Blurry Lines: The continuum of disrespect.

May 16, 2023

Illustration of a grey blob with words indicating confusion around it

When it comes to extreme behaviour, it’s pretty clear when something is unacceptable. If a stapler is thrown across the room in a fit of rage, most of us would agree that we’re getting a no feeling from the situation. But it’s not always so obvious.

Disrespect often takes a subtler form, and in this grey area it can be difficult to decipher. While subjectivity in each of our perceived experiences plays a part, it doesn’t absolve microinequities and microagressions.

That said, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: sometimes we don’t like the direction that someone gives us but that doesn’t make it disrespectful. When someone gives us feedback at work, for example, we might feel uncomfortable – but maybe that’s a necessary component of the job and the hierarchies that are a part of it.

In many of the roles that we play throughout life, an integral aspect is assigning work, getting critical feedback, and managing performance on both an individual and collective basis. Critique, instruction, orders…these are necessary aspects of interbeing, and are neither good nor bad in themselves. Either way, they can be uncomfortable.

Illustrated line with indications showing a shift from acceptable to unacceptable behaviour

Respect and disrespect exist on a continuum together, and the line between them is a blurry one. Yet it’s an important aspect to consider because it helps us understand the difference between acceptable behaviour and one requiring a response.

Was that valid constructive criticism from our boss or a personal attack? It isn’t always as clear as a flying stapler. As such, reactions to situations straddling this line should be tempered to match the situation – a direct conversation being a good starting point before hiring a lawyer.

At the other end of the spectrum however, unacceptable behaviour is unquestionably so. In these cases our ways of addressing it need to scale appropriately – utilizing the resources available to us to enter an informal resolution process, making a formal complaint, or, if it feels safe, taking immediate intervention. In taking action we avoid the additive trouble that comes from procrastinating tough situations.

While it may not be as simple as we wish, the result is walking a path with integrity and due diligence – and hopefully cleaning up more messes than we make. Undoubtedly, emotions will bubble up but remember: feelings are not facts and we need to be aware that our biology programs us to react defensively. Of course we need to be cautious of belittling comments, gestures, and personal attacks, but it requires a bit of reflection and thinking beyond oneself to perceive situations clearly.

Reading a situation wrong and overreacting also has cascading impacts to be wary of. Inflated accusations of harm tend to deflect responsibility, shun the other party, or shut down the conversation altogether. Unless your goal is to hurt the feelings of the other person, it can not only escalate conflict but also create it out of nowhere.

As such, it is worthwhile to consider the continuum of disrespect when we feel uncomfortable and are uncertain if it’s acceptable or not. We can find appropriate reactions by identifying when acceptable behaviour spills over into behaviour requiring a response.

Dealing with conflict is one thing, but acknowledging situations where there is the potential for it to be created is the other side of it. Conflict may be natural, but it arises from the continuous flow of actions and reactions in the relationships of our life. In this, each of us inevitably plays a part. 

If you find yourself today in a conflict and a direct conversation hasn’t moved things toward resolution, our team at Mediation Services can help. Get in touch and we can connect you with one of our trained third-party mediators. Or, if you’re an organization, reach out about scheduling a trainer to come into your workplace to lead a workshop teaching options to be used internally.

We also have an ever-expanding collection of free resources here on our blog and through our newsletter, which we hope will serve you in your own life. And for those interested in self-directed study, our on-demand webinar offerings are a great starting point.

When an extreme action seems to arise out of nowhere, it probably didn’t actually rise out of nowhere. Looking closely, we can carefully choose our reaction accordingly.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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