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What does it mean to work relationally? A philosophical perspective

Yesterday I attended a wonderful event as part of the Fire Starter Festival which explored what it means to be relational — both at work and in our wider lives. Our conversations spanned interconnected topics such as psychological safety, co-production, vulnerability, well-being, courage and authenticity. Inspired by these conversations, I wanted to offer a philosophical perspective on what it means to be relational. In my experience, our deeply rooted philosophical assumptions, whether we are aware of them or not, dramatically shape how we approach our work and our relationships. 

Living with the Legacy of a Modernist view of the self

I am hearing increasing talk about being more human at work. This chimes with my passions and I am hopeful that our workplaces can become more alive, more joyful and more human. But what do we really mean by being human? We need to understand this before we can grasp what we mean by being relational. Here in the UK, we are living with a perspective shaped by Modernist liberal philosophical traditions that assume the self can be defined in isolation from others and its environment, i.e it has a stable essence. Originally linked to the idea of the soul, after the Enlightenment, the basis of humanity transferred to man’s capacity for independent reasoning. Our humanity was therefore intrinsically linked to our autonomy and rationality.

 We are starting to wake up to the limitations of this perspective and its worship of independence and rationality. In the context of care, it is particularly problematic. As Gawande (2014) puts it: 

Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike and then a new question arises: if independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?

A Relational View of the Self

For a more relational view of the self, I find inspiration from continental philosophers, such as Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) who believed that personhood arises through relationship and that the relational encounter has primacy over the individual self. I am only because we are. Individuality is formed in relation to others and subjectivity is fostered by caring about and for something or someone. Another source of inspiration is Buber, for whom there are two ways of relating to people and the world, the I-It and the I-Thou. In the I-it mode of relating, the other is treated as a separate object, and encounters are marked by a degree of coolness, detachment and instrumentality whereas in the I-thou mode, genuine connection occurs between two subjects. Buber calls this genuine connection ‘meeting’, which involves going out towards the other: self-disclosure, vulnerability, spontaneity — a journey into uncharted territory. Both participants in the I-thou relationship are changed in some way by it. More recently, I have discovered the work of Charles Eisenstein who, uses the term ‘interbeing’ to describe a relational worldview. As he puts it:

‘Interbeing’ is a very natural term. It means more than Interconnection or Interdependency, which kind of suggests separate selves ‘having’ relationships. Interbeing is more of an understanding that we are relationships’

A Relational Moral Imperative

So what? Is all this just philosophical intellectualising? I don’t believe so. Our worldviews shape our actions. If we believe ourselves to be fundamentally separate and isolated, then it makes sense to exert control over others. If we believe that the self is constituted in relationships, then it would make sense to act in a way that serves those relationships. To quote again from Eisenstein:

My well-being is intimately connected to your well-being or to the well-being of the river, the ocean, the forest, people across the world, and so forth, because I am not really separate from you.

In the context of co-production in health and social care, which is where I have focused my studies, caring for another becomes mutually existentially enriching in a relational view. Mutual outcomes arise through connection, including increased understanding, enriched emotional capacity, a sense of worth, renewed possibility and hope and a sense of meaning. Co-production isn’t just about what we do together, it is about our intertwined being together. It’s about our shared subjectivity. Without this deeper understanding, co-production can become turned into something purely mechanistic — another task to perform rather than a way of being. But perhaps that will be the topic of a future article…..

©Sarah Taylor 2020