Today’s world has become so increasingly polarized, it’s hard to imagine finding any common ground with those SO different from us. We can’t even agree on what a fact is anymore.

The antidote isn’t a huge revelation here – it’s our humanity that is the connector. We all want to be treated with dignity, as someone of worth and value. Our dignity is invaluable, irreplaceable and priceless.  

At a recent International Ombuds Association virtual conference, I learned from dignity expert, Donna Hicks. Hicks hails from Harvard’s Weatherford Center and has collaborated with esteemed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to rectify injustices around the world, such as the seemingly intractable conflicts between the Israelis and Palestinians, and Protestants and Catholics, to name a few. Donna Hicks’ work with Tutu pressed the idea that dignity is a non-negotiable element endowed to every human being but also an element that, when violated, is sure to cause conflict. Hicks knew anecdotally that dignity was central to these issues and worked with neurologists to find the data behind it. Her research uncovered the effect of ‘dignity violations’ (see below) on the brain.  Turns out, dignity violations activate the same area of the brain that ignites when we physically hurt ourselves such as breaking a leg.

Hicks’ two books, Dignity.  Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict and her latest, Leading with Dignity.  How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People outline key elements of dignity as well as  popular traps we all fall into to negate another person’s dignity.  

According to Hicks and her years of research with conflict, some key elements of dignity include a person’s identities (think: race, gender, sexual preference), creating a safe space for someone, and honoring what that person has accomplished, to name a few.    

Hicks also outlines the many traps or excuses we regularly use to avoid honoring someone’s dignity.  She calls these Dignity Violations.  A few include:  trying to save face, trying to shame, or not apologizing.  We all fall prey to these (there are a total of 9) if we aren’t careful.  

In today’s world, social media allows the easy and quick avenues to engage in these Dignity Violations.  We see a lot of shaming, especially during the pandemic with regards to wearing/not wearing masks, being vaccinated or not.  Social media also allows for anonymity in engaging in these behaviors, which doesn’t keep us responsible and allows for the person to remain relatively free from consequences.  These actions violate another person’s dignity and deny their worth.  

Conversely, Hicks found that standing up for another person’s dignity decreases our own stress and anxiety because we are hardwired to connect with others. Taking care of others, looking out for others, treating every person like they are inherently worthy of dignity – here’s where we need to move the needle.  Honoring those key elements of dignity (identity, safety, apologizing) not only helps them, it helps ourselves.  

Next time you’re out in public and hear yourself “othering” people, e.g., ‘those people are ruining our country!’ challenge yourself to think of acknowledging their Identity, their need to feel safe – these are all elements everyone can understand and appreciate.  Maybe this should be society’s new mantra: everyone has dignity and worth.

By: Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office