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How Recognition and Understanding Can Reframe Our Disagreements

By Cultures Of Dignity | October 16, 2020

About the Author: I’m Sara Davis, a senior in high school from Colorado. I’m an Editorial Advisor with Cultures of Dignity. In this blog series, I am using the tools I learned, along with my own experiences to show how dignity creates a healthy classroom culture.

How Recognition and Understanding Can Reframe Our Disagreements

By Sara Davis


We don’t always realize it, but when we start a discussion, we are making an agreement to the possibility that the conversation will lead to disagreement and conflict. When we find ourselves in challenging circumstances, like a pandemic or an election, this possibility becomes practically a guarantee. But the moment we do realize we are in conflict with someone else, our discomfort propels us to react in ways that either silence ourselves or silence others. We can shut down, blow up, freeze, or break down. And this is the moment to see the conflict for what it is; an opportunity to practice productive discomfort; which means you understand that part of growth and change is being uncomfortable. 

Productive discomfort  is necessary in order to learn and grow because change is impossible if you don’t allow yourself to be in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. But when people feel that their dignity is violated in a discussion it’s a surefire way to end up in a conflict with no resolution because the person shuts down, turns away, or goes on the attack. So what can you do to make sure disagreement is productive, instead of spiraling towards a never ending tug-of-war?

Recognition and understanding are two Elements of Dignity that helps us recognize where conflict comes from and get us back to really listening to each other. People feel extremely vulnerable when they perceive that they aren’t being treated as if they matter. Using recognition and understanding to frame where others are coming from allows us to take a step back from the intensity of our own experiences, and allows us to appreciate the experiences of others.

 Element of Dignity: Recognition

Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness, and help. Be generous with praise. Give credit to others for their contributions, ideas and experience.

 Element of Dignity: Understanding

Believe that what others think matters. Give them the chance to explain their perspective. Listening so we’re prepared to be changed by what we hear.

Conflict rarely follows a script. When you are having a hard conversation and find yourself becoming angry and frustrated, these Elements of Dignity can ground us. Recognition and understanding are used best in combination with SEAL. SEAL is the Cultures of Dignity strategy for communicating emotions like anger, frustration, and anxiety, while staying calm. It allows everyone to participate in difficult conversations, and make sure that if you feel your dignity has been violated, you can solve the problem without violating the dignity of someone else.

Here’s what SEAL stands for:


Take a deep breath. Observe where you are. Decide what you need to do now to make the problem smaller. Later, if you need to, you can think of how to follow up.


Take your bad feelings and put them into words—be specific about what you don’t like and what you need instead. Even if it feels small and insignificant.

Affirm & Acknowledge

Affirm means you and the person you are angry with both have the right to be treated with dignity. Acknowledge asks you if there is anything you
did that contributed to the problem and needs to be included.


Lock: You want to talk about the problem and keep the friendship or relationship. Lock is about healthy boundaries and self-care, not denying others dignity.

Take a pause: You want to pause the friendship.

Lock out the relationship: You feel that you aren’t being treated with dignity, your personal boundaries are not being respected, and/or your emotional or physical health or your future plans for yourself are in danger so you need to end the friendship.

Lock is the hardest part of SEAL. Understanding when we need to lock in our own boundaries is a tough skill that takes time to develop, but it’s necessary to preserve everyone’s dignity. Ask yourself “When is it okay to decide not to be friends?”. This is where being okay with being uncomfortable is really helpful. Part of productive discomfort is realizing that in order to grow, you have to be honest with yourself, which lets you treat yourself with dignity. Recognizing unhealthy relationships sets us up to better identify healthy ones in the future; being able to understand and set your boundaries is an act of self-care, not a denial of others’ dignity. Sometimes there are times when you can’t lock out in the way you want to. We all have to tolerate relationships with people at work, school or in our families where we really may want to lock out but we can’t completely shut down the relationship. When you can’t completely lock out, it is at least important to establish healthy boundaries between you and the other person so your dignity remains intact.

Note to educators/parents: If you are teaching SEAL to others, the acronym is more helpful once an overview of the basics has been taught. When students are learning, it is better if it doesn’t feel quite so scripted which makes everyone feel more comfortable. In this case, starting with the Understanding SEAL Activity or Applying SEAL Activity from the Owning Up Curriculum gives students some context for why remembering the acronym can help them in a conflict. While everyone has strategies they use to deal with conflict (even if you aren’t aware of them), making conflict seem like a series of steps often feels awkward and disingenuous. The point of SEAL is to allow us to communicate our genuine emotions, not to be a set of instructions for how conflicts should go, or how people should feel. 

After using SEAL for the first time, you also might want to ask yourself these questions to help you evaluate how effective your use of the strategy was this time, and how you can improve.

  • When were the moments the problem got more difficult? Was that because of the content of the words we said, the tone, or a combination of both
  • How did I respond to the pushback? Was the response realistic? How can I improve?
  • Which step was the most difficult to follow? Why?
  • How could I be more effective?

Asking yourself these questions reinforces the idea that solving conflict as a skill you can improve on. Having that mindset means instead of saying to yourself  “I’m a bad person” when you are in a conflict, instead you’ll think “That SEAL step is harder for me, I have to remember to focus on it next time.” This frame of mind reaffirms your own dignity in a conflict, because the first step to treating others with dignity is to start with yourself.

This is part of the Navigating Politics with Dignity in the New Decade series.

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How Recognition and Understanding Can Reframe Our Disagreements