Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes


Is respectful communication at work an oxymoron?


I just received an invitation to a “respectful engagement at work” seminar. It sounds good and I admire the facilitator but I wonder whether it can make a difference. This is a disheartening thought because I lead workshops on respectful communication. What if my efforts result in nothing?

I suspect many who attend these seminars are: a) already converted (i.e., choir members seeking others with whom they may sing in tune, if only during a half-day workshop); or b) already disgruntled (i.e., people sent by well-meaning or clueless supervisors who believe respect may be taught in a workshop and/or who don’t create a climate for respect).

After studying and teaching interpersonal communication for decades, I’m familiar with specific speaking and listening skills that may contribute to more respectful collaboration. It’s difficult to put them into practice, and respectful engagement goes beyond using effective communication tips. In some situations, it probably seems not worth the effort.

So what’s behind my dampened enthusiasm? Have I lost respect for respect? I’ve built a career advocating positive personal and organizational change. I always believe things can be better and improvement happens one person at a time. But lately I’m experiencing a cynical — or perhaps more realistic — phase of doubting my ability to coach or teach about respect. We live in a cultural climate in which so many folks are stubbornly focused upon wanting others’ respect FIRST. Fewer people seem willing to take the first step by looking within or letting go of something to earn respect.

The “me first” attitude is nothing new, as less optimistic friends remind me. Selfishness and attachment to keeping what is “mine” is universal. It manifests in politics, neighborhoods and ordinary work places. For example: I’ll consider your right to minimal health care if you don’t take away any of my premium benefits. I’ll listen to your input only if you hear my perspective first and promise not to point out flaws in my plan. Then there is the reverse of “me first:” why should I change when no one else does? For example: I’ll think about changing my negative tone or leadership style only if my boss gets her act together first. The U.S. can commit to cleaner air standards if China agrees to do it first. I could go on…

Personal responsibility (a foundation for self respect) and respect for others are linked. There are times I need to be reminded I’m not entitled to respect I’m not willing to offer in return. It’s especially difficult to behave respectfully with people who may never return the favor. I also recognize that we experience respect in diverse ways. Your definition of respect may not match mine, which complicates things.

In a time when I notice little respect for others on so many levels (e.g., families, organizations and government) it’s hard not to get discouraged, but I can’t give up. I’ll continue challenging clients to listen, learn from, understand and appreciate one another despite their differences. I’ll encourage people to let go of entrenched attitudes that do nothing to foster growth or positive change. Finally, I’ll think carefully about how to engage workshop participants in more meaningful discussions about respectful communication at work, without minimizing the challenges involved.

Author: Julie Mitchell

Julie Mitchell is an executive coach, facilitator, professional speaker and senior consultant who can help you create more positive working relationships, improve your performance, and achieve goals through understanding and practicing effective communication on every level.

3 thoughts on “Is respectful communication at work an oxymoron?

  1. Such a good topic. I just had a conersation with someone who is being disrespected by her daughter and other members of her family. What we finally came to understand is that she does not respect herself and doesn’t even really know what RESPECT would look like or feel like. Thanks for adding even more dimension to this valuable conversation.

  2. You’re welcome, Nancy. Thanks for commenting and I appreciate your point about knowing how respect looks and feels.

  3. Pingback: Happy New Year: The annual blog review « Coach Notes

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