Dignity, with Dr. Donna Hicks

February 12, 2020 Kim Forrester Season 5 Episode 4
Dignity, with Dr. Donna Hicks
Dignity, with Dr. Donna Hicks
Feb 12, 2020 Season 5 Episode 4
Kim Forrester

Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, a renowned international conflict resolution specialist, and the creator of the Dignity Method for conflict resolution. On this episode, Kim Forrester and Donna explore the elements of dignity and discuss why honouring dignity – both our own, and others’ – is an essential element in any life well lived. 

Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, a renowned international conflict resolution specialist, and the creator of the Dignity Method for conflict resolution. On this episode, Kim Forrester and Donna explore the elements of dignity and discuss why honouring dignity – both our own, and others’ – is an essential element in any life well lived. 

Kim Forrester:   0:00
Neuroscience has revealed that our brains react the same whether we're suffering a physical injury, or an injury to our dignity and self worth. You're listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. I'm Kim Forrester, and today we're going to delve into dignity.  

Intro:   0:18
Welcome to Eudaemonia, the podcast that is all about flourishing. Plug in, relax and get ready for the goodness as we explore the traits and practises that can help you thrive in life .... with your host, Kim Forrester.

Kim Forrester:   0:38
Dr Donna Hicks is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and she's the creator of the Dignity Method for conflict resolution. Donna has worked extensively on conflict resolution and dignity restoration projects in countries such as Israel and Palestine, Colombia, Syria and Libya. She worked alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC series, Facing the Truth, and she is the author of two books - Dignity: It's essential role in resolving conflict,  and her latest, Leading with Dignity: How to create a culture that brings out the best in people. It's my pleasure to be connecting with Donna today to discuss why honouring dignity, both our own and others, is an essential element in any life well lived. Donna is an absolute delight to have you with me here on the Eudaemonia podcast. How are you today?

Donna Hicks:   1:36
I'm very well, thanks and happy to be here.

Kim Forrester:   1:38
I'm really excited to talk about dignity. And I want to start by clarifying what we mean by dignity because a lot of people, as you write, tend to confuse dignity with respect. What is the difference between dignity and respect?

Donna Hicks:   1:56
Yes. It's an issue that comes up every time I give a talk, whether it's a podcast or talk to a live audience. Everybody, when I ask them, 'What do you think dignity is?' they immediately say 'respect'. And you're quite right that it is different - at least in the way that I'm framing this concept. Because I think dignity is a very basic, fundamental human quality. We're all born with dignity, every single one of us. We come into the world with dignity, and it's just fundamentally our inherent value and our sense of worth. Everyone is worthy. Every human being is worthy. Respect, on the other hand, I believe that respect has to be earned. I mean, I say this because when I have worked with international conflict - parties in conflict - they always say that their dignity is stripped from them and they're basically fighting to regain that sense of dignity. And then fundamentally, the other thing they say, Kim, is that they want the respect. They want to have respect from the other parties and they are not getting that respect. And I say, 'Look, respect is a bridge too far. All you have to demand here' - because they demand respect - 'is to be treated as if you're a human being with value and worth.' And if we could get to that point where every single one of us recognises that we all have value and worth, honestly, that consciousness is what could change our human family. Fundamentally, it could change it. So again, I think respect has to be earned. Whereas dignity, we don't have to do a thing to have dignity. Whether we're aware of that dignity is another issue altogether.

Kim Forrester:   3:38
Well, that's what I want to touch on next, because what's really interesting ... You're saying here that dignity - a consciousness of dignity - could change the world. And I understand what you're saying there. From your books, you say that we are physiologically wired to respond to an injury to our dignity just as we are an injury to our physical bodies. The problem is, I think, that most of us are completely unaware, totally unconscious, of these injuries and the way we are reacting to them in the moment. How can we better recognise when we're reacting to a violation of our dignity, and how is it best for us to respond in those situations?

Donna Hicks:   4:16
Well, the problem is that even really, really educated people - like all of your listeners, I'm sure, and everybody I come in contact with - it's rare that people have an understanding of their own value and worth. And I think that number one step is just accepting the fact that we have dignity. And what I do is, I try to explain to people when I work with them that there is a science behind this dignity. In fact, neuroscience tells us that, when we experience a wound to our dignity, it shows up in the brain in the same area as if we've had a physical wound. So basically, the brain doesn't know the difference between a wound to your dignity and a wound to your physical self. So how do you know that? Your question - how do you recognise when you've had a dignity injury? Well, just becoming aware when someone tries to shame you, or belittle you, or criticise you, or treat you as if you're inferior, or discriminate against you - recognise that feeling that happens. Recognise that you have a physical reaction to that, and your brain is registering that. Because part of the definition that I didn't mention, just a minute ago, is that we have inherent value and worth, but we also have inherent vulnerability to having that value and worth assaulted and wounded. So knowing what that feels like - and we all already know, Kim. Everybody knows what it feels like when we're mistreated, but we just don't have the language. This is what I'm saying, even really smart people who are educated, PhDs and, you know, whatever. We haven't learned this. And my mission, if you will, is to get people to recognise this vulnerability that we all have. Because not only do you have it, but I have it. Everybody has it. And then we would be a little more compassionate with one another if we recognised that, boy, just by saying something really mean or nasty to somebody - that could create a physical feeling inside our bodies. And our brain can get very confused. 'Wait a minute. What happened here?'

Kim Forrester:   6:28
Do we all tend to react the same when our dignity is violated? Or are our patterns unique - as unique as we are?

Donna Hicks:   6:37
What I have discovered, because I've worked all over the world in my career with international conflicts: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, the Middle East. I mean, what I recognise is that everybody has the same feeling when they have their dignity violated. It is a powerful assault to our being. And, you know, there may be different ways to trigger those violations; a different context, if you will. But at the end of the day, I think this is a universal human phenomenon. This is something fundamental to our human experience. And so we do have the same feeling. And I mean, it affects us in the same way in terms of our neurobiology. But I think people do react differently because culture has taught them, 'Don't say anything. Don't talk about emotions.' You know, stuff them away. Don't, you know, don't confront people. So, whatever your cultural messages are about how you handle emotional events, that can vary.

Kim Forrester:   7:36
I really recommend that my listeners read your books. Absolutely fascinating. And in your first book, you offer 10 essential elements of dignity, and I'll just run through a few of them. There's acceptance of identity, inclusion, acknowledgment, recognition, benefit of the doubt - which is really powerful. If we deny someone any of these 10 elements, you say that we're violating their dignity. Are these same elements important in honouring dignity of self, Donna? Are there ways that we can violate our own dignity by violating any of those 10 elements?

Donna Hicks:   8:13
I love that question. I just love that question because 'yes' is the answer. In fact, I think that one of the things that we have to develop an awareness of is when we do violate our own dignity. What does it look like when we violate it? What happens when we, you know, succumb to self doubt, for example? What does it look like when we berate ourselves and we don't acknowledge that we have taken a hit from someone, or that we don't recognise our inherent value? Because, you know, one of the things that I learned from Archbishop Tutu - I've known him for many years and we've worked together in the past. One of the things that I learned from him is that we never, ever lose our dignity. That it might be injured. It could be assaulted, traumatised, all of this stuff. But the fact is, it never goes away. And if we understand that, and we recognise that we have a responsibility to maintain our own dignity - to be sure we take care of ourselves - that's our first responsibility. Because if we don't recognise and accept our own whatever identity we are, if we don't accept our ethnicity, our race, our religion - if we don't embrace that fully and recognise that we have a responsibility to take care, and protect, and guard, and be guardians of our dignity - that is our first challenge.

Kim Forrester:   9:42
Certainly that word 'fairness' sort of leaps out at me. It's one of the elements of dignity, and I do feel Donna that are very unfair to ourselves sometimes. Has that been your experience?

Donna Hicks:   9:53
Oh, sure. I mean, when we have such high expectations, you know. When we set the bar so high for whatever our achievements are. And look, you know, I'm a high achiever; I understand what that feels like. I know what that feels like. The problem is, if you don't achieve those aspirations, you know, if you don't get the ... whatever it is ... the second book published, or whatever. For me, it was about publishing my books. You don't want to berate yourself because you didn't. You realise, 'Wait a minute. There's a context here. Something else is influencing me that I have no control over.' And so you recognise that, you know, 'I've got to do this. I have to take care of this myself. And I have to be the guardian of my own dignity here.'

Kim Forrester:   10:40
Interestingly, Donna, you also list 10 ways that we can be tempted to violate someone else's dignity. And I found one of them, in particular, really interesting. Because you say that it's important for us to avoid the temptation of demeaning gossip. Why is it important for us to avoid talking about people maliciously behind their back? They don't know. How can we possibly be violating their dignity?

Donna Hicks:   11:08
Well, first of all, when these tendencies that we have to gossip - like say, for example - this comes from a very strong evolutionary past. When we were first evolving as a human species, gossip had a tremendous function. You know, 100,000 years ago, we had no internet, we had no telephones, we had no ways of communicating electronically. Nothing like that, of course. But the gossip network was the way we communicated, and especially the way we communicated danger, and the way we communicated which people are unsafe; which people are likely to harm us. So originally, this was a wonderful thing. This was how we survived. But gossip stayed in our brains. You know, part of our mental architecture from those old days. And why it's so violating of other people's dignity is that, you know, it is just demeaning people without giving them an opportunity to answer back. And that's just not fair. Talk about fairness; we'll go back to fairness. That is just not fair. If you have something to say to someone else, say it to their face. Even though, you know, look, we all love to hear a good juicy gossip story. Let's just be real about this, because it is part of our instincts to do that. And again, like with everything else with dignity consciousness, we have to practice a little restraint. Because what we really need to be doing in there to avoid violating dignity - our own and others - is to actually confront people that we're unhappy with.

Kim Forrester:   12:40
And you also say that we're often not fully aware when we're actually violating others' dignity. How important is it that we sort of learn to recognise when we are undermining any of those 10 elements? How important is it for us to accept it in ourselves? And then how can we, in a very self-loving way and constructive way, go about actually reassessing the way that we approach other people?

Donna Hicks:   13:07
Well, one thing that's important to recognise about these 10 temptations to violate dignity is that every human being has these same temptations. This is not something that's just unique to us. This is part of ... again ... part of our human biology; part of our evolutionary legacy. We all have that, and to not be aware of it is not uncommon. Very few people... I mean, I wasn't aware of these things before I started doing my work and my research and working with these issues with people. Here I am, one of the leading proponents of dignity in the world, but I had to learn this stuff, too. And you mentioned a very nice - that's a very nice phrase, 'In a self loving way' -  because this is what we're up against as human beings. All of us are up against this. And if we could be self-loving around realising, 'Oh no, I just tried ...' - because saving face is another big one of these temptations. We all try to cover up, because we don't like to look bad in the eyes of others. So we cover up if we make a mistake. We don't, you know, we don't want to make ourselves that vulnerable. But recognising that we're having that experience is the first step to recognising, 'If I'm having it, other people have it, too.' And again, back to developing some compassion for what we human beings are up against, we all are vulnerable to these 10 temptations - whether it's saving face or gossiping or whatever it is. It's just part of the human experience. But if we recognise that we are all evolving beings. And we are. Every single one of us has the potential to evolve a deeper consciousness; a better understanding of what it means to be a human being. Once we realise that, that's when we've got to roll up our sleeves and we've got to get to work.

Kim Forrester:   14:58
But why, Donna? All of that sounds like a lot of hard work. You know, reassessing our behaviour, certainly changing the patterns ... our behavioural patterns. There's a lot of effort involved there. What good comes of it when we choose, as individuals, to start to be more careful with own dignity and the dignity of others? What kind of world -  what kind of life - are we creating when we do so?

Donna Hicks:   15:23
The short answer: the world we're creating is a more compassionate, loving world. But let me go back and circle back into that answer. When you say an effort is required, there's no question that effort is required. And I always say ... you know, I was working with a group of physicists, really high powered physicists in a national laboratory here in the United States. And they basically asked me the same question. Why do we have to work at this? And I said to them, 'How many years did it take you to get your PhD in physics? How many years? And what kind of effort did it take you to learn and study and get your postdocs?'.  Think of the  effort we put into our intellectual development. This is effort in understanding our emotional capacities; our emotional reactions; our emotional world. And part of the problem is that we've ignored that piece for far too long. I mean, just think about it. We are off the charts in our technological advancement. And when you compare that to how much knowledge we have of the human experience, especially the human emotional experience. If you compare that, it is so out of whack, it is so out of balance. And I say, in order to experience that kinder, more compassionate, gentler, loving world, we've got work to do. Because, while we all are born with dignity, and we all have value and worth, we're not born knowing how to act like it. And we're not born knowing how to treat other people that way. So I say, we need to have this in all of our schools; in primary schools and elementary schools, high schools, universities. This should be as critical as learning biology, or whatever the traditional intellectual pursuits that we all have to learn when we're in school. This is how important I think that is, Kim.

Kim Forrester:   17:20
I absolutely agree. And I love that a lot. And I'm wondering, as important as it is for us to go out and make the effort to honour the dignity of others in the world, do you feel that it's also fair, and right, and just for us to somehow demand that we be treated with dignity in return?

Donna Hicks:   17:39
Well, you know, I don't like that word demand. I think there's a far more effective way than saying 'I demand to be treated with dignity'. Even though, I do say that to some of the parties in conflict. And that's such an extreme case, where people have opted to kill one another. But in our everyday worlds, I think the more effective way of getting people to treat you with dignity is, to treat them with dignity. Because what I have found is that, when we honour the dignity of others, it actually strengthens our own, and we look really good when we honour people's dignity. And people feel it. This is the thing. This is a fundamentally emotional experience that, when people feel their dignity is being honoured - when their identity is accepted, they're treated fairly, they're included, they don't feel marginalised - this is when people respond in like ways. So ... and this is why it is so important to give people the benefit of the doubt. You know, we have these neurons in our brains called mirror neurons, and when we are in an interaction with somebody and that person is treating us well, these neurons get triggered and we feel the same reaction. We feel that positive benefit of the doubt. We feel that sense that we're being treated as if we have good intentions. So the action step is not to demand that we be treated with dignity, but show that we know how to honour dignity. And then that creates a sort of a contagion and a chain reaction.

Kim Forrester:   19:15
Wow. Dignity really is the core component of us being able to be a greater version of ourselves, would you agree with that?

Donna Hicks:   19:24
Oh, I love that. I love that. It is. Because one of the things that I learned from a very young group of kids, when I was teaching this dignity model to them. This one little guy - you know, I think he was, like, maybe seven or eight years old - he looked at me and said, 'Oh, Professor Hicks, You know what this means? This means that we can do so much better.' And I said, 'Yes, we can do better.' We human beings have the capacity and the potential to do better. Yet, you know, just like we don't even think about going to school and studying all those - algebra, and biology, geometry - we have to get better as educators, too. We have to get better, to help these young people know from a very young age that we have to treat each other with dignity if we're going to co-exist on this planet.

Kim Forrester:   20:21
Interestingly in your book - and I loved this - you have come to see the honouring of dignity as a powerful alternative to forgiveness. How can we draw upon dignity to resolve conflicts and heal relationship rifts, particularly where forgiveness is either unattainable or inappropriate?

Donna Hicks:   20:42
Yeah. Well, that's one of the things that I learned when I worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You know, we did some work up in Northern Ireland with some victims and perpetrators. And you know, that conflict was a brutal 30 year conflict and there was a lot of pain and a lot of suffering. And we actually brought these people together to try to create some reconciliation. What ended up happening was, these men sat together for - oh my gosh - about six hours while we facilitated the dialogue. And what we created, the environment that we created for them, was one in which it was a dignity-honouring environment. What that basically translated into is that, we gave them opportunities to - each of them - tell their stories. To listen very carefully to what the other person was saying. And by the end, by the end - by creating this dignified environment where people felt seen, they felt heard, they felt listened to, they felt acknowledged - then the two men were able to look at each other and say, 'If I had had your experience, I probably would have done the same thing.' So this way of identifying where they are shared humanity was such a powerful, powerful road to reconciliation. And these two ... you know, the one couple that I'm talking about, they ended up going out and having dinner together after. And these were people ... one guy almost killed the other guy. So, when people feel that sense of their being acknowledged as a human being - as I said, they feel seen, they feel heard, they feel listened to - then remarkable things can happen. Human beings are so much bigger than our hardwired reactions. And so, you know. But I want to say: I don't want to pretend that ... or not pretend. I don't want to claim that forgiveness isn't a powerful method of reconciliation, because it is. I don't want to say, 'Don't bother with it. Just honour people's dignity and it will be okay.' I think for some people, if you have that in your heart, if that's what you naturally feel like you want to do is tell the person you forgive her or you forgive him, I think that's a beautiful thing.

Kim Forrester:   22:53
Your latest book is about leading with dignity, and I actually believe that we're all leaders to some respect in our own lives - whether we're a parent, or a mentor, or a teacher, or perhaps just an example in our community. What is the most important thing that you'd like my listeners to know about how they can lead with dignity?

Donna Hicks:   23:13
First of all, I think it's important to know what it is; to have a really clear understanding; to know what those 10 elements are of dignity. Because, you know, I've even been approached by faith communities here in this country, and faith communities who make the declaration - they declare that all of the congregants have to honour the dignity of all human beings. Well, that's wonderful, but what does that look like on a daily basis? So people have a gut feeling about dignity and why it's important. But very few people have a working knowledge; you know, have a concrete way of saying, 'OK, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go out today, and I'm going to honour the dignity of the first five people I see. And I'm going to make an effort.' All right, so what does that look like? Right? So my 10 elements of dignity, like you were just describing - accepting identity, treating people fairly, inclusion, acknowledgment, recognition and all of that - that gives people a way to understand what to do, when you want to honour somebody's dignity. If people learned and internalised just that, that would be a huge opportunity for, you know, making dignity a way of life for oneself. And you have to learn this stuff. You have to know what it is, and what the difficulties are, the challenges, the obstacles and all of that. You just have to make yourself more aware and knowledgeable. So first, just commit yourself. Commit yourself to learning what it is, what it isn't, how to put it into practise in your daily life, and that's a great first step.

Kim Forrester:   24:52
It's a great way for us all to lead by example. Perhaps, as you were saying very early on in the conversation, 'Just learn how to honour other people's dignity', and in doing so it will inspire them to feel dignified and honour the dignity of people around them. Do you feel, Donna, that there's a way for us to, not only learn to better honour each other's dignity as human beings, but to actually extend that dignity to other living creatures and the planet that we live on?

Donna Hicks:   25:20
Yes. You know, and in fact, in my first book the first quote in the introduction is that dignity is the inner peace that comes from the recognition of the value and vulnerability of all living things. And there is this tremendous sense of calm that overcomes me when I go out into the natural world, for example. And I go for a walk in the woods or I see the beauty of nature or, on the downside, worry so much about things like climate change and what that's doing to us. Because we're all connected in this. There is no way of detaching ourselves, as a human species, from the rest of the universe; from the rest of the planet. We'd like to think, maybe, we're superior beings and we can detatch ourselves. But it doesn't last very long, because then major crises evolve. But yes, there's so much in the natural world that we have to be aware of, and we have to be the guardians of dignity in all of its manifestations on Earth. All of them.

Kim Forrester:   26:21
But in your experience, is dignity compartmentalised like that? Can you honour the dignity of all humans, but not actually have dignity for nature and living creatures? Or do you believe, in your experience, that once we actually understand dignity, once we embody it, that understanding our connection with nature and other living creatures comes as a natural progression from that?

Donna Hicks:   26:46
I think you've just said it. I think the answer is 'yes'. You know, I think dignity consciousness, by the way, Kim, is an ever-expanding consciousness. You know, I was ... my husband and I were reading a book by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and he was talking about the magnificence of the universe and understanding all of this that is not in our consciousness here on an everyday basis. And I realised, 'Oh, my God, dignity never ends. It's like infinity.' There's no end point where you say, 'Okay, stop here. You've got it now. You're a dignity agent.' But, I mean, part of the humility that comes with dignity consciousness is recognising, you know, we're a small part of it, human beings. But we're all connected to the same source of dignity. So I don't know. I just loved reading his work because it really pushed the boundaries of my understanding of what we have to be conscious of, in orderto honour dignity,

Kim Forrester:   27:47
And I completely understand that. There's so much awe in the work that he creates and he shares. The Eudaemonia podcast, Donna, is all about flourishing in life. So how has your approach to life been enhanced since you began researching and recognising the dignity model?

Donna Hicks:   28:04
Oh, it's ... I can't even ... it's so vast. It's so ... there's so much to say about that because, more than anything else, I'm the messenger of this dignity phenomenon that we're talking about. I feel like it's been following me, personally, around my entire life. You know, I had years and years and years where I considered myself not worthy, and I was ... you know, had self doubt, and I was depressed. And then I decided, 'Okay, I'm going to fight this by getting all of these degrees.' You know, I got five degrees. And I was going to find dignity and self worth and all of those, you know, PhDs, post docs, everything. And, once I started recognising in my international conflict work that these poor people are suffering so much because they don't feel like they have dignity, and so that did something to me. That turned something around in my own understanding of dignity. Not just for myself, but writ large. And so, the more I understood it, the more I embodied it, the more I felt the power of it. And oh, my gosh. I mean, it's life changing for me. And, you know, here I am still going out everywhere - I mean, I'm in Europe, I'm in this country and all over the place - sending out this message that: people you've got dignity. You are inherently valuable. You were born with worth. Just recognise it, and embrace it, and accept it. I want everybody to know this. You know, I want everybody to feel that power. Because it is precious power. I call it precious power. It's not like power to go out and, you know, be a politician or CEO of some company. But this is precious human power that can move mountains if we embrace it fully, and embrace it well in others.

Kim Forrester:   29:56
What a beautiful answer there. I just loved that so much. My last question for you, Donna, you have been so gracious with your time. This is one I ask every guest on the Eudaemonia podcast. Can you offer a simple morning reminder - so this is a daily exercise, it could be a practise, a mantra, perhaps a little ritual - that can help my listeners better appreciate their innate value and worth, and learn to honour it in others.

Donna Hicks:   30:20
Yeah, what I do for myself, I could just share what I do for myself. I start out the day with the aspiration that I want to do everything that I can to promote dignity in my interactions with people. And then at the end of the day, I sit down with myself and say, 'Okay, Donna, how did you do here?' And then, to be honest, you know, sometimes I'll violate other people's dignity. Like the things that really bug me is when I get on the phone with a customer service agent, let's say it's with an airline or Amazon or something, and they don't give me what I want. I can get nasty, you know. And I have to catch myself. Or I talk to somebody in a way that might be reactive and I'm violating ... like even my husband. You know, we're like a living laboratory here. We're constantly apologising to each other if we violate each other. But this is a daily practise; this is recognising when you have met your aspiration and congratulating yourself for it. Pat yourself on the back. 'Oh, yeah, I did this. I made this person feel really good, you know, at the checkout counter, when I was getting my groceries. I was nice to her, and she and I had a great interaction.' But equally as important to take responsibility if you violated somebody's dignity. I consider it, Kim, spiritual practise, to tell you the truth. And so I start out with the aspiration in the morning and then, at the end, 'How did you do? And do you need to make amends? Do you need to go back and apologise?' Because sometimes you're not even aware - when you quickly lash out at somebody, for example - sometimes you need to take a few breaths and come back to the person. So there it is. It's simple. You don't need a PhD for that. It's really easy.

Kim Forrester:   32:07
That's just fantastic. Donna, I would really recommend that my listeners go and learn more about dignity from your website, from your talks online, and from your two books. Where can people find out more about you and the work that you do?

Donna Hicks:   32:21
My website is .

Kim Forrester:   32:30
That's fantastic. I encourage everyone to go and visit the website and follow the links. Learn more about how we can honour dignity in ourselves and in others. I am just so delighted that you have chosen to spend some time with me here on the Eudaemonia podcast. Thank you, Donna Hicks, for being a part of the show today.

Donna Hicks:   32:47
Oh, you're so welcome.

Kim Forrester:   32:49
As the American baseball legend, Jackie Robinson, once said, 'The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.' You've been listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. If you'd like to learn more about how to live a truly flourishing life, please subscribe and check out for more inspiring episodes. I'm Kim Forrester. Until next time, be well, be kind to yourself and live each day with dignity.