How to Resolve Conflict with Dignity


One of the benefits of working with a range of organizations is that I get to meet a range of great people. One of those is Derek Brown, the Executive Director of the Peace Appeal Foundation and Board Member of New York Live Arts, who introduced me to the work of Donna Hicks. Donna is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and the author of Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict.

The “Dignity Model” is a response by Hicks to what she sees as the missing element of existing conflict resolution theory and practice: that at the heart of any conflict serious enough to warrant resolution is a yearning by the participants to be treated with dignity. Often, what stands in the way of commitment to an agreement is “unacknowledged and unaddressed violations of individual dignity.”

Testing out the “Dignity Model”

I was so convinced of Donna’s focus on addressing the devaluation of personal dignity in more traditional approaches to conflict resolution that I tried out her approach. I was invited to assist two individuals whose deep-seated conflicts were influencing their relationship and diminishing the effectiveness of the organization where they were both major leaders.

As I worked with these individuals, I relied on ten elements Donna has built into the “Dignity Model.”

Donna Hicks’ 10 Elements of Dignity

excerpted from the “Dignity Model”

  1. Acceptance of other as neither inferior nor superior, but possessing the same inherent worth and value as your equal, and the first commitment is to do them no harm.
  2. Acknowledgment: People like to feel that they matter. Acknowledgment can be as simple as smiling at others when they walk by to formally recognizing them for something they have done for which they deserve credit. It is especially important to acknowledge the impact of your actions on others when you violate their dignity, instead of trying to save face by diminishing or ignoring the harm you have caused.
  3. Inclusion: No one likes to feel left out or that they don’t belong. When we are included, we feel good about who we are. When we are excluded from things that matter to us, we feel an instant reaction of self-doubt. What is it about me that I wasn’t included? This is an affront to our dignity at all levels of human interaction, from the political, when minority groups feel left out of the political process by the majority, to the interpersonal, when we’re not included in the decision-making that directly affects us.
  4. Safety by assuring the environment is free from psychological threats like shaming, humiliation, diminishing or hurtful criticizing.
  5. Donna Hicks' "Dignity Model"
    Donna Hicks’ “Dignity Model”

    Fairness: We all have a particularly strong knee-jerk reaction to being treated unfairly. If we want to honor the dignity of others, we need to ensure that we are honoring agreed upon laws and rules of fairness—both implicit and explicit—when we interact with them.

  6. Freedom: A major dignity violation occurs when we restrict people and try to control their lives. Honoring this element of dignity requires that people feel free from domination and that they are able to experience hope and a future that is filled with a sense of possibility.
  7. Understanding through active listening is used for the sole purpose of understanding the perspective of the other, as there is nothing more frustrating than feeling misunderstood, especially when in conflict with others.
  8. Benefit of the doubt: Treating people as though they were trustworthy—giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are acting with good intention—is honoring their dignity. This is, paradoxically, especially important when the cycle of mistrust is difficult to break. Treating others as though they were trustworthy often interrupts the negative expectations, creating opportunities for a change in the relationship.
  9. Responsiveness is required as it an aspect of basic human dignity to have been seen and heard, and when the other is treated as invisible or is ignored it is a major diminishing of their dignity.
  10. Righting the wrong: When we violate someone’s dignity, it is important to take responsibility and apologize for the hurt we have caused. It is a way for us to regain our own dignity as well as acknowledging the wrongdoing to the person you violated.

Risking relationships while managing conflict

Why should this approach matter to arts organizations when managing conflict? Because our organizations are populated with really bright, committed, and creative folks whose differing views about vision, strategy, innovation, and programming are the very life of the enterprise. We find our most fertile moments at the intersection of these conflicting ideas, yet occasionally a well intentioned ‘idea conflict’ escalates into a more pernicious ‘relationship conflict.’ With relationship conflict, feelings are hurt, people feel demeaned, and they may withdraw or lash out. No matter what happens, repairing the relationship is vital to restoring personal dignity, interpersonal harmony, and organizational effectiveness.

A healthy resolution to both idea and relationship conflicts

By recognizing Donna Hicks’ 10 elements of dignity, contribute to resolution of the conflict and foster healthy human relationships. We often focus so rigorously and rigidly on the former that we leave the latter in tatters.

Personal dignity is often destroyed during conflict. It only makes sense that restoring a level of that dignity—for everybody—through the conflict resolution process is more than simply a worthwhile gesture, it’s a moral imperative.


For managers willing to tackle this restorative work, I strongly recommend Donna’s thin volume as essential reading. You will also benefit from reading Repairing Relationship Conflict: How Relationship Types and Culture Influence the Effectiveness of Restoration Rituals in the Academy of Management Review (June 2009). Finally, to review five approaches to managing the resolution of relationship conflict, consult Conflict Management in Teams: Causes and Cures, in the Delhi Business Review (December 2006).

John is an educator, facilitator and consultant. His specific expertise is in leadership education, visioning and strategy development for organizations, and conflict mediation. He serves as lead process faculty for the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts and The New Pathways Program. John is the founder and president of Partners in Performance, a services firm providing guidance to the arts and cultural community in the areas of visioning, planning, and development. As co-founder of Emc.Arts, LLC, John has served as a member of the consulting team for a broad array of clients including the Aspen Music Festival and School, Arts International, and the 18th Street Arts Complex. He is currently Vice President of the Association of Arts Administration Educators and serves as a regular panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.