I listened to a “This American Life” episode which chronicled a conversation between a corrections officer and an inmate.


The inmate felt the corrections officer was disrespecting the inmate.  The corrections officer simply felt he was doing his job.

While it was remarkable this conversation could take place at all, it brought up the whole concept of what my coaching teacher calls “slippery words”.

Slippery words are small words with large implications (like respect).  Everyone thinks they know what they mean, but the fact is many people attach different behaviors to respectful vs. disrespectful behavior.

Those assumptions cause problems.

Very few people get up in the morning and say to themselves, “I’m going to disrespect Amy for one and a half minutes today.”

It most often happens that people stumble into disrespectful behavior.

For instance, when I ask my husband for computer help and an edge creeps in my voice when he asks me how I’ve tried to remedy it, for me, it’s usually an expression of my frustration with computers.  For him, it’s sometimes understood as a disrespectful tone.  “I’m just trying to help!”

And vice versa with other domestic issues.

These are the ‘red flag issues’.  We’re both aware that the more stress we’re under, the more likely our tones change.  (And I know, I’m vulnerable to losing it over computer problems!)

It can be much trickier with people you work with and/or people you don’t know well.

For instance, a boss who regularly checks on the progress of a project may just feel like they’re doing their job.

For one employee, this checking may be a welcome expression of the boss’ competence and caring.

For another employee it may feel intrusive and micro managing.

For yet another employee, this is an outright expression of the boss’ lack of faith in their abilities.

There aren’t easy answers.  If you’re feeling disrespected, perhaps the best solution is as always, a conversation about specifics.

  • Ask to schedule a time to talk about the communication process (vs. product) on its own, not when you’re under deadline or already stressed.
  • Don’t assume the other person’s behavior is badly motivated or meant to be disrespectful.
  • Gently share what work style works best for you as specifically as you can.

And may you pursue your path communicating respect for yourself and others,