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Understanding the Other

One of the major skills of highly effective people is the developed capacity to understand others to whom you are relating. Whether it be as a student, clinician, or professional, your drive to success will be affected by this capacity.

What do I mean by the capacity to understand others? It is not just treating them as an object on the road to where you are going. It is not treating others as a commodity in that they provide you with something that makes your life better. It is not creating a mental template of who others should be and expecting them to fit that template. And finally, it is not closing your eyes, in wish or fantasy, to the reality of others, thereby doing violence in some psychological way. Rather, it is a fundamental acceptance and embrace of others for who they are, and sometimes, in spite of things we may not like very much. It is an as is acceptance of others’ personhoods.

In his famous work I and Thou, Martin Buber (1937) framed these two orienting principles in relationship. For Buber, finding others in their mysterious depth of who they are and embracing them as is, is the I-thou orientation. Seeing the other as an object or as something to be used instrumentally towards a personal end primarily is the I-it relationship.

From the I-thou orientation it is important to see that the other person in the room so-to-speak is quite different than we are. He or she may have similarities, but there will be many differences that need to be recognized, appreciated, and embraced. The I-thou relationship is seeing the other as other; different and mysterious in ways we cannot comprehend, and embracing the other in their difference. It is always a subject-to-subject relationship.

In more recent times, Peter Fonagy (2001), a relational psychoanalyst, brings into the discussion an operationalization of Martin Buber’s work called mentalization. In mentalization, the work is to understand the subjectivity of the other in the room. Understanding the subjectivity of the other loosely requires that we begin to recognize the presence of the other, the feelings of the other, the needs of other, the wishes and wants and visions of the other. Once we can mentalize the other’s subjectivity in this way we can begin to truly see the other as other and we are then on our way to an I-thou relationship.

As we gain this capacity to understand others as different, as others with their own subjectivity, as others to be accepted as they are, we have gained a significant capacity to be quality students, clinicians, and professionals and fully functioning human beings in this life.

Buber, M. (1937). I and thou. Edinburgh, [Scotland]: T & T Clark.

Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment theory and psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Other Press.

Franklin Sollars

By Franklin Sollars, PhD, Core Faculty