What is a Humane Relationship?

What is a Humane Relationship?

In a recent post I stated my belief that:

“The power of agile comes from the power of human – and humane – relationships. “

I’ve since had lots of folks tell me that they share this viewpoint – and I’ve also received some questions about what “humane relationships” might look like. Which is a very fair question, particularly given the shortage of same in most workplaces, and indeed across wider society too.

So, first off, let’s signal the distinction between “human relations” and “humane relationships”. In my book, the former refers to the simple observation that, as humans, people have relationships with one another. The latter, however, refers to the quality of such relations, and in particular “having the quality befitting human beings”.

i Characterized by kindness, mercy, compassion or consideration for humans (or animals)
ii Marked by an emphasis on humanistic values and concerns

Mayo and the Human Relations Movement

Founded by Elton Mayo, and brought to wider attention by the experiments at the Hawthorne plant in the USA in the 1930s, the Human Relations Movement sought to evidence the idea that if a company or its managers took an interest in employees and cared for them, it had a positive effect on their motivation. The experiments also claimed to show that employees often work best in teams, and that employees were more motivated if they were managed and consulted more.

See also: The Human Relations Approach

In Contrast – Humane Relationships

While similar in outlook to some aspects of the Human Relations Movement, I see the idea of Humane Relationships in a somewhat different light.

A key aspect of the Human Relations Movement lies in promoting an alternative, much more Theory-Y style of management, with the aim of improving the productivity of people and thus organisations. Thus Human Relations serves the business, rather more than the individual employee.

Humane Relationships, for me, is much more about the quality of the relationships between (all) the people involved in an endeavour, organisation or business. Not just the employees. And not to improve productivity per se – but to improve folks’ sense of well-being, and to meet their emotional and other needs. (cf Maslow). Then via obliquity, maybe the organisation might benefit, too.

So, returning to the original question: What do Humane Relationships look like?

For me, Humane Relationships are those which support and encourage mutual growth, and positive personal change. Where we recognise each other first and foremost as human beings. Relationships where we each can learn and develop our skills for promoting our mutual growth and well-being.

Am I suggesting that we can all become each other’s therapist? In essence, yes.


We can facilitate growth when people are present and themselves, when in the relationship with another is genuine and without “front” or facade, openly being the feelings and attitudes which at that moment are flowing in us. Carl Rogers coined the term “congruence” to try to describe this condition. By this he meant that the feelings we are experiencing are available to us, available to our awareness, and we are able to live these feelings, be them, and be able to communicate them if and when appropriate. No one fully achieves this condition, yet the more we are able to listen acceptingly to what is going on within ourselves, and the more we are able to embrace and live in the complexity of our feelings, without fear, the higher the degree of our congruence.

“The more we exemplify genuineness and congruence in our relationships, the higher the probability that changes in other folks’ personalities will occur.”

~ Carl Rogers

Unconditional Positive Regard

When we are experiencing a warm, positive and acceptant attitude toward what is in others, this facilitates change. It involves our genuine willingness for others to be whatever feeling is going on in them at any given moment – fear, confusion, pain, pride, anger, hatred, love, courage, or awe. It means that we care for each other, in a non-possessive way. It means that we prize each other in a total rather than a conditional way. This means that we do not simply accept each other when we are behaving in certain ways, and disapprove of each other when we behave in other ways. Unconditional Positive Regard means an outgoing positive feeling without reservations, without evaluations. Again, research studies show that the more we experience this attitude, the more likelihood there is that we will find mutual growth and well-being.

Empathic Understanding

When we are sensing the feelings and personal meanings which other folks are experiencing in each moment, when we can perceive these from “inside,” as they seem to the other person, and when we can successfully communicate something of that understanding to that other person, then we may be able to claim empathic understanding.

“I suspect each of us has discovered that this kind of understanding is extremely rare. We neither receive it nor offer it with any great frequency. Instead we offer another type of understanding which is very different. ‘I understand what is wrong with you’; ‘I understand what makes you act that way’; or ‘I too have experienced your trouble and I reacted very differently’; these are the types of understanding which we usually offer and receive, an evaluative understanding from the outside. But when someone understands how it feels and seems to be ME, without wanting to analyze me or judge me, then I can blossom and grow in that climate. And research bears out this common observation. When we can grasp the moment-to-moment experiencing which occurs in the inner world of another as they see it and feel it, without losing the separateness of our own identity in this empathic process, then change is likely to occur.”

~ Carl Rogers

So, to recap, Rogers’ extensive research advocates three basic conditions which facilitate this mutual growth:

  1. Congruence
  2. Unconditional Positive Regard
  3. Empathic understanding aka Empathy

When I think of Humane Relationships, I generally think in terms of these three basic conditions.

“Individuals move, I began to see, not from a fixity or homeostasis through change to a new fixity, though such a process is indeed possible. But much the more significant continuum is from fixity to changingness, from rigid structure to flow, from stasis to process. I formed the tentative hypothesis that perhaps the qualities of the client’s expression at any one point might indicate his position on this continuum, might indicate where he stood in the process of change.”

~ Carl Rogers

If you’re interested in understanding more about why and how these three conditions promote mutual growth and changes for the better, there’s more explanation in the Jon Russell paper cited in the list of “Further Reading”, below.

How about you? Would you be willing to share your take on the idea of “Humane Relationships”? And I’d love to hear just how often, and to what extent, you have experienced Humane Relationships, and how you’ve felt about them.

– Bob

Further Reading

Basic Introduction to Growth Promoting Communication and Growth Promoting Relationships ~ Jon Russell
More Time to Think ~ Nancy Kline
Speak Peace in a World of Conflict ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

  1. Hi Bob,

    For me, starting place in all this is our relationship with ourselves. How often do we feel “unconditional positive regard” for ourselves? Not that often, I suspect — we’re mostly brought up and educated to avoid “bad” emotions, accept our position low in the pecking order, etc. Without self-regard, how possible is it to have humane relationships with others?

    Organisational power relations generally make this even harder — many managers have learned that the way to protect their positional power is to push others down (& keep them in a state of low self-regard). And many people have experienced most of their working lives in environments that give them few other models of how to operate.

    Question is how we plants seeds of humaneness in this unpromising soil?


    • Hi Graham,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I agree that “with ourselves” is a great place to start. Probably the only one the makes any sense. Wouldn’t it be awesome if other folks could help us with that? And us, them?

      BTW Have you read any Walter Wink?

      And my personal choice on the last question: Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg) and Person-Centred Therapy (Rogers).

      – Bob

  2. There are many ways to respond to life’s challenges, and our organizations embody many of the possibilities of how we can do so in groups to foster our well-being. We create the world that we think, but more importantly that we experience and feel. The reason so many businesses operate the way they do is that they embody the unconscious emotional states of their members (not because they are forced to act one way or another by circumstances). Solving business issues therefore often involves–mostly indirectly, but sometimes directly–helping people to resolve emotional issues by becoming more aware of what they need and what drives them to act as they do. It is a rewarding way to go through life, and makes for very good managers.

  3. I’d like to extend my humble gratitude for your relentless sharing.

    Change starts with ourselves. It seems to evolve through sharing, being the seeds needed for any soil. You and many others with you are planting those seeds. They’re growing for me at least!

    Thanks for that, Bob.

  4. Josh said:

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for sharing these insights into improving our relationships with one another. I can see how it will help me and others in my life both personally and professionally. I have a question for you related to work life.

    Do you think that building humane relationships as you’ve described is at odds with telecommuting practices and geo-graphically dispersed workforces? It seems to me there is a tension between these two, and that if we are serious about humane relationships we will need more physical presence with one another. What are your thoughts here?

    Thanks as always,

  5. I am delighted to report that I often experience humane relationships, especially with my wife of 32 years and with Jef Raskin, originator of the Macintosh project at Apple, and author of *The Humane Interface*.

    His prime concern in designing computer systems is that they should be so simple and consistent in use that quickly, your fingers know what to do. Thus your conscious attention can remain on your task rather than become distracted by the demands of the system. He called this achieving automaticity. It’s great when things work that way, but it’s non-trivial to make systems that work so well.


  6. I’ve just been watching Dan Ariely videos suggested by Matthew Leitch on LinkedIn. He has very clear things to say about how people are built mentally and why they do what they do. Useful in understanding how to be effectively humane.

  7. Paul said:

    Humane relations are ones in which actual human limitations are taken into account when formulating a healthy and peaceful relations. These limitations (in part) include: Making Mistakes; Not being able to know everything; Being in only one place at a time; Not being able to read people’s mind; and, Not being able to know everything. We might be able to create a much more peaceful world if these limitations were kept in mind.

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