Creating Relational Proximity
Many of us tend to give airplay to the fact that relationships are important yet so often we behave in a way that betrays this understanding. I suspect part of the reason for this is the intangible nature of relating to others. It’s also just plain hard work. Dr Michael Schluter, founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relational Thinking Network has spent the last 30 years exploring the centrality of relationships in the Biblical witness. He has determined that the theme of relationships are at the heart of God’s intention for the world. Our relationship to Him, with each other and with the world around us. Yet our world is out of kilter in part because relationships have been bumped from front and centre, most often by economics. Schluter has worked on various initiatives aimed at describing what different sectors of society could look like if relationships were at the centre. He has also helped us to gain a tangible understanding about what is happening in the space between two entities.
Put simply The Relational Proximity Framework consists of the 5 dimensions or levers of a relationship; directness, continuity, multiplexity, commonality and parity. They relate to the domains of a relationship and they have a felt outcome. The following is a little subjective as we explore the experience of the relationship in terms of the type of relationship. The levels of each dimension vary and would be different in a spouse relationship compared with a business one.
As we go through the 5 dimensions think about them in terms of one of your significant relationships.
Directness – Refers to the amount and types of contact. Is there enough? Is it face to face, or is the communication only mediated? Is the communication clear or are there cross purposes? Is the communication intellectual or is there emotional empathy?
Continuity – Is about shared story or history over time. A few years ago I saw my cousin for the first time in 10 years. During our later teen years we had a close relationship, often spending the weekends at each others place. We then both got married and our paths separated. When we reconnected, after some momentary awkwardness, we picked up right where we left off. Other relationships aren’t like this, I heard rumour that my High School graduating year is organising a 25th Year Reunion. I haven’t seen or had contact with most of the people in my year over those 25 years… awkward!
Continuity looks at foundation or history, have there been time gaps in the relationship’s development? It also looks to the future do you anticipate a positive future or are the difficulties going to swamp the connection? A sense of belonging is also important for continuity. Do both parties have loyalty to the relationship and do they hold the relationship at the same level of importance?
Multiplexity – Refers to the breadth and depth of knowledge that you possess about each other. How much do you know about the other person and how they will respond in different circumstances? What do you know about their background and their culture? Do you understand why they act the way they do? What do you know about their skills, interests and talents? Gaining this sort of knowledge about the other person presumes a level of trust and openness to each other and so multiplexity is also concerned with appreciation. Does each party feel known and appreciated by the other?
Once every couple of months I catch up with a group of guys to talk about life’s journey and how we are responding to that journey. Although we don’t see each other all that often we each know a lot about the other men’s lives and can input into situations they are facing with a high degree of accuracy. We have spent the time and made the commitment to develop the trust that allows us the freedom to be open and honest with each other.
Parity – Is to do with the distribution of power in a relationship. As we think about working with marginalised communities parity is very important to consider. When a trained social or community worker or even someone volunteering with a church welfare program is connecting with a client or participant the power tends to be all in the workers favour. These encounters can tend to be very disempowering for those for whom we are seeking to make a difference. Thinking about your significant relationship, can each person take action without fear of being told off? Are you consulted, heard? Can you influence the relationship?
The perception of fairness is also very important. Is it fair that a job network provider can decide whether someone is entitled to their Centrelink benefits or not? Is there excessive power from one side? Are the risks and rewards shared fairly in the relationship? Respect is key, is each party valued by the other, for who they are and what they have to offer?
The relationship between CEO and board is always interesting. As a CEO I was working on a project with a board member and I found my frustration levels increasing. We stopped and took the time to talk it through. I felt that the parity was out because I perceived I was taking the time and financial risk and if things went south the fallout would affect me more. On talking it through I realised the board member was making considerable sacrifice to be a part of the project and in fact we were both equally committed to its outcome.
Commonality – Looks to the future, are there shared goals? What will get in the way of achieving them? Is there enough common purpose to overcome the difficulties? Does each party have similar commitment to the goals? Does your connection go beyond achieving the goals? Is the energy created greater than the sum of the parts? Do you have a convergence of values and spirit that almost doesn’t need a goal?
Essentially commonality asks what does the future look like? Is there a shared path towards it? Many married couples can struggle once the kids leave home and commonality can be a part of that struggle. When the kids are at home the common goals are often around raising the family and making sure they are safe and well cared for. As this role changes couples can find it difficult to re-orientate to a shared future outside the kids.
The Relational Proximity Framework is a helpful way to think about the ‘helping’ relationships that we have and check in to make sure our connection with others is empowering them to move forward, not leaving them frustrated and feeling unheard. For Steve being heard and feeling valued were keys to unlocking the gold that was buried under layers of hurt and feelings of being misunderstood.
A local community can be described as a place where there is an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world. As we know the relational web in our communities is broken, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction affecting individuals, families and the very fabric of society. However as people of faith we recognise that God is present in each individual and there are Kingdom possibilities in every community. Each person and every community has gold to be discovered, for many this gold is hidden under layers of poverty, unemployment and a raft of social issues, leaving the individual lost, alone and in pain. To unearth the gold we need to focus on the strengths of individuals and communities. In addition we need to help these strengths come together around a common planning table that will help inspire a community to move towards God’s picture of it. The most effective way to build and work towards this common picture is to foster healthy connections that reflect the importance God puts on relationships.
My mate Steve struggled to find a place in life, but slowly over time as our relationship with him deepened a beautiful man emerged who despite many ups and downs was able to make a positive difference in the lives of many. Might we hold the same high view of people that God does and seek to unearth the gold that is there individuals and our communities.
 Various in house training modules, the concept first appeared in Michael Schluter & David Lee, The R Factor (London, Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1993).