We Don’t Get No Respect
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz

Respect. It’s a word we hear all the time. It seems like the most basic and obvious of things that we want from one another. And yet, in my experience in communication training, it is used often as either an imprecise demand or as a way to admonish people when they don’t treat us the way we want. As much as we think we know what it means, it is actually somewhat vague.

Dictionary definitions of respect range from: admire deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements, to: have due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of, and show consideration for, have regard for, observe, be mindful of, be heedful of, and even: avoid harming or interfering with. So, what happens if we have due regard for someone else’s feelings, but do not admire their achievements? In our minds, we are showing respect; but, in theirs we are not.

While the general idea that we should notice other people and act in a way that takes them into account seems to be positive and noble enough, it is often difficult to divine exactly what the other person wants. We are thus, unfortunately, in the realm of trying to be mind-readers. If we guess correctly, we have avoided a problem. If we do not guess correctly or are unaware of what the other person actually wants, we can inadvertently trigger a very negative reaction and bad situation. This puts us all in a state of anxiety, which does nothing to help us figure out what other people actually want.

I believe this is why we see people who work together feeling that they are not being respected by one another, even with the best of intentions. When was the last time you heard somebody in the workplace complain that someone else had not treated them with respect?

What can be a helpful communication training technique is to define respect more specifically. Using our popular theory of interpersonal relations called FIRO® (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation), a cornerstone of The Human Element, we can understand what people actually want. According to FIRO theory, everyone wants to feel significant, competent, and likable to some degree. That means that when other people treat us in a way that feels less significant, competent, or likable than we want, we feel disrespected. So, we can see three different kinds of respect.

To some people, respect is being treated as significant, important, or that they matter. Being ignored, cut off, not invited, or generally not noticed or seen is what they become sensitive to. Disrespect is about not being treated as important.

To others, respect is being treated as competent, capable, and able to cope. They become sensitive to being treated as if they are not capable, do not know how to do something, or need help. Disrespect is about not being treated as capable and independent.

To a third group, respect is being treated as likable, interesting, and someone who others want to be around. They become sensitive to being treated as if they are unfriendly, thoughtless, or disliked. Disrespect is about not being treated as a nice or appealing person.

It pays to notice which group you find yourself in most often. That way, you know better what you are looking for from others, which means that you can be clear and ask for what you want. For example, if competence is important to you, you can tell people that you prefer to do things on your own rather than having them help you.

It also pays to notice what other people seem to be wanting. For example, a colleague may react poorly when left out of a discussion or meeting, even if you thought that you were saving their valuable time. It may mean that feeling significant and included is important to them. Even with your good intentions of not bothering them, they may feel disrespected if you do not notice what is going on.

The more you can be flexible and notice what may be happening for others and be clear on your own desires the more you will be able to navigate the issue of respect, and other communication training challenges, successfully.