Identifying levers for change in the quality of our connections

Harnessing relationship as the root of all systems change (part 2)

Sophia Robele
16 min readNov 3, 2022
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

In my previous post I started to talk about where human connection fits into development plans and approaches : where we recognize its influence, where we ignore it, and where we have opportunities to deepen the impact of development efforts by giving more of our attention to it.

Ultimately, the question I am interested in is less about whether or not human connection matters to achieving social/economic/political/ environmental transformations, but what does it look like in practice to work from the premise that it does? What would it change if we were to treat human connection not as a “nice to have” or by-product of development, but as a “hard” input for virtually every [long-term] development goal?

There’s of course no single answer to this, but I wanted to offer here five entry points to better harness the power of relationships as a fundamental building block for systems change:

  1. Identify where relationship happens and when and how it matters.
  2. Repurpose or expand what we already employ to combat extreme absences of connection.
  3. Instead of seeking to empower “communities,” consider community itself as the source of power.
  4. Treat every space of dialogue as a potential site of world-building.
  5. Invest in leadership as a capability to design conditions and connections.

This whole post is actually dedicated to just point #1, as it is a frame for everything else. It is one thing to give ideas about methods we might use or capabilities we might cultivate to approach relationships in new ways, but without the genuine comprehension of why this matters in the first place and the systematic capacity to see the effects of relationships in our work and the worlds we create, the rest doesn’t really matter.

More specifically, it is about seeing the importance of human connection in relation to social structures (institutions, policies, development paradigms, etc.) and the effect on development outcomes. The issue isn’t that people think relationships aren’t important (most are well aware of the profound effect that relationships have in their personal lives and experience of the world), but that this understanding is too often divorced from how we conceive of development agendas and manage the public processes and resources that shape the well-being of people and planet.

1. Identify where relationship happens and when and how it matters.

We often focus on designing solutions to problems before actually acknowledging all the layers of social “design” — including generations-old intentions that remain embedded in the systems we carry forward — that have come to shape our understanding of, impetus for, and approach to addressing a problem. Particularly when the goal is not simply to mitigate the symptoms of a complex challenge, but in fact get closer to its source and the tipping points that enable transformation of the system as a whole, our ability to intervene depends on our ability to recognize the sources of influence and constant change within that system.

If we think of a system as “an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts,” it follows that any work to shift the undesired outcomes of social systems [including those by which we influence earth systems] is work to recognize and engage with relationships. It is work to unpack and surface what is often implicit and invisible, yet the silent power that drives everything — for good or bad.

Adrienne maree brown’s description of social change through the lens of emergence, or the “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions,” is a useful framing here. Recognizing these patterns — working with emergence — requires us to first see and name the interactions at play.

But this is easier said than done. This is not only because our mainstream institutions and development processes are structured in ways that channel our attention and resources into effects that are most easily measured and traceable to single actors and actions, but equally because the ‘invisibility’ of the effects of human relationships often serves a deliberate purpose within these processes. What we can’t see, or choose not to see, perhaps has the greatest power over us: it is what enables the status quo to remain intact, benefiting from a perception of being benign even as it actively shapes our behaviors and actions.

Surfacing the effects of relationships — making them visible within [political, economic, bureaucratic, etc.] structures that often profit off of their invisibility — requires us to be consistently asking and acting on the implications of: Where are we in relationship and how? Where and how does this being in relationship (or not) influence the processes we are contributing to? Where and how is it influencing the reasons we are acting in the first place, or the end goals we are working towards?

It is an exercise in turning the lens of our systemic inquiry inward: of treating the dynamics of social connection as the problem and opportunity space to be explored. It is also apprehending the power that lies in naming itself. Naming is often where new patterns of being and acting originate — it places the spotlight on the previously invisible such that we can start to understand and intentionally engage with it; or, at the very least, find ourselves/our organizations unable to continue to ignore, downplay or deny its influence.

There isn’t a single right way to do this, but, for a development planning or implementation context, it could simply start with some lines of inquiry that help deconstruct aspects of policy/programme processes typically taken for granted. Rather than throw around the words “co-creation” or “collaboration” as descriptors inherent to any process that involves a multiplicity of actors, it is posing questions that help take a step back and unpack the true relational dynamics at play (including intergenerational relationships that influence interactions today, as well as macro power structures that live within the micro/interpersonal) and the extent to which these dynamics are supporting or blocking the complex work that is collective thinking and creating.

As one way to structure such an analysis, some dimensions that might be useful to consider/name are:

To elaborate…

1. Where is relationship happening (domains to examine)

This one probably sounds extremely basic as a point of reflection (of course relationships are happening everywhere, all the time), but it feels like in a lot of development processes, we fail to systematically consider what this means for our work, or where we might be actively in relationship and where these different channels of connection converge. Just simply starting by naming the different spheres of interaction that are a part of our daily work/ecosystem, we can start to think more critically about what happens within them, and the myriad cultures and norms alive in each.

Some domains that might warrant deeper examination in a development ecosystem, for instance, are relationships:

  • That are heavily filtered through hierarchy (whether explicit or implicit), such as between high-level government stakeholders and civil society, or HQ and “field” level actors;
  • Within meeting rooms/the day-to-day professional spaces;
  • Between development actors and the “beneficiaries” or “communities” they serve (and the reason this distinction exists at all, in the specific ways that it does);
  • In our “personal” lives, and the ways these can influence the ways we relate in our professional or other spheres;
  • With our immediate teams, which often affect how we show up in the workplace more generally, and with those we might intend to serve;
  • Within and across the “communities” that a development organization frames as collaborators, or designated agents of change.

This simple act of identifying some of the “different” domains (recognizing that most of these are overlapping/interconnected) is helpful to ascertain the many relational strings we move through as part of our work. It gives us a clearer picture of just how how embedded we [and by extension, our thoughts and behaviours] are in these many webs of connection, and to consider the quality of the connections themselves as potential levers for change.

2. The kind of relationship (the lens that shapes it)

Having named where we are in relationship or affected by the relationships around us, we can begin to unpack the ways we have come to understand the nature of those connections in a given context. More specifically, we can draw out the ways that what might otherwise feel neutral/normal/invisible (e.g., what is happening in a typical meeting space with our team or partners), has been influenced by particular mental models and perceptions.

Sometimes, these perceptions might be ones we’ve consciously chosen to enact, while others might be ones we’ve unwittingly adopted as a result of the norms, systems and structures we are immersed in. The point is less about judging what is, and more about being aware of it, so that we can be more awake to the influence and origins of different ways of being in relationship.

Some of the different mental models (or worldviews/beliefs) through which we might be perceiving and shaping different domains of relationship, for example, might be through the lens of:

  • Competition
  • Hierarchy
  • Oneness (belief in being one human family)
  • Us vs. them
  • Savior and benefactor
  • Professional vs. personal
  • Friendship (equals, mutuality)
  • Transactional
  • Partnership/collaborators
  • Care-based
  • Paternalistic

Especially in a development setting, this articulation of dominant thought models that underpin a relationship or domain of relationships isn’t simply the work of thinking about how we personally might be experiencing it, or what we would like for it to be, or what we are observing among those who are in it. It is about noticing where there might be disconnects between the perceptions of, and the reality/experiences of the relationship, and identifying where these disconnects might be problematic (whether in ethical/moral terms, or pragmatically for reaching a certain outcome).

Some questions we might consider to this end:

1. What do our interactions reveal about the nature of this relationship?

2. What do our institutional processes reveal about it?

3. Why do we revert to this form of engagement in this relationship? Is it organic to the context? Appropriate to the end goals? What are the assumptions (or legacies) that underpin it?

In asking these questions, it is important to be attentive to the messaging or clues about what the relationship is or is not that come from different sources, sometimes in ways that are in direct conflict. For example, a development agency might claim that a specific relationship between its office and a civil society organization is a partnership-based one (using that frame in its formal messaging), yet the procurement processes or institutional mechanisms that primarily dictate the arrangements of the relationship might actually be conveying that it is really a transactional one. Or, the reporting or accountability mechanisms used with that “partner” might convey that it is in fact a hierarchical and authoritative one, underpinned by distrust. While these formal arrangements might not negate a desire on the part of stakeholders in the development agency to forge a real partnership, the tacit relationship is still felt, by all parties.

With this example, it should also be noted that the fact that a transaction does take place in the partnership (i.e., that a development agency gives money to a partner so that it can carry out the work) does not imply that the relationship itself has to be transactional. We can’t immediately change the realities of capitalism enshrined in development processes, or colonial legacies that led to certain players being the holders of resources and others being put in the position of recipients, but we can choose to not perpetuate the relational dynamics that help to reinforce a certain balance of power (or a specific definition of power). Often, it is through changing the nature of the relationships in our sphere of influence that we make space for more truth or contradictions to be come to the surface, including where our own procedures might be limiting our capacity to arrive at the relationships we say we desire — and hopefully, in time, then feel compelled to transform the procedures/governance structures to support that.

Another example: Perhaps there is a team who defines its values as being about understanding, equity, and trust. And this might genuinely be the intention of all who subscribe to these values within the team. If we examine the ways by which trust or understanding are made possible in most settings, foundational ingredients generally include time, space, safety and attentiveness. But maybe the design of this team’s typical meetings is such that it privileges the safety or comfort of one group over another, with little space given to explore the gaps.

For instance, maybe the structure of meetings or norms of engagement lend themselves to greater participation by those who are more extroverted, or those who are in more explicit positions of power or who hold identities socially-conditioned or expected to share their opinions. Perhaps the meeting design (or, maybe, lack of intentional design) reflects an assumption that that the space is neutral, and all have been invited to speak/given equal opportunity, simply because the open invitation is there. Perhaps there is a double-layered silencing taking place: first, from the design of the space/established norms, and second, from this assumption of the design’s neutrality, which reinforces perceptions of each person’s participation being primarily determined by/a responsibility of the individual, and forecloses the possibility to explore meeting design alternatives that might be more equitable.

3. Why it matters (channels of influence: from the micro to meso/macro)

Again, most of us are well versed in the significance of relationships; the gaps come when we fail to trace their impact from the micro, immediate level, to the macro, societal level. In development spaces in particular, we rarely connect the dots between the nature of relationships that play out in different domains of our work, and the impact this has on everything we do programmatically, how we do it, and the effectiveness of the end results.

Part of the analysis — the naming — that might help build this recognition of why relationships matter, not only in and of themselves, and not in some abstract sentimental way, but in practical, non-negotiable ways if we are talking about long-term, systemic societal changes, is to start to map some of these channels of influence. To really stop and look at all the constituent parts of a development outcome or policy/programme cycle from “start” to “finish” — the decision-making processes, the evidence, the goals, the theory of change, the means of assessing progress, the prioritization of activities/inputs, the roles, the capabilities, the collaboration platforms, the resources, the way resources move, etc. — and name where and how relationships (both present and past) have and continue to influence each of those interconnected parts.

For instance, some channels of influence to interrogate might be the ways relationships:

  • Shape collective intelligence/the knowledge or evidence base — To think, for instance, about the power that lies in who gets to decide what counts as knowledge or evidence to inform decisions about development policy, the historical relationships that have driven that, and the openings or barriers to “shared” or distributed decision-making that yields. Or to think about the relationship (or lack of) between the people who have contributed to a collective intelligence exercise (including through virtual platforms for data collection), or the relationship between those who did the synthesis of that data, and how that influenced the way meaning was created from it, or contradictions were resolved.
  • Dictate the design of interventions — To examine those design elements often perceived as givens and think about, for instance, the relationships that dictate what problems we have decided to focus on, what we perceive as a “problem” in the first place, or the metrics by which we define success. Or question the role of everyone implicated in designing the intervention, the ways they relate to one another, and the ways that those connections affect which views or priorities are most in the spotlight, or the ways diverse ideas converge or compete.
  • Fuel action/the translation of ideas into practice — To consider who is part of the implementation of a project, and how they understand their relationship to the project as a result of their relationship to the others involved. To think about who is [both formally and informally] given license to innovate, or where there is safety to ask questions or raise concerns when things are off track, or to propose alternatives when previously decided approaches prove inadequate.

Some other parts/processes/ingredients of development where more intentional consideration of the effects of relationships might be valuable is looking at their influence on: the basis for visions or ideas about the future that guide programmatic priorities; the ability for a group to continuously learn and adapt to changing development contexts; the glue for long-term commitments to a process; possibilities for innovation/experimentation.

4. What else might be possible (identifying where there is agency for change)

This last point is really about bringing all the other ones together to reveal avenues for action. Having recognized where relationship is happening, in what ways, why it matters, and for what specific aspects of a process or change ecosystem, it is easier to act from a place of intentionality: To ask ourselves, what are the outcomes being fueled by a certain type of relationship, is this is the intention, and if not, what might be an alternative mode of relating? What is in our power to change within this relationship, and importantly, what [discomfort, cost, inconvenience] are we willing to bear in making this shift, in view of our long-term goals and what we know about its influence?

I think this latter question is largely why the previous analyses are necessary: having surfaced potential contradictions between values and actions (which at first glance might not be so apparent in a given relationship), having drawn the connections to the impact on larger processes and ambitions, having recognized the ways that our institutional or informal procedures affect the ways we are with each other, it is easier to make a choice to apply an alternative lens for relationships than might be the norm — one more closely aligned with the values that matter to us/our work, especially when it feels counterintuitive or costly to do so in a certain context that incentivizes a different relational lens.

Here is one example of what this kind of reflection could look like, pulling the different areas of analysis together to identify reasons and opportunities for shifts:

(FRIDA feminist friendship as method example is here)

Perhaps another dimension of this exercise in moving towards intentionality (reflected in part in the row above on interrogating paradigms) is the practice of identifying not only where relationship is happening and what its effects are in that specific context or limited scale of impact, but also the bigger Why behind why it matters. This comes down to building muscles in seeing in fractals, or systems — of constantly making the connections between the impact of what goes on in small circles, and the wider circles that radiate from those, to eventually trigger impact at the level of policies, culture, governance, etc.

This fractal way of seeing, I think, is inextricable from a power-aware and historical way of seeing: to recognize how the dynamics that might be playing out in a workshop among a single set of development actors, for example, might be intimately linked to the very same inequities and sources of exclusion perpetuated through a national health policy, or a global governance framework for climate action. Or just how much relationships of the past might be alive in the ways we are in dialogue with someone today.

A big part of this is remaining alert to how the big problematic ideologies “out there” — from capitalism, racism, sexism, most any other -ism — tend to be present in the most mundane, inconspicuous of places and processes. And, by extension, seeing the positive flip side of this: that these big intractable issues can [or maybe more dauntingly, must] equally be undone (in the long run) through the gradual loosening of the billions of interconnected relational threads that currently hold them in place, beneath all the surface layers of policy and formal structures (e.g., one thread being the way a policy dialogue is held, another being the way a development actor chooses to invest time in building trust with a partner by acknowledging its own power, another being the way diverse neighbours in a city connect, etc.). This slow, indirect thread-loosening process is not to replace the more tangible and immediate policy and programmatic efforts, but is what imbues them with the power to bring about any real, lasting change.

When I started writing this, I didn’t necessarily intend to spell out detailed “steps” for examining relationships. But from the many conversations I’ve had on this with colleagues (some more direct, some less specifically about relationships yet under the surface, fully about relationships), it feels like a topic where it is in fact useful to start from the basics — to have more ways by which we can get on the same page about what we are even talking about, before deciding what to do with it. Or perhaps otherwise put, to treat relationships with the same rigour and seriousness that we do any other aspect of development [with seriousness often equating to systematic analysis and inquiry].

I am also often reminded how the more abstract and intangible the subject, the more room there is for misunderstanding (whether that be people thinking they are saying the same thing but in fact meaning very different things, or people saying the same thing but thinking they are saying different things due to varied connotations or perceptions of the language or framings used to articulate the ideas), and therefore the more important it is to get specific and explicit about what is in our minds. This feels particularly apt when talking about the role of relationships in development: one of those areas where we are quick to agree on importance but often much less willing to unravel the details and implications for our work.

While this kind of break-down (and I’m sure many more sophisticated frameworks exist for relationship-centric development or systems inquiry) might seem tedious, more than anything, it is an attempt to put some questions and structure to one way of seeing and acting more consistently with an understanding of where the roots of most problems, and their solutions, lies. Whether or not this kind of analysis is done as some explicit programmatic exercise, I think just the act of repeatedly bringing questions about relationships to the surface — at each stage of a development process — is what helps to make the invisible more visible.

It’s pretty hard to change/know what or why to change/convince others to change, what we are not willing to first bring into the light. I‘m also curious to know what other kinds of flashlights are being used, or where others are finding development processes that honor the primacy of human connection in systems transformation.

My next post will discuss four other entry points to help elevate the station of relationships in development processes.