Donna Hicks | g Force

Getting ahold of dignity

(Frank Monkiewicz)
August 22, 2011

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Q. Your book came out of your work trying to help political leaders in countries like Sri Lanka address international conflicts?

A. One of the disturbing aspects of my job is these conflicts are never resolved. It is emotional issues keeping these people apart. Nobody wants to say they’ve been emotionally wounded by the other side. There’s a stigma associated with that. We call these underlying emotional riptides “dignity violations.’’

Q. And then you realized that this is a universal human need - for what you term “dignity’’?

A. Everyone, when we come into the world, we have value and we’re worthy of being treated well. What is it about dignity that just makes it impossible for us to have a relationship with someone when our dignity has been violated by them?

Q. Is this a health issue? Can we be physically harmed by having our dignity violated?

A. The research is pretty clear that when you’re chronically faced with people who violate our dignity it has a devastating effect. Cortisol increases, the immune system is compromised. Even though this is a psychological issue, the psychological has profound physical and biological effects on our well-being. We can no longer think of being mistreated as something we can just get over.

Q. Do some of us feel worse than others when our dignity is violated?

A. We are all vulnerable. But people can be more hypersensitive, especially people who have had their dignity violated very early on their lives. They are also more vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of dignity violations.

Q. How do you identify a dignity violation?

A. You know it when you feel it. When you’re in a workplace and you bump into some people and you have some good interactions - you feel it. [The opposite is also true.] You walk into a situation where you’re sitting around a table and somebody says something demeaning - bingo - everybody in the room feels that. People may not have a language to say what that is, but we know the feeling of it.

Q. Don’t we all violate other people’s dignity sometimes?

A. People tend to overestimate their ability to honor the dignity of others and underestimate the way they are to others. If you’re chronically having problems with relationships, you can bet there’s something you’re doing that’s violating the other person’s dignity.

Q. You said your goal in writing this book was not to call out those who violate other people’s dignity?

A. I’m not trying to make people look bad. I’m just trying to give people an opportunity to consciously think about “how am I going to treat people who I come in contact with? Am I going to look at them and think this person has value and worth?’’ We can do so much better at learning how to honor people’s dignity.

Q. How can people give others dignity?

A. There are a number of ways they can extend dignity and show people. Simple little things like praising somebody. With just a little bit of learning, I have seen organizations and cultures turn around.

Q. How does this translate into your own life?

A. I’m working at it every single day. Every minute. Sometimes I slip, but it becomes a commitment to a way of life. Our marriage has been a laboratory for this. We work at it all the time.

Q. So, it’s not always intuitive to treat other people this way?

A. This stuff needs to be learned. This doesn’t come naturally. What does come naturally is our desire for it. Every single day we walk out into the world we want to be treated well, we want to be treated as if we mattered.


This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at

Donna Hicks
Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, has written a book called “Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict.’’

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