Build Relational Literacy

Relational literacy is the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating. And it’s foundational to transforming many of the most pressing problems in our personal lives, in our groups and movements for justice, and in the world. All of these problems are driven, in large part, by relational dysfunction, or a dysfunction in how we relate

When we build relational literacy, we can effectively address virtually any problem or disagreement without fighting.

The formula for healthy relating 

Relational literacy is made up of many principles and tools, but they’re all based on one formula: the formula for healthy relating.

This formula applies to all interactions and relationships (relationships are, in fact, a series of interactions). And it applies to our communication, since communication is the primary way we relate. 

In a healthy interaction or relationship, we practice integrity and honor dignity. This leads to a greater sense of connection and security. 

Integrity is the alignment of our behaviors with our core moral values of compassion and justice. We practice integrity when we act according to these values. Put simply, when we practice integrity, we treat others the way we would want to be treated if we were in their position; we treat them with respect.

Dignity is our sense of inherent worth. When we honor someone’s dignity, we perceive and treat them as no less worthy of being treated with respect than anyone else.

Why building relational literacy is important for advocates

Relational literacy is foundational to how we affect and are affected by other advocates, as well as those we’re advocating to. So one of the most important and impactful things we can do for our cause is to build our relational skills.

Building relational literacy can be game-changing, similar to how becoming literate—able to read and write—changes our lives. When we build relational literacy, we can transform our lives, relationships, and the groups and movements we’re a part of.

Relational literacy isn’t rocket science. Anyone who’s interested can learn to build it. The key is simply to make a commitment to doing so.

Many advocates spend vast amounts of energy pointing out how other advocates fall short: discussing, for example, who does or doesn’t have the right to call themselves a feminist; putting down other environmentalists who drive too much; or berating other progressives who don’t use the right words when talking about privilege.

If we spent just a fraction of this energy working to build our own relational skills, we’d probably transform our movements in no time.

One of the most impactful things we can do for our cause is to build our relational skills.

(If you’d like to go deeper into the subject, Melanie Joy’s book Getting Relationships Right is a one-stop guide to building relational literacy.)

Whether your focus is on ending patriarchy, racism, capitalism, carnism, or some other injustice, and you want to have as much positive impact as possible, one of the most important things you can do is to work on yourself. 

Identifying nonrelational behaviors

As we build relational literacy, we become better able to identify, and therefore to avoid and counteract, the nonrelational behaviors that drive infighting. Nonrelational behaviors are those that are the opposite of the relational behaviors described in formula for healthy relating. Nonrelational behaviors violate integrity, harm dignity, and create a sense of disconnection and insecurity. Many of these behaviors are subtle, flying under our radar. But they can be just as harmful as those that are overt. 

As we build relational literacy, we become better able to identify, avoid, and counteract the nonrelational behaviors that drive infighting.

For example, many of us regularly engage in the nonrelational behavior of defining reality. When we define someone’s reality, we dictate the truth of their experience, appointing ourselves the expert on what they’re thinking or feeling, even when they say otherwise: “Even though you claim that your campaign is in support of your organization’s mission to end child exploitation, I know you’re just running it so you can get more donations.”

Defining reality is always disrespectful and usually triggers defensiveness in the other person, leading to conflict and disconnection. When we define someone’s reality, we can cause them to question their own perceptions and to distrust their judgment and sense of reality. (In its more extreme and malicious form, defining reality is gaslighting.)

Nonrelational behaviors are so commonplace that they’re often unremarkable; we don’t recognize them for what they are. And because they’re so normalized, we’re often encouraged to engage in them. For instance, your colleague may suggest that you post a subtle yet poignant put-down about another advocate who’d posted an uncharitable comment about you, encouraging the kind of tit-for-tat reactivity that fuels infighting. 

As long as we remain unaware of what nonrelational behaviors look like in practice, we’re likely to both engage in and support them without realizing what we’re doing.

Questions you can ask

One way you can determine whether a behavior (which includes communication) is nonrelational or relational is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of this behavior? 

  • Is the person engaging in this behavior someone I’d feel safe being vulnerable with? 

  • Does this behavior reflect integrity and honor dignity? Does it reflect civility? 

  • Would I feel safe expressing an opinion that the person exhibiting this behavior disagrees with? 

  • Would I direct this behavior toward someone I care about? 

  • Is the person who’s communicating framing the issue as a divisive debate? For example, are they pitting one person or idea against another in a “versus,” win-lose framework? Is the person they’re debating actually present?

Eventually, as we build relational literacy, we won’t need to go through this list of questions. The more relationally literate we are, the more we’ll experience nonrelational behaviors as repulsive rather than attractive or unremarkable.

The process of becoming relationally literate, and therefore relationally healthy, is similar to the process of becoming physically healthy. Imagine that you quit smoking and stop eating highly processed, fatty, and sugary foods, and then, sometime later, you take a puff of a cigarette or eat a bag of donuts. The substances your body once found gratifying it now recognizes as toxic. You cough and get a stomachache and headache, among other reactions. You feel poisoned, which you essentially are.

Similarly, as our level of relational health increases, our tolerance for relational dysfunction decreases. We begin to experience relational dysfunction as the psycho-emotional, relational poison it is.

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