Martin Buber, the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, made a critical distinction between two types of human relationships. The first type of relationship he called "I–It;" the second he called "I–Thou."
In this case the difference between the words "it" and "thou" is the nothing less than the difference between two ways of understanding our lives, which lead to radically different ways of treating ourselves, others and the world we inhabit together.
In Buber-speak, in I–It relationships, we regard other human beings as basically separate, divided and independent from us. The extreme expression of this view would be something like this:
What other people do, say, are, has no real impact on me and what I do, say and am has no real impact on others.
From this I–It point of view, we are quite justified in seeing and behaving toward others (and the natural world) as though they are objects - useful objects insofar as they help us get what we want right now and disposable objects insofar as they do not help us get what we want right now.
To be clear: This way of treating people is not a conscious decision we make - at least not in the usual sense. To be sure, few of us would admit to treating or wanting to treat other people as objects. We all “know better” and it doesn’t sound very kind.
This I–It way of relating is better described as a language we learned (without knowing we were learning it) – without trying or choosing – by listening to the world around us.
An I–Thou relationship, by contrast, is one in which we presuppose an inherent connection between ourselves, everyone else on the plants, everything else on the planet, and the planet itself. The extreme expression of this view would be something like this:
Everything other people do, say, think, and are has an impact on my life; everything I do, say, think and am has an impact on lives of everyone else.
A tall order, certainly; and from the perspective of someone who speaks the I–It language, the I–Thou language can sound confusing and a bit far-fetched, just like any foreign language would. But, just like the experience of learning a foreign language, learning to speak I–Thou has real utility in the world of our relationships - to ourselves, to others and to the world. Namely, it makes all of these relationships better while making us less stressed and more generous.
As I said, a tall order. And I agree that fully embracing the I–Thou point of view would necessarily change the way most of us are living our lives. After all, if the damning thought I just had, and believed, about the driver who just cut me off in traffic actually caused physical harm to me, that driver, others – including my family and friends – and the world, generally, I might well become interested in how to related differently to that thought so I did not cause harm.
As a coach interested in helping my clients understand the world in ways that leaves them feeling less tight, less stressed, less small, less stuck, less limited and more and more free – in both their work and their personal lives – I am less concerned about whether we think Buber is "right" or "wrong" and more concerned about the possibilities available to each of us when we take on each of these points of view as the foundation upon which we build our lives.
We are, after all, living from some kind of perspective in every moment. It seems wise, therefore, to examine what view we have of other people is revealed in our behavior toward them - not just in what we say our view is or want we want our view to be.
In my experience, just making my client aware of these two perspectives results in them wanting to learn how to relate more and more in an I–Thou way – and it become a critical and deeply satisfying part of our work together.
Here are some questions to take into your day-to-day life:
Consider a recent conflict you were in with another person at work or in your personal life:
When in your behavior and speech toward them were you treating them them as a human being, just like you – a person with hopes, aspirations, faults, blind-spots, etc.? What was the impact (or potential impact) on you, the other person, the relationship between you, and on others?
When in your behavior and speech toward the other person were you treating them as an object – a thing which had utility to you only insofar as it worked the way you wanted it to work when you wanted it to work? What was the impact (or potential impact) on you, the other person, the relationship between you, and on others?
What are you learning by inquiring in this way?
Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.