A business leader once asked Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, for advice on making his employees “less sensitive”. On digging deeper into the organization’s culture, Amy realized that the real issue was not “sensitivity”. Some of the senior team members had rude communication habits, which left other employees feeling disrespected.

What constitutes respect and respectful behavior are often subjective. Getting shouted at, sarcastic remarks, and barbed criticism could hurt. But what about disagreements, declining a colleague’s ideas, or dismissing their questions? We often associate them with impoliteness, and hesitate to speak our mind.

Though, as Michael Burchell, author of The Great Workplace states, “respect is not getting one’s way all the time, but it is always having one’s ideas and needs affirmed.” Employees who feel they are heard are more likely to cooperate and collaborate with their peers. The reverse is also true. Those who face uncivility experience mental fatigue and worse, spread disrespectful behavior.

How does one address a matter so subjective? By working on a key component of respectful behavior: communication. It includes not just words, but other nuances such as the tone, saying things clearly rather than indirectly, and consciously preventing misunderstandings. Nonverbal signs are important too – body language, facial expressions, posture, eye contact, gestures, and even clothing!

Here’s how you could demonstrate respect for people through your communication:

  • Tailor your efforts. Learn about the person you’re communicating to and design your message for them.
  • Confirm you understand the other person. Active listening makes a big difference in a workplace. Particularly, when accepting a new assignment, serving customers or dealing with co-workers. Listen, paraphrase, and confirm that you understand.
  • Know what’s appropriate and inappropriate. In a work environment with a mix of generations, genders, languages, and cultures, each group is likely to have their own ideas of what’s acceptable. Identify it by noticing how your co-workers respond to you.
  • Verbal and nonverbal go hand in hand. Praising someone while slouching in your chair might confuse the listeners about your intent. Avoid confusion by ensuring your actions match your words.

People’s definition of respect may differ, but the need is clear: to be heard and valued. Meet it, even during disagreements and difficult conversations, and you’ll have honed a skill vital for today’s workplace.

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