Relational Work: How Systems Change By Building Authentic Relationships

One basic truth about systems is that they are made up of people-individuals.  So, when we talk about ‘systems’, ‘the system’, despite all we know of systems change, all approaches will not lead to significant shifts in power or alter our most deeply held beliefs. When collective efforts do not bring about shifts in consciousness, then the system they are a part of will not change in any significant manner.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that complex, adaptive problems defy neatly-packaged “logic models and reductive technical solutions”. It is time to invest our collective energy in more relational and emergent approaches to transforming systems. Relationships are the essence of collective impact, as systems change. It is thus critical to support relationship development in ways that build empathy and compassion in order that real connections happen. This is particularly critical between diverse groups. Deep connections form new avenues for change and innovation that address current social problems.

Let’s begin with the belief that people are the experts in their own lives. Hoping for change in systems is best achieved through an emergence approach to building relational trust first. Trust is something that’s built  over time, and most often during informal gatherings and settings. Through experiences like camping trips and weekend retreats, the power of the lived experience can inadvertently work to build trust between groups who may have previously existed as ‘warring’ factions-never before seeing the other side.

Embracing emergence creates discomfort and comes with risk. But by placing people with lived experience at the center of the collective impact effort, many times new ways for players in the system to work together begin to emerge. It would make sense that much of the work isn’t  specifically ‘planned’, but rather has a relational ‘go with the heart’ feel. The connections that form release energy for new possibilities.

Making meaningful progress on the complex challenges of our time requires totally different ways of working together that prioritize relational practices. Based on research and  practitioners who engage in transformative change practices, particularly those stemming from non-dominant cultures, these more radical and relational ways of working generally share five qualities: deep relational work, space for healing, inviting in the sacred, inner change that leads to outer change, and transforming power dynamics. In practice, these qualities never stand alone but function in interrelated ways to support the transformation of systems.

  1. Deep Relational Work

Everything we know about systems tells us relationships are the core. So, if you want to change the system, get the system in the room. Systems theorist, Brenda Zimmerman said, “The most important unit of analysis in a system is not the part (e.g. individual, organization, or institution), it’s the relationship between the parts.” This is a fundamentally different way of being in relationships, starting with creating a space for the work that is viewed by all, especially those who do not have institutional power, as a safe environment where participants express themselves freely, can be vulnerable, connect with each other, and experience their common humanity. It means modeling the vulnerability and creating conditions that encourage those in power to do the same.

Building deep relationships with others takes time, tenacity, and a willingness to keep showing up, but the payoff is immense. When we are in deep relationship with others, we shed more of the baggage that weighs us down, share what’s in our hearts, and bring a cleaner energy to our interactions.

    2. Cultivating Space For Healing

Unresolved and unhealed trauma is quite a force in most of the largest systemic issues facing us. We must recognize that being in deep relationships with groups with past trauma in systems means addressing collective healing from the past, as well as ongoing ones. These include racial traumas. Acknowledge that even though the traumatic or painful events might have occurred in the past, that is still felt and exists in the present. Unless it is dealt with, it will remain an impediment to future progress.

This is not to say that we do not lay the groundwork to anticipate trauma,  create spaces for people to process their trauma, and grow into leadership amidst the the relived trauma. If we do not, we’re not following through on our commitment to build capacity in a genuine way. Healing Circles are but one such collective healing process. Outside of the system representatives’ presence, we make spaces for people with shared lived experiences share their own stories of oppression, resilience and forge connections with each other  that facilitate collective healing.

Another necessary yet difficult process is Mediated Conversations that takes place between those ‘warring factions’ , those who have experienced trauma in systems’ spaces. This helps people feel safe and ready to work with people of power within those systems.  Mediated conversations also deepen empathy and serve as an accountability mechanism for past wrongs.

   3. Serendipity and the Sacred

Working together in a way that invites in the sacred and welcomes serendipity is perhaps the most difficult of the five qualities to capture on a page, in large part because people often equate words like sacred with religion or think it refers to faith-based initiatives. On the contrary, bringing the sacred into the process does not require or even assume everyone involved has a spiritual orientation.

In the collective impact context, it means setting a tone for the work that encourages everyone involved to open their hearts to enable a universal source, or grace, to enter into the work. Use of rituals, personal stories, and community narratives can help groups establish a sacred tone for their work together, as well as finding inspiration from art, silence, or contemplative practices such as meditation. While specific methods may vary depending on the local context, what unites this quality across cultures is the intent to support participants in being present to the work and to each other. It’s also about grounding the work, individually and collectively, in love.

Processes like Peacemaking Circles, passing a talking stick,is one in which the ‘keeper’ sets the sacred tone and helps participants who may view each other with hostility to let down their guard and share their stories. Sharing deeply personal stories slowly builds trusting relationships, and over time, opens people to see the whole human who they had previously reduced to a stereotype. It helps systems partners ground their work in forgiveness, and increases their willingness to change policies and practices.

   4. Inner and Outer Change

Change must first begin from within. The process starts with examining biases, assumptions, and blind spots; reckoning with privilege and our role in perpetuating inequities; and creating the inner capacity to let go of being in control. But inner change is also a relational and iterative process: The individual shifts the collective, the collective shifts the individual, and on and on it goes. That interplay is what allows us to generate insight, create opportunities, and see the potential for transformation.

Inner changes can enable the collective to establish more authentic dialogue in efforts to change systems. Leaders’ inner work can open their hearts to more humble and authentic relationships with groups they serve and ensure accountability to the principles of participatory planning-partnerships, shared decision-making.  Healing Circles, personal development workshops help support inner change among the collective that helps facilitate transformative changes in systems. Power is no longer one-sided;the dynamics shift and collective healing ensues.

   5. Transforming Power Dynamics

Collective impact efforts must be intentional about not replicating the power imbalances of the systems they work in. Transforming power dynamics is possible through relationships. If not partnering with stakeholders, populations, communities in an authentic way, then it is replicating a history of disempowerment and neglecting their potential to transform the work.


By calling on our sector to invest its collective energy in more relational and emergent approaches to transforming systems, we are merely naming what many of us already know: The ways we currently collaborate are simply not up to the magnitude of the task given the complexity of the social and environmental problems we are trying to solve. To get to more radical outcomes, we need more radical ways of working together. It is both as simple and as hard as that.

It demands much of us as leaders to move us out of our comfort zones quickly. We must constantly remind ourselves that the process is the solution, and we must remain open to exploring new and difficult questions. What can each of us do to bring people into deep, authentic relationships with each other and create safe spaces for vulnerability? How do we design profound experiences of healing and connection to our shared humanity? How can we embrace emergence and cultivate our capacities as leaders to follow the new energy, creativity, and innovations that surface?

This is the next frontier of systems change. Only once we start exploring answers to these difficult questions will we begin to foster shifts in individual and collective consciousness powerful enough to transform systems. Collective impact efforts must prioritize working together in more relational ways to find systemic solutions to social problems.







[This piece was totally inspired by an article written by Katherine Milligan, Juanita Zerda and John Kania  that appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation [SSIR]].


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