Are People a Utility or a Relationship?

Sometimes when we ask, “When do I want to be noticed?” The answer is, “I don’t.” We are exhausted by what other people need from us, and our response is, “Leave me alone.”  At that moment, we see that person as a utility or a way to get things done, not a person to have a relationship with.

One of our group members was telling a story from the previous week. He had been playing in a golf event and had invited 4 other people to join them. Everyone accepted and was looking forward to spending time with him, including someone from his team.

The problem was that they now had 5 in their group, and someone was going to have to ride alone.

“That morning, something very stressful was happening at work,” he told us. “I just wanted some space to think about it. He had to step aside to respond to this issue, and when he came back to the group, “they were fighting over who got to ride in the cart with me. But I wanted to be on my own.”

This is a common experience for leaders. Maybe someone has you in their sights, making your life difficult (conflict). Or you aren’t doing something you’re supposed to do, and you’re hoping others don’t notice (avoiding).

Other times, someone else needs a lot of emotional or other support from us, and it’s draining us. Or, we are the focal point for a lot of work, so we have to field many questions.

These frustrations build up at work and often spill over when we’re with our spouses or families when we aren’t so guarded.  Using the framing questions can help us recognize what we need to prioritize to be who God wants us to be in that situation.

So, how do we handle what people need from us?

Being needed is a natural consequence of being noticed.  Dealing with this raises some practical questions:

  • Do we need to delegate more?
  • How can we build trust so others don’t have to ask?
  • Could someone else care for their need more effectively?

The answer to all these questions is probably “yes,” but that doesn’t help us at the moment.

As we discussed this in the group, the question became: Do we see these people as a way to get things done or as a way to build a relationship?

Let’s be real. We can’t treat everyone like a relationship. Relationships take time and investment, and we are often put in positions (noticed) that don’t allow that.

Sometimes, we need the person we have a relationship with to just do something. Then, we can get back to being the relational person we want to be.

People: Utility or Relationship?

Our ability to be relational with others comes from our relationship with God. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We need to draw on that relationship to care for others when we are running on empty.

One of the other members of the group put it like this: “God doesn’t need me, but he wants me. And his purpose is going forward with or without me.”

We are never a utility to God; we are always in a relationship. But sometimes, we slip into thinking we are a utility and that he is disappointed in us because we aren’t doing it right.

When that happens, we start trying to fill that need by being noticed by others. And there are plenty of needy people around willing to play that game. That’s when we need to be reminded that God doesn’t need us.

So what does that look like? “I need to make myself smaller. God’s purpose is much bigger,” the other member continued. Other people want to make us the focus, but we can step out of that spotlight by asking, “What is God doing in all of our lives, not just mine?”

“I need to make myself smaller. God’s purpose is much bigger,”

Sometimes, that gives us just enough margin to ask, “How do they want to be noticed?” If God is able to take care of all our needs, he can take care of them. It can be through me, but it doesn’t have to be.

“We feel like their stress is our problem. Sometimes it is. This is hard work, and we shouldn’t apologize for that,” he went on. Someone else chimed in. “If we are honest about how we are doing and what we need from them, we give them the choice of how to respond to us.”

Giving others the choice restores their humanity. That makes it relational and not utilitarian.

Are People a Utility or a Relationship?

So, what happened with the foursome? He told the group, “I’m dealing with something from work right now. I need to ride with my team member for a bit, then we’ll mix it up.”

That helped him do what he needed to (utility) and then be a better host for the rest of the day (relationship). It was the right answer for him in that situation.