On Dignity

By Chris Chittenden

Our dignity is our sense of self-worth and forms the basis of how we relate to others. When asked to assess their dignity, some people are able to easily articulate their self-worth, but for most their sense of themselves will lie buried inside their stories of themselves and their life. Yet, our response to most situations has the act of taking care of our dignity at its core. It is an understanding of this phenomena and the phenomena of dignity that can create a space for us to take conversations and our relationships with others to a new level.

So just how can we define dignity? The idea of dignity arises because we live in a social environment. When we explore our dignity, we ask questions about how we fit into our social scene. Such questions could include "How important am I to others? Do they see me as being valuable to them in their life? Will others love me? Do I conform with my society's standards?" We hold that dignity can be defined as four assessments - worthiness - our importance and offer to others; loveability - our ability to attract the affection of others; validity - our relevance to others; and legitimacy - our conformance to our society's standards.

Our growth as human beings can be seen in the way in which we take care of not just our own dignity but also that of others. For example, take an everyday meeting in any organisation. If you observe the conversations taking place in that meeting and assess them from the perspective of dignity, you will probably see many people taking care of themselves. They will have a point of view and argue they are right and others are wrong. For them conversation is a battleground where they must win or be defeated. They will not listen to what others have to say with any obvious effort to understand the other's point of view. Basically, they seek to foster their sense of self importance and take care of their own sense of worth. On the other hand there are others who will seek to largely take care of other people's dignity at the expense of their own. They will not take their space in conversations and will use language that seems to indicate their views do not count for much. As a result, they do not bring much authority to the conversation, their ideas are passed over and their identity compromised.

For the most part, the people having these conversations will not see the role they are playing in the constant interplay of our assessments of self-worth. They will know they are right and are just putting their point across or they are just taking care of other people's concerns. The point is that these conversations do not do much to enhance better relationships, if anything they have a negative impact on both their identity, relationships and future conversations.

So how can we do this better? The word "conversation" comes from the Latin word "conversare" which means to "to turn with". Hence a conversation is literally about "turning together". We do this more effectively when we seek to take care of both our and other's dignity in our conversations. We can only do this when we understand each other. Steven Covey, who is a noted writer in the field of human effectiveness, coined his "seven habits of highly effective people". One of those was to "seek first to understand then to be understood". If we truly want to take care of other people's dignity, the first thing we must understand is their real concerns. This involves genuinely listening to them before we launch into our point of view. This approach has the added advantage of creating a different sense of what we might say, thereby making us seem more coherent and relevant and enhancing our identity and self-worth.

The idea of taking care of dignity is not a technique. It requires a genuine way of being that others' views are as important - not more or less - as yours. From this way of observing the world, you will find that different conversations open up. You will see more possibilities, develop better relationships and enhance your identity. From a business perspective, this also leads to greater innovation, the development of shared understanding and direction, continuous improvement, enhanced quality, learning....the list just goes on and on! That can't be bad for business.

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© 2002 Chris Chittenden