Fostering Respectful Dialogue

By | April 1, 2009

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When US Attorney General Eric Holder described Americans as “a nation of cowards” with respect to discussing racial issues. His comments received a lot of attention.

I am not an American. I am a Canadian and I have been working in Canada promoting respectful practices at work for over 10 years. I have worked with hundreds of employees in a myriad of different workplaces. As a result, I know that Attorney General Holder’s comments could be applied to Canadians. However, while I completely agree with the meaning behind his message, I am concerned about the way Mr. Holder expressed it.

My new book, Road to Respect: Path to Profit, is a “how to” guide for building respectful and profitable workplaces. A key component of a respectful workplace is the willingness to face up to, and talk openly about, how issues like racism, sexism, equality and power affect workplace relationships and the workplace community. This topic is so important that I have devoted an entire chapter to it.

Most people simply don’t want to talk about these uncomfortable issues, particularly with others who seem “different”. There are many reasons that contribute to this reluctance, but fear is the most prevalent. People don’t want to say the wrong thing, and don’t want to “offend”. Racism, sexism, equality and power are issues that people have very strong feelings about and many don’t want to risk getting into an argument. As a result, they often choose the path of avoidance.

Does the fact that individuals avoid such discussions make them cowards? Even if it does, will calling them cowards, like U.S. Attorney General Holder did, be helpful in fostering respectful dialogue about issues like racism?

Name calling, judging, blaming, accusing, and interrupting are all too common in everyday communication. None of these, however, demonstrates respect to the person or people being talked to. Time and time again I have seen how good intentions go off the rails because of problematic and disrespectful communication.

In order to create a respectful workplace, employers and employees must understand what respect really means to those they work with. People are going to have to talk to each other about their differences. However, individuals should not be shamed or forced into those discussions. Rather, they should be encouraged and taught how talking about differences will lead to a better workplace for all.

Clear guidelines on how to communicate at work will create a safe environment that produces the respectful expression of divergent ideas and opinions. That kind of constructive conflict encourages creativity, innovation and cohesion, which is why a respectful workplace culture makes good business sense, resulting in increased productivity and the ability to attract and retain good employees.

Whatever our individual differences, we can all learn the language of respect.

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