Helping Each Other Treat People with Respect

My favorite Halloween experience happened when I was working at a web design agency, Organic, in 1998. The company occupied two or three floors of an old building, and lots of people used the concrete stairwell rather than the rickety elevators to get between floors. The developers were, of course, on the lowest floor, so I was on those stairs a lot. That year Halloween was on a Saturday, and many folks came to work in costume on Friday, in preparation for the company party that evening.

My best friend’s mom in a costume he helped create, 1998. (Both people now deceased.)

I was heading down the stairs when I passed a balding gentleman in a blue suit and tie —which was uncommon attire among people of a creative firm. I immediately assumed he was a vendor coming in to do a sales pitch or a demo. I stopped and asked him if he needed a guide to find the right conference room. The suit guy broke into a huge grin. “Indi, it’s me!” he cried. I did a double take. It was one of the developers whom I had been working with —his usual attire was tie-dye shirts and a baseball cap. (I wish I had photos, but this was before we had cameras in our phones.) His Halloween costume was completely effective. I was duped. I love this story about his costume. I tell it every year … here’s where it takes a turn, though.

I had treated him as a different person.

I reacted to how he looked, and I treated him differently. I made assumptions about his intent. Most of us do this. It’s human cognition. It’s not the most wonderful piece of brain software because of its potential to cause trouble. You can make another person feel inadequate, embarrassed, or dissed. Over time, these reactions snowball. They are impossible to shrug off; they make for a distrustful environment: workplace, school, family, community. These reactions are the ingredients for building resentment, for lashing out — not for building good-will, collaboration, or innovation. We can’t build what we dream of building together this way.

You can train yourself to be aware of yourself when you do it, then stop and try again. Speak with a neutral expectation of someone’s answer. Look in their eyes. And listen. This is important: do not think of yourself as immune to an on-sight reaction. Approach this with humility and humanity. Develop your skill. Aware, not immune.

In the workplace, school, family, community … you will experience marginalization — of others, of yourself. You’ll see it happen based on the visual perception one person has of another. Part of marginalization is when someone makes assumptions and causes another person feel ignored, ashamed, or disrespected. When you see this happen to another person, don’t just stand by. Stand up. They teach kids to do this when it is safe. They say a bully is a person with insecurities. In the workplace, treatment based on visual perception isn’t always bullying — it can be that brain software operating subconsciously. So when this is the case and you stand up to a person who has done it, be gentle. Point out what just happened with respect. That person is not your enemy; that person is a fellow participant in creating your service/product, organization, government, environment. Look in that person’s eyes. You can use different words for different relationships: your boss, your friend’s friend, a visitor, a stranger . “Yes, and …” works well in many cases. Humor is good, too. “Heh! Wouldn’t that be funny if it were the case.” Or, “But she’s not the caterer — she’s a guest. Hah. This’ll be an indelible memory, won’t it?” Say it out loud; don’t let the moment go by unremarked. Include yourself in any reference to behavior. “Oh, I think we skipped over Nora’s thoughts.” “I want to hear Alex’s ideas.” Point out larger worlds. “There are physicists and professors and accountants in Latin America, too. Not everyone has skills as a construction worker.” A calm tone will work better than rough accusations to help the person remember their mistake the next time that person trips on assumptions. If you spoke genially, your remembered words will produce learning and self-confidence rather than shame, defensiveness, or anger.

Respect. It’s a tricky thing; it’s too easy to be insincere about it. In the U.S., the phrase “with all due respect” has a subtext that usually means, “I feel contempt for you and your idiotic ideas.” So don’t preface your words with that phrase. Preface your words with something the person just said, in a way that supports them. “I see what you mean to say; we really do want to hire the best candidate for the job. And minority candidates have the best skills, too — so saying it’s an either/or scenario is illogical. Right?” If it is the case that the person spoke/acted unthinkingly, avoid embarrassing the person who had the unthinking reaction. Assume the best of them. They are human, with hopes and fears and the need for respect. They are often well-meaning but unaware.

When I ran into the balding, blue suit guy in the stairwell that Halloween long ago, it was an encounter we could both laugh about because he had designed it to happen that way. But I was shocked to my core afterward because of what it meant about my brain software and visual perception of another person. It was a wake-up call. Nearly 20 years later, I am a little better at recognizing moments like this, and I’m lots better at stepping into a neutral frame of mind during conversations. I look in people’s eyes a lot. But I still sometimes fail and cause negative personal reactions.

For wisdom about how to cultivate awareness in your organization and life, here are some expert perspectives.

Also: What I mention here about standing up and helping others be more aware of causing negative emotions is, in some circles, referred to disparagingly as “political correctness.” Those actively opposed to being politically correct seem to be in support of causing negative emotion: scared, anxious, vulnerable. I think, in the workplace, school, family, community — I think in these places we’re aiming to build good-will, collaboration, and innovation, not ill-will, separation, and stagnation. Perhaps you can juxtapose these two outcomes when facing someone who disparages being sensitive to reactions. I have faced those people. I respect they have different perspectives. However, when their assumptions and lack of emotional awareness materialize in the workplace, I do stand up.