Key Concepts | What we mean by relationship-centred practice

Relationship-Centred Practice puts relationships first. It unlocks potential and meets need by positioning meaningful and effective relationships as the first order goal, both an end in itself and the means by which other goals will be achieved (like better health, stronger communities, greater job satisfaction)

We think Relationship-Centred Practice is characterised by empathetic behaviours such as positive listening, active collaboration, a commitment to continuity, kindness and mutual trust. There is a shared sense of purpose and also of agency – “we can do this together”, capacity for challenge, for holding tensions alongside compassion and forgiveness, a focus on assets rather than deficits and sufficient versatility to adapt the practice to the individual rather than fit the individual to the programme. It is informed by experience, but not scripted. The most effective relational practice is not enforced from without. It is compelled from within, willing and dynamic. 

Relational working is more than an instinct; it is a craft and we need to learn how to do it well, and how to create the conditions in which it can become embedded.

Relationship-centred practice is most obviously associated with a set of behaviours – e.g. active listening, patience, empathy and active collaboration – and with ‘frontline’ roles – like healthcare practitioners, social workers, community workers. But these behaviours are unlocked and enabled – or constricted and disabled – by the conditions in which we each operate. 

For relationship-centred practice to become widely embedded, we all need the knowledge and skills to build relationships, and we need to be supported by processes, protocols and norms which liberate relational work.

Layers of Relationship-Centred Practice

Underpinning principles 

We think that underpinning RCP is a set of principles or commitments. We think these are transferable across sectors, specialisms and approaches and without which a commitment to putting relationships first cannot be realised. We think these principles are something along the lines of….

Reciprocity: We play different roles but RCP is always a process of give and take; Kindness: A commitment to kindness, compassion and empathy, without condition; Trust: Understanding trust to be a two-way street; something that needs to be worked on continuously; Challenge: Embracing the value of constructive disagreement; supporting one another to grow; Presence of the person: The process is rooted in the person, not the task. Being fully present is essential; Fairness, equality and equity: A commitment to addressing the imbalance of power; Vulnerability: Without allowing for our own vulnerabilities our practice will alway be detached and incomplete; Safety: Because the work is hard, and all the other principles involve an exposure to risk, we look out for one another

Characteristic Behaviours

Emerging from this set of principles  are a set of behaviours that characterise RCP. These behaviours are an expression of the principles that sit at the heart of RCP and are the observable components of RCP. Some of these behaviours might be transferable from role to role, and from organisation to organisation, others might be more specific to certain situations.

These behaviours include things like….

Active listening Forgiveness Regular reflection  Positivity Meeting people where they're at and adapting what you do as needed Setting healthy and appropriate boundaries A commitment to seeing things through  Showing up on time, and without fail  Empathy Patience Acting generously  Active collaboration and shared goal setting  Challenging one another in a positive way And more..

Knowledge and skills 

Enabling these sorts of behaviours are a set of competencies; knowledge and skills which enable us to build relationships in different situations and contexts. Some of these competencies are widely applicable; skills such as active listening, others more specific to certain situations, such as conflict transformation. 

    Enabling organisational conditions  

    Wrapping around all of these is a set of enabling protocols which can either inhibit or enable relationship-centred practice. Without the appropriate protocols and permissions embedded in organisations, systems and structure, the relationship-centred practitioner will always be a maverick, dependent on managers “turning a blind eye”.  In this context it is very likely that the approach will be abandoned, and good work lost, when individuals move on.

    To build the sort of society that we dream of requires an enabling environment. We saw a glimpse of that environment during the early stages of COVID and are working with the Relational Councils Network to make it a permanent fixture. 

    External conditions  

    The context for our work is set by the environment in which we operate.  This is formed by influences  beyond our own organisation. Political arguments, economic trends, media commentary, popular culture and public opinion combine and compete to create the operating environment which, in turn, shapes the budgets, the compliance regimes, the decisions of leaders and commissioners and the expectations of service users, tax payers and voters.
    We need to make a realistic appraisal of the external conditions that influence our work. Where are those conditions limiting or obstructive to relationship-centred practice? Can we challenge them? Can we work around them? Do some conditions, maybe reframed, offer opportunities? Are there trends to be exploited, arguments and concepts to be repositioned? We might not, for instance, usually talk about relational practice as a deficit reduction strategy but there is plenty of evidence to support the argument that good relational working improves performance and reduces long term needs. Effective advocacy starts with understanding the counter arguments and identifying the meeting points.
    External conditions may be beyond our direct control, but they are not beyond our influence, particularly when we work together. This is why we talk a lot about learning from one another, about mapping the bright spots and above all about collaborating. External conditions are mostly set by human beings. They aren’t all bad . Those that are unhelpful can be challenged with clear communication, conviction, perseverance and common sense.

    More key concepts…

    Venn diagram showing the characteristics of a good relationship and the characteristics of a good transaction. A good relationship is: unique, organic, empathetic, sustained, and suitable for complex challenges. A good transaction is standardised, efficient, time-bound and good for simple tasks. Good relationships and good transactions are both fair, trusting, reciprocal and reliable

    What we mean by good relationships

    Characteristics of good relationships, and how they differ to good transactions 

    Why putting relationships first makes a difference

    Stories and statistics that help make the case for putting relationships first