I-It relationships: when we treat another human being as an object, or as a means to an end.
I-You relationships: being in relationship with others that allows them to show up as human beings – undefinable, vast, essentially unknowable.
We need I-It relationships in order to get up to anything in the practical world. If I want something done, there’s a sense in which I have to think of you for at least part of the time as a vehicle for my intentions. That’s a particularly ‘I-it’ way to relate to you. I have to ask you or maybe convince you to act, and then express my delight in the result or show you my irritation at your delay or your standards. Often I’ll want to measure what you’re up to: how you’re using your time, whether this is value for money, the results your efforts are producing. If you’re here to fix the network and I’m busy making plans, I might most usefully choose to engage with you as the IT person rather than allow myself to encounter you as a living, breathing human being with a past and future, with hopes and dreams and plans and feelings. Often, I’ll have to relate to myself as an ‘it’ in just this way too.
But so much is left out, in our workplaces and in our wider lives, if we only ever relate to the world in an I-It way. We miss the possibility of encountering the extraordinariness of being human. We lose the chance to connect, and to bring forward our courage and compassion and wisdom. And we cannot discover the deep veins of meaning that underpin all of our efforts in the world of plans, actions and things.
A solely I-It world is pragmatic, utilitarian, productive and flat. A world with only I-You relating is vast, mysterious, surprising, meaning-laden and extraordinarily impractical. Each is the shadow of the other, and both are necessary for lives well lived and good work well done.
Yet we’ve built most of our work places and much of our lives as if I-It is the only possibility.
It’s got us into no end of trouble.