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Ca n You Respect People You Don’t Respect?

Some people fear they’ll never be able to maintain Mutual

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Purpose or Mutual Respect with certain individuals or in certain

circumstances. How, they wonder, can they share the same pur­

pose with people who come from completely different back­

grounds or whose morals or values differ from theirs? What do

you do, for example, if you’re upset because another person has

let you down? And if this has repeatedly happened, how can you

respect a person who is so poorly motivated and selfish?

Yvonne is struggling with this exact point. There are times

when she doesn’t even like Jotham. She sees him as whiny and self­

centered. How can you speak respectfully with someone like that?

Dialogue truly would be doomed if we had to share every

objective or respect every element of another person’s character

before we could talk. If this were the case, we’d all be mute. We

can, however, stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and

regard another person’s basic humanity. In essence, feelings of

disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are differ­

ent from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking

for ways we are similar. Without excusing their behavior, we try

to sympathize, even empathize, with them.

A rather clever person once hinted how to do this in the form

of a prayer-“Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently

than I.” When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s eas­

ier to find a way to respect others. When we do this, we feel a

kinship, a sense of mutuality between ourselves and even the

thorniest of people. It is this sense of kinship and connection to




others that motivates us to enter tough conversations, and it

eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.

Consider the following example. A manufacturing company has

been out on strike for over six months. Finally, the union agrees to

return to work, but the represented employees have to sign a con­

tract that is actually worse than what they were originally demand­

ing. The first day back it’s clear that although people will work,

they won’t do so with a smile and a spring in their step. Everyone

is furious. How are people ever going to move ahead?

Concerned that although the strike is over, the battle isn’t, a

manager asks one of the authors to lend a hand. So he meets with

the two groups of leaders (both managers and union heads) and

asks them to do one thing. Each group is to go into a separate

room and write out its goals for the company on flip-chart-sized

paper. For two hours each group feverishly lays out what it wants

in the future and then tapes the lists to the wall. When they fin­

ish their assignment, the groups then swap places with the goal of

finding anything-maybe just a morsel-but anything they might

have in common.

After a few minutes the two groups return to the training

room. They’re positively stunned. It was as if they had written

the exact same lists. They didn’t merely share the shadow of an

idea or two. Their aspirations were nearly identical. All wanted

a profitable company, stable and rewarding jobs, high-quality

products, and a positive impact on the community. Given a

chance to speak freely and without fear of attack, each group

laid out not simply what it wanted, but what virtually every per­

son wanted.

This experience caused each group to seriously question how

i t had seen the other side. The groups began to see others as

morc similar to themselves. They realized the petty and political

tactics thc others had used were embarrassingly similar to the




ones they themselves had employed. The “sins” of others were

different from their own more because of the role they played

than because of a fundamental blight on their character. They

restored Mutual Respect, and dialogue replaced silence and vio­

lence for the first time in decades .


When you see that either Mutual Respect or Purpose is at risk,

we’ve suggested that you shouldn’t ignore it. We’ve also argued

that you should be able to find a way to both find Mutual

Purpose and enjoy Mutual Respect-even with people who are

enormously different.

But how? What are you supposed to actually do? We’ve

shared a few modest ideas (mostly things to avoid) , so let’s get

into three hard-hitting skills that the best at dialogue use:

• Apologize

• Contrast


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