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Communicating With Dignity & Curiosity

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

By Robyn Short, President & CEO, Workplace Peace Institute

Reimagining organizations by devising an innovative model that encourages productive, fulfilled, and engaged employees.

We are living and working in an era of unprecedented disruption and change. Many people find change uncomfortable, even stressful. We all share a basic human need for safety – physical safety as well as psychological safety. Change can threaten our sense of psychological safety. When we don’t know what to expect, we don’t know how to be.

I am certain that constant change is our new norm. Our goal should not be to reduce the amount of change that is happening in our personal and professional lives — too much of it is beyond our control. This approach would only lead to more stress. Rather, we need to learn to live with change. To do this, we need to learn to communicate with dignity and curiosity.

Dignity is our inherent worth and value as human beings. Curiosity is the willingness to suspend our desire for certainty and adopt a state of wonder.

As a researcher, conflict practitioner, and organization systems design consultant, I have been deeply influenced by John Burton’s Basic Human Needs Theory, Bernard Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict, and Donna Hicks’ Dignity Model. Each of these scholars have had a tremendous influence on my understanding of deeply rooted conflict and how to build organizational systems of sustainable peace — systems that have the potential to truly transform the human experience. Along my research journey, what was missing for me was how to take this knowledge and make it actionable from the perspective of truly engaging with individuals in a manner that acknowledges and honors human needs, including the need for dignity. I began a search for a framework that allowed the freedom and space to bring these concepts to life in a way that supported the key functions of peace — human security and the ability to live a life of dignity that is free of fear.

As Donna Hicks noted in her book, Dignity, the default response for most people who have been on the receiving end of a dignity violation is shame, humiliation, dread, etc. These feelings do not lend themselves to learning. When we are on the defense and experiencing a fight or flight response, our focus is on surviving the assault. What is needed is a framework that supports a brain-sensitive learning environment. In other words, a communication framework that encourages curiosity, awareness of self and others, and that shifts the focus from blame, judgment and shame to collaboration and understanding. In their book, The Power of Curiosity: How to Have Real Conversations That Create Collaboration, Innovation, and Understanding, executive coaches Kathy Taberner and Kirsten Taberner Siggins offer a simple framework oriented around honing one’s curiosity skills.

Research in the field of neuroscience confirms that when a person experiences curiosity, the hormones dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain. These feel-good hormones support us in connecting with each other because they create a connection between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system — the brain and the heart — that allows people to experience a greater sense of openness. Consequently, a new shared understanding is able to emerge, and along with that, a new shared reality.

Learn more about the neuroscience of peace in my book, Peace in the Workplace: Transforming Conflict Into Collaboration.

Curiosity is a frontal lobe activity. Important functions of the prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe, include reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Because curiosity is a frontal lobe activity and anger, shame, anxiety, etc. are functions of the limbic system, it is almost impossible to be mad and curious at the same time, which means curiosity is a brain-sensitive learning skill.

If we are able to maintain curiosity about another person’s behavior, we are less likely to internalize it and more apt to explore what is driving the behavior. We are more apt to adopt a state of wonder.

As we gain understanding about the driving forces behind a person’s behavior, our capacity to experience compassion for them grows and our ability to extend empathy toward them is also enhanced. Through curiosity, compassion, and empathy, we are able to begin to transcend conflict and peaceful paths forward begin to emerge. We become less vulnerable to experiencing stress.

The framework for cultivating curiosity skills is quite straightforward. However, Taberner and Taberner Siggins present the information in a very helpful manner that allows for a step-by-step approach with a lack of rigidity that might render it theoretical but not implementable. Below is a visual rendering inspired by Taberner and Taberner Siggins' framework for cultivating curiosity, which also includes how basic human needs and dignity needs influence communication.

It is obvious that this framework is not a linear process, but rather three actions to take (or three ways of being) as one moves through a dialogue process. What I appreciate most about this framework is its simplicity. I have taken the liberty to revise the framework slightly and bring my own insights that I have gathered along my educational and professional journey to this framework.

Step One

The first “step” in the process is to be fully present. This is both an instruction to the dialogue facilitator and to the participants. When we are fully present, we are intentional about being authentic and bringing our most heartfelt and sincere self to the discussion. We listen empathetically and without judgment for the message hidden beneath the words. We offer the truth as we understand it in the current moment without blame or judgment. We exercise emotional intelligence skills and maintain awareness, to the best of our ability, about the impact our personality, culture, gender, and overall communication style may have on the other parties and the process. And, perhaps most importantly, we listen for the unmet needs that are being expressed through the emotions and feelings of those with whom we may be experiencing conflict.

Step Two

The second “step” is to choose how to listen. There is a time for gaining understanding and there is a time for problem-solving. Knowing what is required of us at each stage of a dialogue is necessary and will inform the way in which we choose to listen. Regardless of whether we are listening to problem solve or listening to gain understanding, utilizing active listening skills is of paramount importance.

Active listening is a method of listening and responding attentively with the intent of building rapport and trust while deepening one’s understanding of the other person. The goal of active listening is to deepen one’s connection to the person with whom communication is occurring, to gain a richer understanding of the speaker’s feelings and needs, and to begin to hear a request even when one is not directly spoken.

By being fully present, intentional about how we listen, and engaging in active listening, we will automatically begin to learn more about others and ourselves. Being willing to lean into this new learning, rather than resist it and get rooted in our previous thinking, is critical.

Step Three

Asking open and curious questions is how we lean into conflict and deepen our understanding of every aspect of it. Curiosity engages our frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for logic, reasoning, and decision-making. Curiosity invites collaboration, problem-solving, and even compassion.

Examples of curious questions include, but certainly are not limited to:

  • Can you tell me more about that feeling, belief, perspective, etc.?

  • What experiences have you had that have shaped your thinking as it relates to this feeling, belief, perspective, etc.?

  • If you were to peel back all the layers, what is at the root of this issue for you?

  • Why does this feeling, belief, issue, etc. move you so deeply?

  • Do you see any contradictions or paradoxes in your thinking about this particular issue?

  • What underlying values or ethical beliefs have shaped your thinking?

  • What needs are you seeking to fulfill through this action?

When we lean into conflict with curiosity, we automatically invite the same from others. Our curiosity has the power to transform a conflict conversation into a learning conversation, and models a path for others to follow.

If you want to strengthen your ability to communicate with dignity and curiosity, consider engaging Workplace Peace Institute for a learning workshop designed to meet the specific needs of your organization. Contact us for a complimentary consultation.


Dr. Robyn Short is the president and CEO of Workplace Peace Institute – an organizational systems design and research firm that is singularly focused on creating workplace cultures where people thrive. Workplace Peace Institute supports small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model.


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