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Saving Face – How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust

Everyone wants to be respected and valued. As long as you have a heartbeat and breath in your lungs, you will have the desire to be appreciated, honored, and trusted in your relationships with others. We all want to “save face.”

Saving face, the notion of preserving individual honor and dignity, is often associated with Asian cultures. Although having it’s cultural birth in China, saving face is a universal concept that transcends national culture. In her new book, Saving Face—How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, Maya Hu-Chan examines face as a global concept that enables one to connect with people, break down barriers, and build trust and long-term relationships.

Face is important, says Hu-Chan, because it represents a person’s self-esteem, reputation, status, and dignity. She emphasizes that face is a form of social currency. The more face you have, the easier it is to accomplish things at work, the smoother your relationships, and the more social capital you have at your disposal.

Since saving face is human nature across cultures, generations, and genders, there are harmful consequences when it is lost or damaged. Losing face provokes shame, guilt, fear, vulnerability, and a wide range of negative emotions.

I find the concept of face to be interesting given its close connections to trust. Saving face is a means to building trust in relationships. In that regard, Hu-Chan suggests the BUILD model as a construct for developing and preserving face.

Benevolence & Accountability—I love the concept of benevolence because it’s at the heart of building trust. Benevolence is the desire to do good to others; it’s having another person’s best interests in mind. When people see that you care more about them than you do yourself, they are willing to be vulnerable with you and extend their trust to you. Accountability comes into the picture when you consider the two-way aspect of respect in a relationship. Face involves honoring each other. It encompasses acting in ways that preserve the dignity and respect of each party in the relationship, and for that to happen, each person must be accountable to the other. Face, like trust, requires reciprocity. Each person must give and receive it in order for it to grow.

Understanding—Hu-Chan shares that understanding is about putting yourself in the shoes of others and seeing situations from their perspective. Being able to see multiple perspectives of a given situation or problem allows you to act in ways and make decisions that honor and respect the positions of others. This ability is especially critical in the twenty-first century. Technology and globalization has made our world much smaller, and many times the decisions we’re facing have an inordinate number of dynamics that must be considered. A leader’s best move is to be understanding and tap into the viewpoints of others.

Interacting—This element encompasses your interpersonal and communication skills. Written and verbal communication skills are important for leaders, and even more so is emotional intelligence. Leaders who save face are those who are self-aware of their own and others’ behaviors, and the impact those behaviors have on the relationship. They know how to self-regulate the behaviors they use in relationships because they understand how the other person will be impacted. Hu-Chan states that “interaction involves both the message and the method of conveying the message. It’s also about creating the context in which clear conversations can be had. And of course, the ability to interact effectively creates an environment where face is protected and strengthened.”

Learning—In order to build and preserve face, it’s important to be a lifelong learner. Face is not an outcome; it’s a way of being and relating to others. As such, you never stop learning how to improve your relationships. Hu-Chan offers four “P’s” about learning: passion, practice, persistence, and pattern recognition. Passion is pretty straight-forward. When you are excited about learning, it fuels the motivation to do so. Practice is putting in the work. It’s using what you’ve learned to become more skilled and proficient. Persistence is going the extra-mile. Inevitably you will encounter challenges that threaten to knock you off-track, but the most successful leaders are those who push through the barriers. Finally, pattern recognition. Once you’ve begun to master a particular skill or subject, you start to see connections and trends that others don’t see, which increases your level of contribution.

Delivery—This is putting all the elements of the BUILD model into practice. Being benevolent and accountable, understanding others’ perspectives, interacting effectively, and learning continuously are all well and good, but they don’t mean much if you don’t deliver and put those skills to use with your team. Delivery is about walking the talk.

One of my core values is respect. I believe everyone deserves to be treated with respect, regardless of their socio-economic status, color of their skin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other distinction that identifies us. Respect is at the root of saving face. It’s a way of relating to people in a way that increases the level of honor, dignity, and trust. How can you go wrong with that?

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