Chapter 11: A Relational Approach to Settlement Work Relational Spaces and Practices for Anti-Oppression and Well-Being


Sarah Apedaile

“The manner in which we relate shapes the very fabric of our culture.”

– Gergen in Bava & Greene, 2023, p. 29

This chapter introduces a relational approach to settlement work in Canada. Although a relational approach to settlement work may seem apparent given the nature of the field, the intricacies of relationships and their dynamics are far from straightforward. This chapter explores the concept of a relational approach to settlement work in both theory and practice. Here, we explore the complex and interconnected nature and interpersonal dynamics of relationships across various dimensions and contexts.

We start by acknowledging and placing the relational approach within the broader field of relational theory, then develop a relational framework based on Biocultural Transformation Theory, Relational Cultural Theory, and interpersonal neurobiology. These theories offer a unique perspective on how to understand and apply relational practices in the context of settlement work. They equip practitioners with the essential tools and knowledge to tackle complex challenges and create positive community changes. This chapter further explores how these theories can be practically applied, showing how they can enhance the well-being of newcomers and Canadians, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

A relational approach involves intentionally establishing meaningful and authentic professional relationships with clients that emphasize well-being, empathy, and collaboration within various contexts. Authenticity serves as the cornerstone of this approach, while caring represents a visible expression of it. Caring is a receptive and relational posture closely related to empathy and demands a clear understanding of one’s position and boundaries because they play a pivotal role in forming and potentially intensifying the connection between clients and practitioners. Jordan (2017) argues that empathetic practitioners need flexible boundaries to effectively listen to and emotionally comprehend their clients’ experiences. While maintaining this openness, practitioners must also preserve a distinct sense of self to avoid becoming engulfed in the client’s narrative, thereby rendering their assistance ineffective.

In this chapter, you will find explanations, video materials, opportunities for self-reflection, dialogue, and practical applications. Dialogue is an important relational process that supports the development of relational capacities, including intercultural sensitivity, intercultural communication, empathy, deep listening, self-awareness, and effective non-violent communication. An overview of relational capacities is included at the end of the chapter.


Specific Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  1. Describe the foundational principles of a relational approach to settlement work and its significance, demonstrating an understanding of the complexity of human interaction
  2. Explore the interconnected, multifaceted nature of relationships across diverse contexts, appreciating diversity within interpersonal dynamics
  3. Use diverse learning materials to deepen understanding, stimulate critical thinking, and practise dialogue and self-reflection techniques
  4. Apply practical tools and skills for nurturing growth-oriented relationships and promoting well-being

Key Terms

Partnership values support relationships that infuse our day-to-day lives with empathy, caring, and responsibility. They include sensitivity, empathy, caring, collaboration, cooperation, and non-violence.

Relational capacities are orientations that encourage connection with others in the back and forth of relating by shifting from “me” to “we”’ (Bava & Greene, 2023).

Relational intelligence involves being perceptive and sensitive to the dynamics of relationships, enabling individuals to navigate social interactions effectively (Bava & Greene, 2023); video: Esther Perel: The Power of Relational Intelligence

Relational mapping helps individuals and communities visualize and understand their relational dynamics, fostering better communication and collaboration.

Relational practices support the development of relational capacities through individual and collective mindfulness. They include emotional regulation, self-awareness, presence, listening, context awareness, empathy, and compassion.

Social justice, as defined by King (2022, p. 212), is about putting “loving awareness in action” within the relational sphere of our interconnectedness. In this perspective, social justice embodies actions and relationships driven by loving awareness. Contemplative practices such as cultivating compassion, loving kindness, gratitude, altruism, empathy, and pro-sociality play a crucial role in developing this “loving-awareness-in-action.” For King, social justice and well-being are essentially the same thing.

Systems thinking is a way to address complex issues by considering the broader context, all the interconnected components, and the relationships and feedback loops among them. It acknowledges that everything within a system is interconnected. Changes or actions in one part of a system can have significant consequences in other parts. For instance, deciding to move to Canada from a different part of the world can involve a complex interplay of factors like conflict, economics, and climate change. A relational approach that prioritizes well-being has the potential to leverage feedback loops to either strengthen or counteract changes within a system. The Relational Approach Model illustrates nested, interdependent relationships, prompting us to shift our focus between a macro perspective (e.g., global climate change) and a micro view (e.g., impact at the cellular or nervous system level). This systems-oriented perspective encourages practitioners to grasp the intricate interplay of multiple dimensions in action.


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Apedaile is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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