Building Relationships with Respect at the Center


In the introduction to her book, Respect: An Exploration (Perseus Books, 1999), sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot observes that “We pay more attention to [respect] when it is not expressed.” And, in fact, when searching for the causes of destructive social trends ranging from school violence to the culture of rudeness that surrounds us, we tend to focus on what we perceive to be a growing lack of respect for people within our society.

To shift our discourse from what happens when respect is absent to what happens when it is present, Lawrence-Lightfoot deftly weaves together individual profiles, personal reflection, and philosophical analysis. Through the powerful stories she tells, she helps us to understand respect not as a rigid set of rituals based on status and hierarchy but rather as a dynamic process of relationship-building.

Six Facets of Respect

Traditional notions of respect emphasize “some sort of debt due people because of their attained or inherent position” and require “expressions of esteem, approbation, or submission.” In contrast, Lawrence-Lightfoot describes respectful relationships based in symmetry, empathy, and connection, even among those considered to be unequal. She documents how such bonds grow and develop over time, as well as the challenging work that nurturing them entails.

To illustrate the different ways in which people commit to building relationships with respect “at the center,” the forms that these relationships take, and their impact on the participants and others, Lawrence-Lightfoot paints a vivid portrait of the lives and work of six individuals. The story of each of these people embodies a different facet of respect: empowerment, healing, dialogue, curiosity, selfrespect, and attention.

For instance, to bring to life the concept of empowerment, the author introduces us to nurse-midwife Jennifer Dohrn, who founded a birthing clinic to serve poor women in South Bronx, NY. After witnessing Dohrn’s interactions with patients, including during the birth of several babies, Lawrence-Lightfoot reports that the midwife “provides an oasis of respect and safety that allows women to be in touch with their bodies, take control of their care, and realize their own power to give birth and build a family.” Whereas in the Western medical system, patients are traditionally expected to defer to the expertise and higher status of the care provider, in the Childbearing Center, they are encouraged to review their own charts, read relevant literature, and participate in classes, groups, and mentoring so they can make informed decisions about their medical care.

Likewise, to illustrate self-respect, Lawrence-Lightfoot follows Harvard University law professor David Wilkins as he strives to treat the people in his classes with a sense of dignity generally denied to first-year students. To learn more about each of his 150 Civil Procedures students, he invites them to join him for lunch in groups of 12. In this intimate setting, Wilkins is able to see his students as individuals and learn more about their unique histories. Back in the classroom, by creating an environment that feels safe and generously offering these budding lawyers “his time, his wisdom, his humor, and his legal expertise, he hopes that they will feel his respect for who they are and will become.”

One theme that emerges from the mosaic that Lawrence-Lightfoot creates through these stories is how roles often reverse in respectful relationships: The so-called expert—teacher, healthcare provider, minister—becomes the learner, as the student, patient, or parishioner feels increasingly comfortable conveying to the “expert” what he or she knows, needs, and values. This growing interdependence transforms the relationship between the participants and the participants themselves, dismantling traditional hierarchies and leading to a greater sense of mutuality and reciprocity.

The Promise of Transformation

Lawrence-Lightfoot’s dynamic view of respect jibes with much of the work currently being done in organizations with disciplines such as servant-leadership and dialogue. Each of these areas of research and practice emphasizes the need to truly see and hear individuals and to honor their unique contributions and perspectives. Each offers the promise of a radical transformation of our institutions, businesses, communities, and families. And each gives us the hope of wholeness—as individuals and in concert with others—as we look to the future together.

Janice Molloy is content director at Pegasus Communications and managing editor of THE SYSTEMS THINKER.

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