Submitted by Donna Hicks, Ph.D., Author of Dignity and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Ms. Hicks will deliver Landmark’s 2013 commencement address.
After working in the field of international conflict resolution for nearly 20 years, I decided to take some time off in order to write about what I felt was a missing link in our understanding of conflict.
No matter where I was in the world convening dialogues for warring parties, I observed a similar dynamic taking place during the discussions. While the participants were talking about ways to resolve some of the political issues that divided them, there was always another issue present at the table that wasn’t being discussed. It was the elephant in the room that no one had the courage to bring up. Yet, this “unaddressed issue” was making it impossible for the parties to come to an agreement. What was going on?
It was about their dignity. What they really needed to be discussing was how painful it was to be treated as if they didn’t matter; to be treated in a way that devalued their humanity; not being recognized as human beings, worthy of dignity. This was the missing link that explained why these conflicts were so difficult to resolve. People yearn to be treated with dignity and when they are not, all kinds of conflicts arise.
Although my insights about dignity evolved while working on failed international relationships, what soon became obvious was that it plays a role in all relationships. One negotiator from Colombia once told me that he was grateful to me for uncovering the dignity issues in a political conflict I was there to mediate but said he was most grateful because (in his words): “I think you saved my marriage.”
As an educator, I quickly understood the importance of establishing dignity-honoring relationships in teaching environments. My experience has shown that the quality of students’ learning is enhanced when they feel seen, heard, recognized and treated fairly. Human beings thrive in a culture of dignity.