The toxic impact of losing dignity in a high stakes conversation

A flash of red.

A ‘knee jerk’ response.

The battle begins.

In any disagreement or challenging conversation, there comes a point where something inside snaps.

“We feel the need to passionately hold onto our position as if our life depended on it. We are relentless. We will not give in or be seen to be giving in. We will not let go. We hang onto our last shred of ‘dignity’.”

So what drives this behavior? What pushes our buttons to react? What does our ‘dignity’ represent and why does losing it in a ‘high stakes conversation’ feel so important?

To all of us it signifies something different. Yet there is one common thread. It represents losing something that we value so profoundly that during the conversation, we refuse to back down. We emphatically defend our position and dogmatically push our opinion. We refuse to listen or acknowledge any other viewpoints.

“What drives this? It might be a fear of losing control of a conversation or our emotions in a relationship. Of losing the ability to articulate ourselves well and appearing stupid. Of losing face and the ability to walk away with our integrity intact. Of losing our voice and the opportunity of being heard.”

During those moments we may not be aware of the driving force behind our impulsive actions yet to an observer or those involved in the dialogue, the reaction appears totally disproportionate to the situation.

Take a fairly common event in any relationship. A husband returns from a challenging day of meetings. His wife has some news that she is excited to share. However, her husband, who is sifting through his mail, barely reacts and appears nothing short of unenthusiastic and dismissive. His wife bursts into a tirade of relentless criticism about him and his listening skills.

He is left speechless. In that moment, her outburst is her reaction to her ‘lost dignity’ that she experiences as continuously feeling unheard, unvalued, unrecognized and unimportant.

In a business setting, a CEO might fight hammer and tong to make a point in a board meeting, unwilling to listen to any other perspective or opinion or give anyone the floor to expand on their ideas, as she believes hers is the only way forward and most suitable option. In this setting, the CEO is so focused on being ‘the one’ to have ‘the idea’ because she is in a room full of powerful men and knows her reputation is on the line if she can’t deliver the project. Her ‘dignity’ that she is really fighting to defend is recognition, her identity, her reputation and her value of equality – not necessarily her idea! Yet in that meeting, she may be completely oblivious of what is driving her reaction and her need to fight for what is important to her.

In the workplace, a colleague might appear to ‘blow a fuse’ and rant at a teammate for being excluded from a meeting. While the reason may have been totally fair and rational, the colleague’s lost ‘dignity’ might have been triggered by his deep-rooted values of acceptance and inclusion. In that moment the issue was not whether it was appropriate to have attended the meeting or not, but more that he/she had been left out.

In friendships, an example might manifest when one friend publicly disagrees or appears to take sides with others. The point of disagreement might not be the contentious issue but how it was publicly presented, which might trigger a barrage of bitter and acerbic responses. Yet what sits underneath are those feelings of lost loyalty and trust.

These snippets of ‘lost dignity’ can fracture more than just relationships and can have far greater impact and reach. This was highlighted perfectly following Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Some might question their reasons for speaking out during that explosive interview. Perhaps this was their response to their ‘lost dignity’ during negotiations to leave the UK and if we could speculate, it may be that they felt unheard, unaccepted, excluded, unvalued or unrecognized. We will probably never know for sure.

So what can we learn from all of this? Our reaction is a message we should take note of. It’s informing us that at some deeper level, our situation does not make us happy! Something feels misaligned and our behavior is an expression of this.

If we truly wish to end the battle internally and externally with colleagues, business associates, friends and loved ones, we should acknowledge when we feel triggered, identify what the cause of our ‘lost dignity’ represents and then we have a choice how to address it in a less toxic manner.

Words: Nicole Posner

Nicole Posner is a Communication and Conflict Expert, supporting Leaders and high performing teams to communicate more effectively and navigate difficult conversations with confidence, courage and compassion.

Looking for expert advice? The Audrey Members’ Club is a whole world of support, coaching and expertise for women through self-employment, changing careers, running a business or launching one. Join us to kickstart your future, whatever that may be.