How to handle a difficult colleague with dignity - Dignify
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How to handle a difficult colleague with dignity

Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - Joe Kiedinger

Sometimes, there are people that you just can’t seem to get along with, and you might have no idea why. We’ve all been there. And if you haven’t yet, you will someday. Or, you might know why, and not have any idea how to build a bridge to that person. Either way, this is a natural part of human interaction. Some people just don’t connect. But the thing is, everybody can find a way to respect one another. Having a lack of rapport with someone isn’t an excuse to make zero effort to understand someone—or outright disrespect them.

Dignity violations

We call these instances of disrespect “dignity violations.” Dignity violations occur when somebody, knowingly or accidentally, acts in opposition of someone’s unique dignity. Dignity violations can come in all different shapes, sizes, and severities, ranging from direct and purposeful insults to small habits that unknowingly bother someone else.

While some are worse than others, even the smallest dignity violations are a problem worth addressing. Small dignity violations occurring on a frequent basis can add up to become a major issue if left unchecked and unaddressed. When somebody is constantly allowing another person to violate their dignity, they become what I called an “emotional prisoner” to them. Let me put it into perspective for you.

The zebra mussels and the harbor – how dignity violations build up

I read an article many years ago about a harbor in Lake Superior. This was a natural harbor that locals would use to keep their boats for years. There were a lot of houses around this area, because they were protected from the waves. It was a central part of this community. Anyways, there also happened to be a lot of zebra mussels in this area, and slowly, one by one, all of these little mussels started to gather in the harbor. There were eventually so many of them that the harbor was completely clogged, and no boats could get in or out. People spent thousands of dollars to clear out all the zebra mussels, thinking that it would be good from then on. Yet, three months later, all the mussels came back and the harbor was clogged again.

Think of your mind as the harbor, and each individual mussel as a dignity violation. One little zebra mussel is small. It’s insignificant, you might not even notice it’s there sometimes. But once they all start to build up, they become unignorable, and you can’t move from where you are. Because of all of those dignity violations, you are stuck in a negative mindset that prevents your growth and clouds your judgment. And getting out of it is extremely difficult, especially when the dignity violations just continue to happen.

Your action steps

The first step to getting along with somebody is to be willing to take the initiative and make the first effort. If you are violating someone else’s dignity, or someone else is violating yours, or both, nothing will change unless one party makes a conscious effort to put a stop to it. Be willing to get a little vulnerable and be the initiator. Approach them, acknowledge the situation, and start building that bridge. Start by having coffee together.

The second step you need to take is to understand their dignity. You need to understand what being treated with honor and respect means to them and treat them how they want to be treated. Remember – you might be committing violations all the time without even knowing! You don’t know when you’re filling up someone else’s harbor unless you understand their dignity. Getting a full understanding of somebody else’s dignity can be difficult without assistance, but Dignify makes it clear cut, straightforward, easy to understand, and easy to remember. When you have this clear-cut understanding, you will know exactly what they want and what they don’t want in their interactions and how to act going forward.

Last but not least, ask the other person some questions. Ask them to give you three specific things that you can do to be better for them. This is important, so give them time to come back to you with their answer – it may take minutes, hours, or days. Whatever time they need, let them have it. When they do give you the answer to your question, receive it only as useful information, and do your best not to respond to it with defensiveness. It’s going to be emotional, and it might even be difficult, but you control your reaction. Choose to react productively, and in a way that will allow you to make the changes that they are looking for.

The bottom line

When you just can’t get along with someone, it’s likely because you are violating their dignity, they are violating yours, or both. Oftentimes, it can happen without either of you knowing it, leaving you both confused and frozen. When this is happening, the best thing you can do is to take the initiative to break the cycle and open a conversation with them. With a system like Dignify in place, you can understand their dignity down to the last details, ask productive questions, and create a lasting understanding.


ACTION PLAN: If you’re struggling to get along with someone, or suffering dignity violations, go ahead and take the initiative. Lay down the foundations for building a bridge. Somebody has to start somewhere, or the status quo won’t change. Let yourself be the initiator.

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