Find out what it means to me.
— Aretha Franklin
Twenty-three years ago this month, 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 almost every conflict I mediate, with almost every client I coach, and in almost every conflict resolution or mediation training 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).
These discussions, my friends, are red herrings. They lead nowhere but to a repeated trading of perception, of offensive move followed by defensive move. They distract you from the conversation that is significant, the conversation that gets you off the respect/disrespect gerbil wheel and onto a useful path of discussion.
A Respect Solution
What to do instead? Here are three ways to describe the same idea…pick the one that resonates with you:
Stop the “whether or not respect” argument. Start describing the behavior or 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 word 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 does this look 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 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.”
Oh, and that comment from my husband? When I asked him what behavior I was exhibiting that implied I disrespected him, I learned that I better get much better at interpreting semi-colons!