• Intractable Conflict and the Fall of Respect
  • April 20, 2010
  • Law Firm: Holland & Hart LLP - Denver Office
  • The bruising and polarizing debate over health care reform reflects a broader societal infection of contempt and distrust generally among politicians, professionals and ordinary citizens, among and between any group of people whose collective identity and self esteem is tied to one’s link to one group and related to distain for another. All intractable conflicts ranging from the halls of Congress to the  corridors of hospitals have at their root a sense of alienation and fear arising from the absence of respect in the interactions of people.  The perceived lack of respect from other affects our core sense of self esteem and feeds an anger and reciprocal hostility.  As Lord Chesterfield said in one of his many letters to his son, “- an insult is never forgiven.”

    There are many theories advanced for the dissolution of intractable conflict and all of them at one level or another seek the restoration of respect and trust between people and groups. Fundamentally it requires the restoration of transparency, trust and interlocking respect. The communication of respect starts at home with one’s own attitude toward others - behaving like ladies and gentlemen.  A “gentleman” has been defined as  “a man who can disagree without being disagreeable.” One can avoid being disagreeable by being open to receive and to respect the views and perceptions of others and honoring the motivations and experiences giving rise to them. One doesn’t need to agree to avoid being disagreeable. 

    The late Senator Kennedy had a talent for forging unlikely alliances with colleagues with substantially different points of view.  He was able to accomplish much by maintaining respect for the individuals by listening to and acknowledging their positions with respect while disagreeing with their points of view.  He was transparent in his beliefs and his objectives. He radiated respect for others and received it in return.

    There are a number of psychological principals at play fueling the power of the extension of unilateral respect.  Cognitive dissonance makes it difficult to disrespect someone who is extending respect to you.  The human value of reciprocity makes one want to respond in kind to the attitude others project one oneself.  There is a human need to reduce guilt that can arise from the mistreatment of others who do not respond in kind. There is also the need for internal consistency, to act like a gentleman when won is approached as a gentleman. Not all of these principals are successful all of the time but over time they apply considerable leverage.

    Getting others to play nice starts with a single step, the expression of respect, the willingness to know and understand those with whom we disagree and to express our esteem for them, even if we cannot accept their views. Emerson said that “[m]en are respectable only as they respect.”  It perhaps starts with honoring each other’s dignity. It  can generate an enormous return and costs very little. Frank Barron hit the mark,