Communicating With Respect to Educate and Influence

“When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be.”
Thomas S. Monson

Whether we are attempting to educate, influence, or criticize, our underlying objective is usually to gain the trust of others as a credible source. To this end, a major component to being credible is delivering our message with is RESPECT. But just because we may understand what behaving respectfully is does not always equate to behaving respectfully. This is an area, I think we can all agree, where there is a “theory-practice gap.” Although it goes way beyond the scope of this post to dive into the human psyche and find out why that is, I would like to talk about the profound effects that communicating respectfully can have on delivering a message.

We are all human. And yes, we sometimes fail to maintain composure.  Believe me, when I call my nine year old daughter to the homework table for the fourth time, the respect has gone out the window.  This is a part of our human fallibility. It can be a struggle to regulate behaviour to satisfy the goal of communicating a compelling message and gaining influence and trust.

But here is some insight that might help curb the impulse of quick judgements. Being respectful is the ultimate path to gaining trust of others. I don’t care if you are speaking to a crowd of Flat-earth-creationist-antivaccer-climate-change-deniers,  being respectful makes us more likeable, which is an attribute that is crucial when attempting to advance our message and influence others.

Studies have shown that giving constructive feedback with a respectful tone and body language results in less defensive responses and higher credibility. For example, work by Lisa Cooper, MD., professor of medicine at John Hopkin’s School of Medicine, demonstrated that patients tend to understand more information, follow doctor’s recommendation, and express more positive outcomes when physicians adopt a respectful tone.

Treating others with respect has numerous benefits: from facilitating a positive climate for interactions and discussions, to contributing to more effective leadership and reducing unnecessary harm to others. Disrespect, on the other had, can inhibit constructive dialogue, contribute to negative perceptions and may even provoke adherence to fallacious view-points simply because they don’t belong to the person who made them feel stupid or judged.

The first and foremost aspect of respectful communication starts with viewing others as individuals with adherent rights to their own opinions. I’ve often said that one does not necessarily need to agree with another’s point of view, but we must always respect that the other person as an individual with the right to their opinion. We don’t know their history and their experiences and to what degree this has influenced them into beliefs and points of view. Learn to appreciate the value of others to avoid unnecessary harm.

Furthermore, it is important not to stereotype others as unintelligent just because they may not understand our arguments. Know that misunderstanding may always occur. It may be that their failure to understand has resulted in them being misled. Dismissing others through stereotyping is paramount to loosing an opportunity to find a common ground from which to establish a constructive relationship. Treat others with decency and remember, allowing yourself to become frustrated when confronted with people who refuse to budge, is never helpful. As I have written in the past, as human beings, we are all subject to our own biases and misconceptions that are ingrained due to our history, upbringing and experiences.


Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that allows us to remain both effective and respectful communicators, but there are numerous tools we can utilize. When preparing a communication plan, lecture, debate, etc., part of being respectful comes in the way we interact with others. Let me be candid for a moment, as you may have read in some of my previous posts, I am a scientist. And we scientist can be, oh, shall we say, arrogant… sometimes. At least, my wife tells me we can be. Science is a field were credibility rules and credibility is achieved with facts and data. But in the real world, credibility is achieved by respectful communication—which is to say, being respectful of the people you are speaking to. That can be a prescription that is easier to write than to fill…n’est-ce pas? So if you are like me, you need some pointers, a process, a checklist.  I would like to share mine.

  1. Do your homework.

Gaining credibility and trust comes with doing our homework. Part of this is to understand our own level of competence. If you are not already an expert on the particular subject or issue, try to become one as much as time will allow. Do not attempt to hit above your weight class as they say and do not go beyond what the evidence can support. Consults experts if necessary. Remember that is better to say “I don’t know”, than to speak above your level of competence. This is one of the quickest way we can loose our credibility

Apart from having a full understanding of your point of view or argument, it is also important to anticipate potential challenges so prepare and review reoccurring questions with possible answers, especially toward criticism. Share your ideas with colleagues and rehears your arguments and counter-arguments before exposing them to the public. Just as a scientist maintains a bibliography, you must also document your sources. Get the specifics on an argument or opinion before making any claims.

In order to present a good argument, you must also clarify what it is your want to accomplish. Is our goal to educate, influence, or criticize.  It is important to note that in the case of criticism, make clear that you are are criticizing an argument, not the person making the argument. Remember that everyone has the right to their own opinion, so it is very important that you do not come across as trying to interfere or censor those rights.

  1. Know your audience:

Be prepared to communicate to a diverse audience. The style and information that you use will depend on who you are attempting to communicate with and influence. This can include colleagues you wish to challenge, public you wish to sway, or a obstinate opponent you are attempting to educate. Arguments and styles that you use for one will not necessarily work for others. For example, an argument meant to persuade the general public may appear as insulting to experts, academics and other key opinions leaders, whereas discussion styles used toward these groups may make cause you to appear arrogant to the general public.

  1. Consider the other’s point of view.

Called, “perspective-taking”, this is the cognitive capacity to consider the world from other view points. It lowers our temptation to dismiss other arguments without really considering what they have to say. Furthermore, it prevents us from the tendency to apply stereotypes, decreases perceived differences and reduces in-groups favoritism.

Remember that understanding another perspective does not mean adopting it. But it may help in identifying legitimate vs illegitimate arguments and will may help promote our argument. According to Galinsky, individuals who take others’ perspectives are more likely to find common ground leading to beneficial solutions. (Galinsky et al, 2008) Furthermore, individuals may be more willing to like and help others then they believe those have considered their perspectives.

  1. Unconditional positive regard.

This is the practice of accepting and supporting others in their claims and gain trust by putting aside personal judgement. Human nature dictates we will unconsciously decide who deserves positive regards and in what circumstances. Carl Rogers, the eminent American psychologist, argued that it is an important factor in any helping relationship.

Extending unconditional positive regard is a way of addressing behavior without inserting negative personal judgment that disrupts a helping relationship. The other person senses the development of personal antagonism, they may well withdraw from the discussion. It is important to keep people engaged and open minded so you may need to strive for gradual improvements. Though unconditional positive regard may difficult to achieve, it can still be employed; it just takes patience.

  1. Communicate with clarity and precision:

A good message requires it be delivered in clarity and precision both in language and in tone. This is particularly true if you want an audience to understand your conclusions. It raises the quality of our message and critiques. It allows us to communicate exactly what we intend and won`t confuse those with what we are trying to achieve. Furthermore, it may result in others drawing the same conclusions an us. I have found that when someone draws their own conclusion on a subject matter, the resulting case is made much stronger.

Be both objective and fair. We have the responsibility to be honest and accurate in our statements, so avoid making statements that cannot be supported. This is particularly true when talking to members the media. We must also make every effort to ensure that the audience understands precisely what we are and are not saying, so let the facts speak for themselves. Furthermore, avoid using sensationalized or loaded works, and do not to resort to emotional arguments even when your opponents do. Emotional charges and sensationalism may work in the short-term, but in the long run they will drain our credibility.

  1. Avoid aggressive behaviour

Aggressive behaviour is always unlikely to be constructive. Even if it`s not our intent, aggressive behaviour inflicts emotional harm. We may be in a situation that results in us becoming emotional. Humans are generally averse to being wrong or acknowledging wrong doing, especially when involving topics that are important to self concept or a disappointing reality.  It is important to realize that there will be times that you may be in a discussion on a subject that you hold dear and therefore, may be emotional. These emotions may sometimes lead to disrespectful behavior, so it is important to be aware when emotion override logic. Do not act impulsively and never resort to personal attacks.


During my career as a scientist, educator, and communicator, I’ve learned to always be aware about the limitations of science. The same lesson can be applied to communication in that we must be aware that our arguments, discussion and criticisms also have their limitations. Remember that the goal is to promote an idea or principle, so it important not to loose sight of your intent to create positive forms of persuasion.


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