The mastery of the wheelwrights about whom I wrote yesterday involves not just practical skill in working with wood but attunement to the personal and cultural background of their customers. In this way, there’s never such a thing as a ‘standard’ wheel and, indeed, not even a standard response to a particular customer. Instead, what gets made is a sensitive and appropriate response to the current moment, and to the unique intentions and life of the customer.

In other words, as well as responding to the particular domain of their craft, the wheelwright is responding to an entire context or, better said, to a world.

Standards and uniformity make absolute and vital sense in many domains. Without the USB standard, for example, connecting devices to computers would be a nightmare. Imagine also if you had to have bespoke tyres made specifically for your car every time you had a puncture.

But in dealing with human beings, what’s often called for is a sensitive response to an entire world, just as in the case of the wheelwright.


When a doctor treats your symptoms without first asking about you as a person, or about the life in which they arose…

When an HR department or manager fits you into a competency framework or grading system that takes no account of your particular you-ness that you bring, let alone the unique characteristics of your work that can never be reduced to a job title or list…

When the person who’s coaching you uses a technique or a list of questions that they’ve used with every client so far…

When a person is replaced by an automated checkout machine that says to you in truncated English ‘Place item in bagging area’, and you’re left feeling alienated and disembodied…

In each of these cases you’re experiencing being de-worlded, or put more simply, having your human world and context ignored. And there’s also a way in which the person with whom you’re interacting – if there is one – is de-worlded too, abandoning their capacity to sense into and respond to the totality of a situation and responding in a narrow and automatic way.

Medicine and coaching, teaching and managing, parenting and friendship, therapy and leadership, legal advice and mentoring – of these require, at their best, the kind of attunement to the particular world of the other that I’m talking about here. Or, put another way, an I-You rather than an I-It relationship.

It’s a necessary capacity, all too often ignored or considered irrelevant when we pursue speed and efficiency as the only measures of work, or service, or relationship with one another.

Photo Credit: Ian McKenzie via Compfight cc


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