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How to Have Necessary, Hard Conversations Using the Framework of Dignity

By Cultures Of Dignity | June 17, 2020

A bit about this resource and the author: I am a 37 year old white woman who specializes in using dignity to navigate conflict and create healthy culture. I was a middle and high school educator for 13 years and now create tools for Cultures of Dignity. While this dignity framework resource can be used by anyone, I write from my lived experience and seek to coach those who want to learn how to confront bias in themselves and their communities. As a white woman, I believe my role is to create resources for white people to enhance their prosocial critical thinking. All work below relies heavily on the work of dignity expert  Donna Hicks Ph.D.

How to have Necessary, Hard Conversations Using the Framework of Dignity

By Megan Saxelby


For most people, using dignity as a framework to navigate conflict and analyze behavior requires a  radical shift in thinking. Instead most people are encouraged  to be kind or follow the  “golden rule” to treat others as they want to be treated. It’s rare to be taught a framework to understand the motivations guiding our reactions, how we can so easily  cause harm to ourselves and others, or  how to engage in conflict that preserves each person’s dignity. 

Over the coming weeks, our goal is to teach you how to have necessary, hard conversations using the framework of dignity. 

What you can expect from this series

  • To gain a deeper understanding of dignity and why it is essential principle in your interactions with others
  • To develop skills to have hard conversations
  • To learn how to use the Elements of Dignity to depersonalize conflict and avoid weaponizing shame so you can achieve your intended outcome

Dignity framework overview

Let’s talk about dignity:  What it is, why it matters, and why you need to use it to have productive conversations.  Dignity is the inherent worth and value of every human; everyone has it and everyone has the same amount. Dignity is different from respect: dignity is a given, but respect is earned or lost through an individual’s or a group’s choices, actions, and behavior. 

Why does this matter? The second we decide that someone’s dignity is negotiable we have opened up psychological distance between people, the idea that there is an us and a them. When we feel psychological distance from others it changes how we see them, what we think we owe them, and how we think we get to treat them.

Practice #1

If you do nothing else after reading this, walk through the next week reminding yourself to use dignity to see others. Every person you come across (family member, grocery clerk, someone on the news, etc) say to yourself, no matter how the interaction goes, your initial reaction to them, or who they are: “We both matter the same amount.” See how that impacts your thinking, reframes your interaction, or just makes you pause. 

Basic Dignity facts

  • Denial of dignity is the root of all conflict. Violations of dignity feel like a threat to our survival. Humans are conditioned to believe that our survival depends on social acceptance. When we don’t feel that acceptance that we matter, we are vulnerable….that means we are all  vulnerable to feeling treated as if we don’t matter
  • When someone violates our dignity, our instinctive, self-protective hard wiring tells us that our safety matters most, not the relationship. That reaction propels us to fight or flee. 
  • Our brains do not know the difference between a physical threat and a psychological threat. Our brains process humiliation the same way it does being punched. Studies show humiliation can actually be more harmful because at least we understand the cause of physical pain. Emotional pain is harder to understand, pinpoint, and explain while causing similar or worse pain.
  • When we suffer long term wounds of feeling humiliated or diminished, they leave a legacy of pain. Unless attention is paid to the injuries, they can dominate an individual’s or group’s identity. When the identity needs of a group are not met over the long term, reacting with violence becomes a more likely option. Our powerful desire to have our dignity honored drives our need to have our history, experiences, and perspectives recognized.
  • Shame is incredibly powerful and our brains will do all kinds of gymnastics to avoid being seen as the wrongdoer and to save face. Admitting we caused harm makes us feel really hard emotions or worry we will lose something (moral high ground, relationships, community, sense of self).  Self-righteousness has the power to take over our best selves, compromising our ability to see how we justify harming others.
  • Learning how to shift our responses is 100% our responsibility. Our brains are remarkably capable of building new pathways around old, well-traveled emotional routes. Every human is capable of profound change and human connection is what makes it happen. Empathy is not a passive act, you can choose to connect and shift your perspective. You do not have to experience someone’s pain to understand that someone is in pain.

Practice #2

Every time you get in a conflict, feel shame, feel anger or rage, want to humiliate someone, or get frustrated when someone won’t listen to you, take a break and re-read that list. Ask yourself which bullet point you are struggling with or you think the person you’re trying to talk with is struggling with. Take a deep breath. Use that reflection to help you shift how you are engaging. Try not to just give up. Asking someone to shift how they think is slow work. If you violate their dignity in the process they are going to shut down and stop listening to you

Practice #3

 Give the above list to the person you are trying to have a hard conversation with. Ask them what they think about it. Ask them if they can see how items on that list apply to other people, for example someone of a different race or sexual identity.

Here is the hard part

This list applies to everyone and anyone. Someone you feel hatred towards also experiences the full range of human emotions and struggles with the list above. You do not have to respect anyone, respect is earned. You do not have to associate yourself with people who carelessly violate your dignity, you get to protect your emotional and physical safety. You do not have to continue relationships with people who do not recognize your dignity, as the keeper of your own dignity, you get to determine your boundaries. You can pause and remember that we all have dignity and that we are all equally vulnerable feeling like we don’t matter, and that anti-social behavior is usually an indicator that a deep need has not been met. 

Using the Essential Elements of Dignity

While there are 10 Elements of Dignity, we are going to focus on two every post so we can fully practice the application of the dignity framework. Feel free to look at all the elements any time.  

Why are the Elements key to having hard conversations? 

Having shared vocabulary turns conflict into a skill rather than a reflection on character. Telling someone their actions made you feel a lack of safety is a whole lot different than telling someone they are a jerk who clearly doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. The Elements help you name your feelings, get your needs met, and have better relationships. 

Hearing feedback that we have hurt someone, or contributed to someone being hurt, is really hard. It is not an excuse, we are responsible for our own actions and their impact; however, having vocabulary to express ourselves can depersonalize the conflict because it does not weaponize shame. It does not of course mean the person will immediately apologize and agree with you, but it increases the chance that they will listen

One important idea to carry with you into hard conversations: Listening means being prepared to be changed by what you hear. Use the Elements of Dignity because they connect to the human experience and articulate the underlying issues that are fueling the conflict on either side, rather than pointing out character flaws, making personal attacks, or leading with anger. 

Let’s jump into the Elements we are covering in this post. 

1. Element of Dignity: Safety

Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them feel free to speak without fear of retribution. 

2. Element of Dignity: Acknowledgement

 Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating, and responding to their concerns, feelings, and experiences. 

Using the Elements of Dignity always creates a safe space to have better conversations. In our current polarized political climate, having hard conversations based in dignity framework is more important than ever. Learning to talk with those you disagree with expands your understanding and helps you see more perspectives.

How to use these elements to facilitate conversation and create cognitive empathy

1. The preparation for the conversation

  • Use the definition of each element to self-reflect. Start by answering the following: Have you extended this element to the person you are in conflict with? Why not? Are you able to?
  • Realize if the answer to this is no, that is going to impact your ability to be effective. Create a proactive plan or tap someone else in. 
  • How much does each of these elements impact you? Are you easily upset if someone denies you them? If so, how can you plan around that before you have the conversation. 
  • Try and imagine how it impacts someone who really needs to feel these elements to feel valued and recognized. Come to the conversation modeling how to extend them.

2. How to depersonalize conflict using dignity framework

  • Use these elements to explain why you care about an issue, event, policy choice, etc. Rather than saying, “You not caring about this means you don’t care about anyone but yourself,” or “Ugh, you are so selfish,” you can instead say, “this really matters to me because everyone deserves to feel safe and this takes away safety. Think about how hard it would be to feel unsafe all the time.”
  • Remind yourself that you are the keeper of your dignity. If someone is upset with you for standing up for yourself that is on them, not you. You can do hard things because you are the keeper of your dignity. Their approval does not define you. 

3. Questions to ask in the moment

During a tough conversation or conflict, try incorporating these questions:

How does this element show in your own life? How does being treated with dignity impact you?

Listen to their response and ask them to expand on their feelings with genuine interest. Explain why it is important to you.

How do you think this element matters to others?

Have you seen instances where someone was denied this element of dignity?

Can you understand why it may have caused them to react that way?

If the issue is current events, ask them: Can you see how (insert the side they disagree with) is being denied access to this element of dignity?

If they can, ask them to explain. If they cannot, offer your perspective.

For example, “I realize you don’t approve, but imagine what it feels like to never feel fully safe? How would you react?”

How would you react if a person or a group took these elements of dignity away from you?

Why do you get to matter more than others?

A strategic question if the person is dug in, using as neutral a tone as possible.

Dignity demands we have hard conversations. However, if the person dehumanizes you, or attempts to humiliate you, disengage. Set a time to follow up. Model the conversation you want to have, which includes making your boundaries clear. We’re all born with dignity, but we aren’t born knowing how to act in ways that honor everyone’s dignity. Be patient. Practice. 

Until next time…

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