The Relationships Field: 6 initial reflections and 5 questions

6 weeks ago, Immy Robinson (who did the lion’s share of the writing of this blog) and I set out to explore whether a ‘field of relationships’ could, should, or does already exist. We’re still at the early stages of this exploration but have been lucky enough to pick the brains of some very thoughtful collaborators. Here’s are 6 things we’ve noticed so far, and 5 questions we’re continuing to hold as we move forward.

6 things we’ve noticed

1. A false enemy — we have a tendency to pitch relationships and transactions against each other in a binary distinction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But this only gets us so far. There are many different types of relationships suited to different contexts and needs. A transactional relationship with the GP might be best for one person while a deep relationship might be what someone else needs. We need a nuanced narrative around the many different types of relationships we have and need, the constantly changing shape of them and the different ways relationships can be tended to.

“Transactional connections have their place. Good relationships are ultimately determined by shared purpose — with both sides sharing an understanding of the purpose of their relationship.” — Alex Mecklenburg, THE DOT PROJECT

2. The challenge of relationship jargon — the best language democratises a field making it navigable, accessible and self organising. Relationships — or what some people call relational practice — runs the risk of being a little abstract and jargony for those new to or on the edges of the field. Meanwhile the language of kindness that some people prefer to use leaves others disappointed as it can suggest a one way, or perhaps ‘charitable’ relationship (see Maff Potts’ thoughts on ‘bad kindness’).

“I’m a relative newcomer to the work of relationships. I’ve found it difficult to develop an overview of what others are doing in the field, and to learn what’s working, because there doesn’t seem to be a common language. Instead, there’s a whole range of different terms, labels and concepts to unpick, before you can actually start to understand what’s happened.” — Harry Johnson, Voluntary Action Orkney

3. Means versus ends — relationships are seen as both a means and as an end. Most commonly we see relationships as a vehicle to a destination, whether better health outcomes, customer retention, or user satisfaction. But seeing relationships solely as a strategy rather than as an outcome in certain contexts can result in them being undervalued.

“Relationships aren’t valued enough as an end — they’re seen as a means and the means often get lost” — Carrie Deacon, Nesta

4. The irony of (dis)connection — there appears to be a nascent field made up of disparate groups of people who passionately believe in the power and importance of relationships, yet overall we’re poorly connected with one another. Post(wo)men aren’t sharing tips with nurses, community organisers aren’t joining forces with receptionists. We hold a shared belief but we’re not yet organised or connected enough to be more than the sum of our parts.

“It feels like there’s something that’s struggling to give birth that’s around relationships and it’s been struggling for a while now” — Clare Wightman, Grapevine

[As a society] we (often) work in a blinkered way which stops us acting as whole people and seeing those who we ‘help’ as whole people. It means we can become fixated on our part of the system” — Angela Fell, RIPEN

5. The challenge of scale — we’re conditioned to seek scale; to replicate ‘what works’ in the hope of achieving maximum impact. Everyone we speak to talks about how a more relational whole starts with each of us building better, more purposeful relationships around us. The big change starts small. A relational approach — which is inherently personal, fuelled by one-to-one nurturing — doesn’t easily lend itself to standardisation.

“A relational approach is about depth of impact rather than scale of impact — it’s not easy to scale up a relational approach. This feels counter-cultural but being able to connect with other orgs who want to go deep rather than wide is stabilizing” — Zahra Davidson, Enrol Yourself

6. The measurement challenge — we’re in a place where measurement feels a long way from being something that is reinforcing and supportive. For some measurement is the most important shared challenge we have — if we can get better at consistently measuring the impact of relationships we might be able to nudge the skeptics away from believing that relationships are ‘fluffy’ and extraneous. Yet for others the act of measuring a relationship threatens the very essence of it. Wherever you are, a huge amount of energy is occupied in grappling with the question of how we prove the value of relationships, and this is threatening our resolve.

“When you talk about relationships, you get a sceptical response from commissioners — they think you’re evading making commitments” — Clare Wightman, Grapevine

“To be sure, aggregated statistics can be useful. They’re a marker of progress. They can guide us towards policy interventions. But we must be careful to consider whose progress the statistics are really marking — the people who are answering the questions or the people who are asking them? Too many commissioning contracts require the completion of impact surveys which, in their deficit-based questioning, can strip people of their agency rather than recognise the power in people’s stories. Too many loneliness measures are academic, remote and cold. Many of these tools perpetuate division and isolation, rather than measure it, much less solve it.” — Alex Smith, The Cares Family

5 questions we’re holding

1. Where are the boundaries of the field? Are boundaries important?

“The difficulty with the theme of relationships is that it cuts across sectors — there’s no easy way of defining who is in the tent. This can be exhausting because it can feel like you’re only ever scratching the surface” — Jennifer Wallace, Carnegie UK Trust

2. What language should we be using? How important is it that we’re all aligned on this?

“People need and want to be able to understand and point to their identity with relationships. This can create the space for new courses and training to emerge, and new organisations and technologies to emerge and get investment (mindtech, fintech)” — Erica Young, The Reliants Project

3. What’s the rallying cry?

Emboldened by advice from those who’ve been at field building much longer than we have, in this blog here we set out three potential approaches to defining and demarcating the field of relationships and invite people to critique, champion or propose entirely an entirely different approach. It’s still not clear to us if a common enemy, shared set of principles or a moral idea is the rallying cry around which a field can most effectively gravitate.

4. How do we build a field that’s inclusive?

“What can we learn about what relationships mean in different cultural traditions? How do we make sure that this field is genuinely inclusive to everyone and doesn’t inadvertently exclude people who may have different expectations and experiences of what strong and healthy relationships are?” — Dan Paskins, Save the Children

Much of the language used to describe relationships feels able-bodied, extroverted and pro-social. We must hold ourselves to account on who is defining what good or better relationships look and feel like. — Respondent to a survey

5. What’s the right kind of infrastructure to support the field?

“In the past decade, we’ve thrown a lot of ideas out there but we’ve been missing the infrastructure or ‘dark matter’ that’s needed to make these things stick. Other fields — like palliative care — have established infrastructure but it was created in the 80s / 90s and isn’t really fit for purpose now. Sharing and spreading needs to be key to the new infrastructure. We need infrastructure that supports and encourages experimentation” — Carrie Deacon, Nesta

Join the conversation

If you have thoughts on any of the questions we’re grappling with or would like to discuss the idea of a relationships field we’d love to hear from you.

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Iona Lawrence

Iona Lawrence

Iona is a freelance strategy consultant. Previously she set up the Jo Cox Foundation, worked in the Calais refugee camp and campaigned for Save the Children.