Breaking the Narcissistic Habit: Getting to I - You
Social commentators and communication gurus often lament that people ecology (empathy, interest, curiosity in others and the spirits of equality and fraternity) has been replaced by fragmentation of communities into cliques and clans which have little interest in anyone outside their own physical, ideological or socio-economic territories. They claim we’ve created an increasingly selfish and self-seeking culture, evidenced by everything from bad driving behaviours to the callous disregard for the poor.
So, let’s talk about narcissism, or egoism, and how it impacts on your average speaker, public figure or leader. Think of these types of people as ‘self’ made people in love with their makers, if you like. To apply a rather astute system of categorisation espoused by Martin Buber, they’re people who have “I-I” or “I-It” relationships.
What narcissists don’t usually do is include others in their calculations. As you’ll discover they fail in many instances to make any tangible connection between themselves and other people.
The I - You Covenant
Martin Buber was an eminent Jewish theologian who wrote a three Valium tome called I and Thou. In it, he expresses what may be some of the most profound thoughts ever written on the subject of human relationships. Buber reasoned that the ultimate relationship one person can have with another is an “I-Thou” relationship. These types of relationships are necessarily rare and they can require an enormous investment of time and energy.
“I-Thou” relationships are characterised by a deep recognition of another person’s individual differences and a choice to include that person in the ranks of the loved and cherished, despite any ongoing conflict those differences may create. This is what some people describe as unconditional love. A spouse, a few children, and a couple of friends are about all you could cope with.
Buber wrote that most or some of us, most of the time, can strike up “I-You” relationships with others if we have the inclination. “I-You” relationships may or may not imply a deep recognition of individual differences. They’re fine as long as you respect the humanness of the other parties and understand, at some level, that differences are just differences and perhaps it’s similarities that you should be searching for. You don’t have to love “You’s” unconditionally - you don’t even have to like them - but you’re in trouble if you order them lower on the humanity scale than yourself.
Another category Buber established is what he terms the “I-I” relationship. This is probably what people mostly talk about when they refer to the Me culture. In many ways “I-I” relationships describe people who behave as though they’re the only real living organism on this planet or maybe even the universe.
With people who experience most of their encounters in the “I-It category, other living things are there to serve them, to get things out of, to be milked or shunted around for gain. People who establish “I-It” relationships with most, or all, of the rest of the world, can view other human beings as lower on the scale of humanity, sub-human, or not human at all. Hitler demonstrably viewed jews, homosexuals, the infirm, political enemies and the mentally ill through “I-It” filters.
In both “I-I” and “I-It” categories there’s a serious deficiency in the way people see others. It’s easy to say that narcissists and egoists are just thoughtless people who don’t care a fig about others, but there’s more to it than that. There appears to be an unconscious thinking ‘block’ which somehow prevents them from viewing others as they view themselves. The can also view others as themselves: “what’s good for me is good for everyone”. In placing far less value on other human beings, they find it easier to ignore the essential humanity, the needs, the feelings of others.
In the more extreme cases, narcissists can demonstrate a cognitive disability in which people are not people, as we know them, but are seen as objects with about as much emotional content as a chair you sit on. With only “I-I” or “I-It” relationships to sustain them, and being a member of an in-crowd of one, they are, in many ways, lonely captives of the singular worlds they create.
Getting to I - You
There is a growing body of evidence that points to many charismatic personalities and leaders manifesting strong narcissistic tendencies. However, I’ve studied a number of charismatic individuals who have had a mature enough level of self-knowledge to notice how such attributes rob them of their ability to inspire and lead others.
The good news is that people can outgrow narcissistic behaviour if they choose. The most effective way of growing out of it is to get ‘out there’ and get curious.
One of the best ways I’ve noticed that self-aware individuals break the “I-I” or “I-It” habits is to temper their narcissistic tendencies by getting really curious about the key drivers of individual and group behaviour. They begin to notice how they impact on others; they observe when people’s lights go out when they’re speaking with them; they notice the subtle and not so subtle verbal and physiological reactions they evoke in specific situations; they notice which value words inspire people and they begin to build up a picture of when they really “click” with people.
“I-I” and “I-It” relationships kill rapport. An “I-You” covenant with audiences, groups and individuals allows you to share space with people and is one of the key building blocks of influence and persuasion.
Posted by Desmond at 7:22 AM