Monday, September 3, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Defining Respect

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Defining Respect.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
It's a relatively simple step to get groups to agree that extending respect to one another is a common value. But what does it mean?

This may be trickier than first appears, because respect can mean widely different things to different people and it's dangerous to assume that everyone is looking for the same "respectful" things as you. The default for most of us is that we will offer others what we want for ourselves, and that may have no relationship to what the other person finds respectful!

Here's a sampling of some of the behaviors that translate to respect for people—note that some of these are mutually exclusive:
—Not embarrassing you in public
—Giving you critical feedback in the way you prefer to receive it
—Giving you uninterrupted air time when you speak
—Saying something appreciative before something critical
—Not making jokes about your behavior
—Not using profanity
—Dressing nicely when company comes
—Never raising your voice
—Keeping agreements
—Assuming that you've done what you've agreed to do
—Inquiring how you're doing when you've been struggling
—Noticing when you do something for others that's above and beyond what you've agreed to do
—Not having to repeat requests (because others cared enough about you to hear it accurately the first time)
—Cutting you some slack when you occasionally fall short on completing an assignment on time 

In general the hardest dynamic to navigate safely is when two people want diametrically opposite things—then the real fun begins. It's one thing to be accused of being disrespectful when you've been unmindful; it's all together different when you were consciously trying to be respectful and are accused of being purposefully disrespectful. That's when you can hear fragments of the national anthem in the background ("… and the rockets red glare, and bombs bursting in air…")

With this potential in mind, I suggest listening instead to the lyrics of Aretha Franklin: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means it to me."

As if that's not complicated enough, it can get worse. People's answers (about what indicates respect to them) can vary depending on circumstances—who's in the room, how recently they've eaten, whether there are unresolved trust issues with the speaker, whether it's morning or evening, how recently they've had sex, etc. While it may be borderline heroic to attempt to memorize everyone's preferences regarding respect—especially if your group is large—you can remember to ask when you're unsure of your footing. And almost everyone finds being asked what they want to be respectful—even if they're unsure of their answer.

Switching perspectives, there is another important angle on the question of respect: what constitutes respect for the group? For the most part this is viewed as following the group norms or agreements about appropriate behavior. This, of course, comes in many flavors:
o  Doing the work you agreed to do in a timely way and to a reasonable standard of quality.
o  Being appropriately self-disciplined in meetings (Hint: what's wanted in plenary is not the same as in informal conversation, on the phone, or at the dinner table).
o  Following group guidelines about how to give critical feedback to one another.
o  Doing your homework about topics before the meeting at which it will be discussed.
o  Making a good faith effort to resolve tensions directly with people you're struggling with.
o  Listening fully to what others have to say and seriously considering it—especially when their views are different than yours.
o  Doing your best to have your children and pets operate within group-established boundaries of acceptable behavior.
o  Coming across as genuinely contrite when you fuck up.

I point this out because it's not uncommon for problems with what is viewed as inappropriate behavior to carry two components: a) the incident itself; and b) the sense that you've let the group down, and acted selfishly or immaturely. It's a double wound, and if there are two cuts, then both need to be cleansed before the healing can begin.

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