Relationships or Relating

By Chris Chittenden

In his last article for the Melbourne Age recently, social commentator Hugh McKay declared “I’ve also decided that the meaning of our lives is to be found in the quality of our personal relationships and nowhere else. We are all part of the same humanity. We learn our most valuable lessons from each other.”

When I read that article, I started to reflect on what it means to have a relationship with someone. I began by considering myself in the various roles that I play in life – partner, father, friend, business colleague and so on. In some ways this helped but in others it did not. After all, I have colleagues who are very close friends and one of them is my partner in life. It seemed to me that my relationships were not easily compartmentalised and static but rather continuous and shifting. At this time, I recalled something I had read about the distinction between love and loving and this helped me clarify my thoughts.

The early Greek philosophers had first developed the distinction between the act of loving and love. In doing so, they created something new. In a subtle way, love became independent of us. We searched for “love”. We went to clubs, parties and so in search of this nebulous thing called “love”. We forgot that love was not something we find externally to ourselves but rather something that we do.

So it is in our relationships. A relationship with someone else is defined in how we relate to him or her. For example, we may be married to someone, but not relate to them as a husband or a wife. At one level, we have a relationship we call a marriage, but on the other hand, we may not be relating to them in that way. It seems that such relationships are ultimately doomed because it will always be the quality of our relating that will drive how we feel about our relationships.

What has this got to do with the work place? People take on different relationships when they are at work. One of the standard types of relationships is that between a manager and one of their staff. We all have a specific story about how that relationship should be and then seek to have people fit that story. As a manager, if a staff member does not fit into the relationship as well as we would like, the temptation is to call them a “problem staff member”. We begin to look to find ways to modify their behaviour to fit our mould. Rather than relating to them as an individual, we are relating to them in the context of how we feel the relationship should be. In doing so, we close off opportunities to learn from them. We also close off opportunities for them to grow to be the best that they can be. In other words, we limit their learning.

We suggest you try another approach. No doubt, there are people in your work place who you do not get on with as well as others. Rather than thinking about them as you want them to be, consider how you relate to them and how they relate to you. What is going on that has you feel this way about them? Do you think they feel the same way about you? One of the primary ways in which we relate to others is through conversation. When we look at the quality of our relating, we can do so through the quality of the conversations we are having. Therefore, we can ask ourselves, “What conversations aren’t we having?”.

We believe that if you relate to others as you find them rather than trying to make them who you think they should be then a whole new world of possibilities may unfold based on your mutual relating to each other. You may well find yourself having conversations with people that you never thought possible and seeing people grow in ways you could not have imagined.

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© 2003 Chris Chittenden