‘I-thou’ – how we connect

In recent weeks, I have been reminded of how the connections we make in our day to day life can have all sort of significance. From kind words with a colleague, to perhaps a more meaningful discussion with a course participant, each interaction for me should be purposeful, positive, helpful and enabling.


Of course, this is not always easy to do – in the day to day hustle and bustle, in order to get things done as efficiently as possible, our interactions can come across as perhaps a little more functional, hurried or direct. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are abrasive or rude, it can just mean that sometimes we forget to observe, check or note any nuances in our conversation. In busy frenetic work environments, this can creep in and become the new norm. From experience, a sustained period of rather more blunted interaction can leave some feeling a little undervalued – I’m sure we can all relate to situations where work is busy, conversations are limited, and interactions with others, particularly managers or immediate colleagues, are not rewarding or enabling for you.

The importance of human connection should not be underestimated in all aspects of our lives, no more so than at work where we spend most of our time, connecting and interacting with others.  My recent reflections and reading on relational depth have drawn me back to the work of Martin Buber, a philosopher, who developed our understanding of dialogue. The idea that we find meaning in our relationships is no more important than at work and his ideas of ‘I-thou’ relationships emphasised the importance of connection at a more profound level. In contrast to this, the concept of the ‘I-it’ can refer to the experience of objects or things in a more detached or functional way.

I first experienced these concepts as a mental health nurse when thinking and working in my relationships with service users, however in recent years, I’ve focused on the importance of these types of connections in all aspects of my life, particularly at work. My aim, is not for deeply profound connections in all walks of life, but for meaningful connections more representative of ‘I-thou’ – to be purposeful, positive, helpful and enabling. The essence of valuing others for what they do, what they bring to their work lives, can have a profound effect on their engagement, productivity and the type of dialogue there is.

Here at The Wellbeing Collective, we focus on dialogue in most of our development work – the dialogue we have at work is meaning-making and with each interaction new realities emerge. We encourage organisations to think about their dialogue, what meanings are inferred from their language and interactions, what hidden, and perhaps unsaid, messages are given from the way we relate and talk to each other? This week, as you connect with others, think about the quality of your relationships – are they where you want them to be? Are they meaningful and valuing? Are they bringing out the best in others? How many ‘I-thou’ moments are in your everyday reality?


Tim Coupland

Principal Consultant – The Wellbeing Collective.




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