The Key to Handling Arguments About Respect

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 in 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.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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