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I-Thou: A Personal Connection

I-Thou: A Personal Connection

Here at The Corporate Theatre we have been deeply influenced by the philosophy of Martin Buber.

His approach to analysing human relations is baked into everything we do, helping leaders to connect with each other and the world around them in more truly meaningful, powerful, and human ways. We know, and our clients tell us, that this allows leaders to be more authentic, empathetic and creative—qualities which, when combined, make leaders more inspirational.

The guiding lights of Buber’s philosophy are:

  1. “I” only exists in relationship to everybody and everything else.
  2. We can’t build relationships; they already exist.
  3. We can choose what kind of relationship we want, by choosing our mindset to things and people.

Buber shows us that there are two mindsets to choose from in all situations:

  • “I-It” - which is transactional, authoritarian, distancing
  • “I-Thou” - which is reciprocal, equal, close.

At The Corporate Theatre we show leaders how to embrace the “I-Thou” mindset. This is an attitude which we can adopt and which allows us not only to communicate and collaborate better with one another but to experience the world in a new and profound way.

But, learning to adopt an ‘I-thou’ mindset isn’t just something that is helpful in business. Learning to exist in a state of I-thou is also something that can infuse our everyday lives, bringing new meaning to our personal relationship with others and the world we live in.

Today we want to share a story from one of our Corporate Theatre faculty, Markus Graw, a leading marketing consultant and former strategy consultant within the oil giant BP. Inspirational in all that he does, Markus’s story shows how understanding Buber’s philosophy has helped guide a close friend in her own personal relationships:

Yesterday I had another experience which proved to me the practicality and importance of Martin Buber's model I-it / I-thou model.

Here is the story:

I visited a friend of mine who had left her husband after thirty-three years and set up her own apartment in a town two hours away from her former home. She separated from her husband after her four children had left home and became depressed because she realised that for most of her married life her husband had chosen exclusively an I-it relationship. He defined the way she should be and behave and complained when she diverged from the path he defined. As long as the kids were at home she had enough of an I-thou relationship with them to compensate for the lack of an I-thou relationship with her husband. She more or less accepted his directives and lost her authenticity.

However, the moment the kids left home she felt something was missing in her life. With the help of a therapist she discovered that what she actually wanted was to be herself and tried to start a dialogue with her husband. It didn’t work. He was not prepared to change his choice of relationship. He was so used to the life he had lead he could not understand her need for change, so she left.

My friend is still longing for her old life and home but is set firm not to go back to a purely I-It relationship.

Last Christmas she went back to her former home and the whole family came together to celebrate. It was pretty harmonious. Her husband didn’t quarrel with her or constantly order her about.

After the holidays when back in her own new apartment he sent her a WhatsApp message: “Your son wants to know how you feel.”

Over a long telephone call I spoke to her and about what the message might mean.

Her reaction: Why is my son not asking me directly?

My answer: It might not be your son who asked but your husband. He might be so caught up in his old self that he is shy of asking you directly such an emotional question.

Her reaction: well then I will answer him, that he should ask directly if he wants to know.

My answer: You can act in such an I-it way, but you would act with all that entails; directing him, defining your expectation and expecting him to comply. But you have a choice. You could act with the mindset of I-Thou, infuse him with your emotions and authentically, openly, and honestly tell him how you feel. The consequences of I-it behaviour in this case will be his immediate retreat and a persistence of the current situation. The consequences of an I-Thou behaviour in this case is offering a chance for change. How this will develop is unpredictable but by choosing I-Thou you allow the chance for change and by dropping demands and expectations towards him, you allow him to respond authentically.
I don’t know what mindset my friend took, I-it or I-thou. But by embracing I-thou she had the opportunity, like all of us whether at home or in business, to move forward and to inspire others to embrace the positive and purposeful change open to us all.

We thank Markus for sharing this powerful, emotional, and real experience with us.


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