A few weeks ago I had the privilege of joining a video conference with Donna Hicks, Ph.D, author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Conflict Resolution. There were 15 integrative attorneys and mediators on the call from across the country, all there to learn how to better serve the human side of the conflicts we see.

Dr. Hicks has identified 10 essential elements of dignity –

  • Acceptance of Identity: Approach others as neither inferior or superior to you, assume they have integrity. It is easy to vilify a someone who has hurt us or beat ourselves up for our mistakes. Both “value” judgments make it harder to move forward.
  • Inclusion: Make others feel that they belong, whatever the relationship. Our conflicts arise out of relationships (whether personal or professional) and those relationships will often continue in the future. Using isolation as a weapon only makes things worse.
  • Safety: We need to feel safe both physically (physical harm) and psychologically (humiliation/retribution). We often don’t give enough credit to the need for psychological safety. There are difficult, vulnerable conversations involved in resolving conflict in our family as well as our workplace. We need to feel safe to talk openly and honestly in order to move forward.
  • Acknowledgement: Give people your full attention through active listening and validation of their concerns, feelings and experiences. So much of our society today is hypercritical and reactionary. We listen to respond rather than to understand. We lose empathy and we miss all the areas where we actually agree.
  • Recognition: Validate others for their talents, hard work and contributions. No one is all bad. The fact that you are connected to this person means there was a time in the past when things worked. None of us should be defined solely by our mistakes.
  • Fairness: Treat people justly and with equality according to shared rules. Every collaborative process or mediation I do starts with a discussion of values. What will our ground rules be to ensure everyone is comfortable with the process?
  • Benefit of the Doubt: Start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity. Assume good intentions. The emotional nature of conflict can lead to poor communication but when we stop to ask instead of accuse we find that we aren’t as far as we thought.
  • Understanding: Believe what others think matters. Give them a chance to explain, even if the first explanation doesn’t come out right. Take the time to seek deeper understanding.
  • Independence: Encourage people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives. In my opinion this is the greatest attribute of collaborative law and mediation. The clients are in control. The plan we develop is specifically designed to meet the needs of their situation, not just the “typical” solution handed down by the court.
  • Accountability: Take responsibility for your actions. If you have violated someone’s dignity, apologize and work to change your behavior in the future. Relationships continue. There will be ups and downs but what we can control is how we will work together. The ability to apologize and to accept an apology and move on is critical in a successful working relationship.

If we only respond with a wound for a wound, we will never heal. But making the shift can be difficult. The integrative law movement was founded on the idea that lawyers should be problem solvers and healers. Clients come to us because they need help but the adversarial legal system response often just adds fuel to the fire. In my experience as a collaborative attorney and mediator I have seen time and again that when we address the human side of the situation first the conversation about the legal issue is much more productive and quicker to resolve.