Relationships That Work

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We have all experienced difficult relationships and we all want them to work.

What distinguishes a healthy relationship from one that leaves a trail of blood?

The classic reflection on relationships by Austrian born philosopher Martin Buber in his book “I and Thou” throws light on two markedly different styles of relating, “I and Thou” and “I and It”. Each leads to different outcomes. Here are some ways we experience the difference.

I – Thou Relationships

This is the gold standard of all relationships.

It is an authentic encounter between two people where there is an attempt to deeply understand and respect the world of the other. For example, it can occur between two lovers, colleagues at work, and best friends. Here are some possible ways you experience a relationship with an “I and Thou” theme.

o    Sensing trust and safety

o    A willingness to be open and vulnerable

o    A feeling of unconditional acceptance

o    Experiencing being deeply understood

o    A validation of your strengths and goals

The opposite side of the coin is found in

I – It Relationships

These are the worst of all relationships.

The “It” part indicates that one is being objectified, depersonalized, and used. This is the world with the bosses from hell, sour dating relationships, and  unproductive friendships. These are the difficult people that we want to avoid at all costs. Here are some possible ways you may think or feel with a person who treats you like an “It”. You sense

o    An unhealthy competition from the person

o    A feeling of defensiveness or insecurity in them

o    A sense of being used, objectified, or controlled

o    Pain from being treated hypercritically or judgmentally

o    An experience of being invisible

o    An impression that your needs are not important

However relationships are seldom purely one or the other.

The Imperfect World of Relationships

The world cannot be easily divided into I-thou and I-It relationships. We all have an uneasy mix of both. Here are some truths.

o    Everyone aspires to have “I-Thou” relationships but some end up in “I-It” relationships

o    Self-aware and secure people are on the path to an “I-Thou” experience

o    Self-centered/narcissistic people have little chance of sustaining “I-Thou” relationships

o    Any time you are being used you are in an “I – It” situation

o    Any time you are being validated and empowered by another you are in an “I-Thou” situation.

The Challenge

Here’s the rub

The very search for “I-Thou” relationships immediately sets up a tension where “I want” can contaminate “I-Thou”. The best approach is then to

o    Be open to an I-Thou relationship. This is best accomplished with an understanding of the nature of such a relationship as well as behaving in a way that would make it possible.

o    Seek first to meet the needs of the others versus meeting one’s own.

o    Understand how some needs could become deal breakers. For instance a manager may want to get credit for a project driven by one of his reports. However he chooses to curb his ambition and give praise where praise is due.

o    Recognize that it takes two to make such a relationship work well.


What is your experience with being objectified?

My next blog posting will be “How to Manage Difficult People.


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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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4 Responses to Relationships That Work

  1. Pingback: Relationships That Work | Inspirational Leadership Management and Engagement |

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  3. Arnab Sinha says:

    Dear Cedric,

    Very Good post.

    What I think is, the relationship will flower when “I” and “thou” both Vanish. I want to reach a third point. The first is “I”. the second is “thou” and the third point is Beyond both “I” and “thou”. It is neither (neither “I” nor “thou”) nor (“I” and “thou” both together).

    Because, I and thou are two sides of the same coin ( Whether it is “I” and “It” or “I” and “thou”.). The existence of the “thou” is because of the existence of the “I”. “Thou” cannot be defined without the presence of the “I”. It is impossible.

    What I mean is – if you are able to see (it is very difficult) the “I” in “thou” or the “thou” in I, then all problems solve. Because, all our problems are there because of the presence of “thou” and the thou exists because the “I” exists.

    The moment you are able to eliminate the “I”, or eliminate the “thou” – by whatever means – you become absolutely free.


    • cedricj says:

      Dear Arnab,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog.

      I find your idea that the best relationship comes from the elimination of both the I and Thou interesting. I am wondering whether it reflects an ideal of your culture. Please let me know.

      Here in Western culture the most healthy relationship is seen as a balance between I and We (interdependence) rather than a merge of the two (dependence) which is viewed as a loss of identity. The advent of feminism led many women to view a total merge with a man as a loss of her person and the submerging of her identity with man. In the end, one aims for both the health of the relationship as well as the health of the individual.
      Finally, the I that I present in no way represents the ego but the healthy, soul based identity of the person.

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