her style, the evening goes better for everyone. And she never gives the impression that she is manipulating the waiter or waitress in order to get better service or perks other diners would not get. Rather, this is just the way she is. More than civil.

Your relationships vary from those, which are the source of your happiness, to those which are the bane of your existence. The latter might include the ‘waiter from hell’. But respect has a wide reach. Civility with those you would sooner avoid but cannot, is part of the values package. Being civil in such cases does not make you a coward or a wimp. Besides, you have every right to give strong feedback to people who are offensive. Stick to your rights. But other people's rudeness need not govern your conversational behaviour.

c. Talking on the level

Another way of looking at respect is to consider the ‘geometries’ of conversations and how this affects respect.

In the up-down structure, one person assumes, or is put into, the ‘up’ position, the one in authority, the one in control. The other person either adopts, or is cast in, the role of the confused or needy one, the down position.

Up-down conversations lead to people feeling patronised, belittled, or put down — all negative states of mind, barriers to dialogue.

In the solo-player structure, one party hogs the conversation. Others are there to listen to him or her and satisfy his or her needs.

Being squeezed out of a conversation feels deeply disrespectful. It says, “I don’t care what you think, or how you feel.”

In the straight-across structure, both people are full participants in the conversation.

Finally, there is the side-by-side structure. The parties in this geometry are working together, side-by-side, on common issues.

When Jeremy, a single parent, says to friends that he is having trouble with his son, he can expect different kinds of responses. Here are some of the reactions he gets.

Friend A says, "Jeremy, what you've just described is a classic picture. Let me tell you what will make a difference for you …”

Friend A, though perhaps well-meaning, engages in non-mutual problem-solving by dispensing advice. He adopts the role of the authority and sets the conversation in an up-down fashion. He is saying, in effect, "I, the informed, will tell you, the confused, how you should proceed." He is the ‘up’ in an up-down conversation.

Friend B says, "Jeremy, you think you have problems! My son and I can't seem to ask each other for the time of day, without ending up in an argument. His school work is a problem and asking him about it’s like walking in a mine field."

Friend B hijacks the conversations and begins to discuss her own problems. She puts her own concerns centre stage. There is no question of balance. She adopts the ‘solo-player’ position.

Friend C says, "Sounds like it's not easy being a single parent, Jeremy. Gee, there are two of us, my wife and I, and it's still not easy. What kinds of things are going on?"

Friend C is there as a buddy, straight-across, as it were. He expresses interest, not as a counsellor, or as an authority figure who has figured everything out, but as a friend. Their conversation is filled with give and take. It has balance.

Finally, Friend D says, "My wife and I are running into the same kind of problems with our daughter. Though with girls, I think it's probably a bit different. Let's compare notes."

Friend D enters the conversation as a ‘fellow traveller’ and the ensuing conversation is set on a mutual basis, where they can share their experiences side-by-side. Friend D is saying in effect, "I understand your experience. It's similar to my own. Let's talk a while and see if we can figure out something." The conversation not only has balance, but also symmetry.

Obviously straight-across and side-by-side geometries provide the best climate for dialogue-focused conversations.

d. Respect and responsibility

In fairness you cannot say to yourself, "It's the other person's job to make this conversation interesting or productive." Nor is it fair to let your behaviour say in effect, "I will speak with you but it’s your job to take the initiative, to share ideas and feelings, and do all the work." This is like the person who comes to a meeting and sits and says nothing. When asked to share his thoughts, he announces, "I'm just here to observe." Or, imagine you are rowing a boat only to turn around and find your partner resting with the oars up or, worse, dragging in the water.

The idea of ‘fairness’ applies just as much to conversational behaviour as it does to other human interactions.

In the best of all worlds, both parties in a conversation of any substance take responsibility to make it a dialogue. In fact, in the very best of all worlds, each party is committed to going more than halfway in making sure that all of this happens.

This kind of good will creates an ‘overlap’ of responsibility that promotes dialogue.

When in the Explainer/Teller role, effective communicators try to make it easy for Understanders to get their main points by working hard at expressing themselves as clearly as possible, providing adequate but not excessive, detail and so forth.

Conversational partners, when in the Understander role, do whatever they can in order to listen to and understand, the points being made. They try to make it easy for Explainer/Tellers to tell their stories, deliver their messages, share their points of view, or make their cases. This ‘overlap’ of effort greatly helps.

The value of respect calls for both parties in a conversation to be active — sharing their thoughts and feelings, responding to what the other says, looking for ways to move the conversation forward. When a conversation gets off-track, both take it as their responsibility to get things back on track.

Karen and Len have been talking about re-doing their kitchen. The difficulty is finding a suitable builder.

Finally, Karen says, "Len, I'm afraid that we've become so desperate to get someone to do this job, we're not taking a hard look at the quality of the people we're talking to."

And Len replies, "You’re right. You know, every time I’ve thought of bringing up something negative about the a builder we've talked to, I’ve held back by saying to myself that you’d see it as me nit-picking. So let’s think again. What should we do about the kitchen?"

Karen and Leonard both play a role in resetting the conversation. They are co-operative. However, when conversations get awkward or difficult, it's tempting to bail out. Effective communicators stay engaged, unless they see that it would be better to defer - but not avoid - the conversation.

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