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

Introduction to Relational Theory

This chapter introduces a relational approach to settlement work in Canada. It starts by acknowledging and placing the relational approach within the broader field of relational theory. In the realm of relational theory in Euro-Western thinking and practice, various frameworks and perspectives shed light on the important role of relationships across different contexts. Four are highlighted here.

First, Relational Social Work, developed through years of theoretical analysis and empirical research, is a theoretical perspective that emphasizes that solutions to social challenges emerge from the reflexivity and action of coping networks rather than individual efforts (Folgheraiter & Rainieri, 2017). Next, educational philosopher Nel Noddings’ (2013) Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education underscores the importance of relationships, empathy, and compassion in ethical decision making, emphasizing attentive listening and responsiveness. Similarly, philosopher Martin Buber’s (1923/1970) “I-Thou” relational theory focuses on authentic, respectful, and dialogical encounters between individuals and emphasizes mutual recognition and a sense of the sacred. Finally, Ken Gergen’s (2011) theory of the “relational self” challenges conventional notions of individual identity in Euro-Western society, highlighting the dynamically shaped nature of the self through interactions and relationships.

Although there are relational theories associated with Euro-Western culture, it is essential to recognize that at their core, Indigenous worldviews are inherently relational. Indigenous perspectives from Turtle Island (North America) typically regard individuals as interconnected beings, encompassing physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual aspects, all intricately linked to the land and interconnected with others, be it family, community, or nation. This approach is commonly referred to as a holistic viewpoint. You can read more here: Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being – Pulling Together: A Guide for Front-Line Staff, Student Services, and Advisors (Cull et al., 2018).

For example, wahkohtowin is a Cree concept that encompasses the idea of being related to human and non-human relatives, emphasizing a universe defined by relatedness and the responsibility to maintain good relationships (Wildcat, 2018, p. 14). Similarly, miyo-wicehtowin calls on individuals and the nation to conduct themselves in ways that create positive relations, whether individually or collectively with others (Cardinal & Hildebrandt, 2000, as cited in Wildcat, 2018, p. 14). These relational theories collectively illustrate the profound impact of relationships on various aspects of human life and well-being, transcending conventional understandings of individualism.

Building upon these diverse relational foundations, this chapter focuses specifically on Biocultural Transformation Theory, Relational Cultural Theory, and interpersonal neurobiology. These theories play a central role in helping us 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 change in communities. 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, equitable, and just society.

Relational Cultural Theory

The significance of a relational approach becomes evident through Relational Cultural Theory/Therapy (RCT) (Jean Baker Miller, 1976; Jordan, 2018), which diverges from traditional Euro-Western psychological theories centred on individuation, separation, and autonomy as markers of psychological well-being. RCT is grounded in the notion that healing takes place in the context of mutually empathetic growth fostering relationships (Jordan, 2017) and underscores the pivotal role of relationships in human development and overall well-being. This theory, widely employed in therapeutic contexts, gives settlement practitioners and other professionals engaged in relational work with a framework for nurturing relationships and enhancing their relational skills. RCT offers insights into how individuals can flourish and evolve by fostering mutually supportive and empowering connections with others, challenging the notion that personal growth is solely an individual pursuit. Although settlement workers are not therapists, they provide significant relationships for newcomers, potentially playing a vital role in their clients’ well-being, drawing parallels with Carl Rogers’ emphasis on the client-therapist relationship as a primary source of healing.

Seven Core Principles of Relational Cultural Theory

  1. Throughout the lifespan, individuals experience growth through and towards relationships.
  2. Mature functioning involves a movement towards mutuality.
  3. Psychological growth is characterized by the ability to engage in increasingly complex and diverse relational networks.
  4. Growth-fostering relationships are centred around mutual empathy and mutual empowerment.
  5. Real engagement in growth-fostering relationships necessitates authenticity.
  6. Contributing to the development of growth-fostering relationships leads to personal growth through participation.
  7. The overarching aim of development is to achieve enhanced relational competence over one’s lifetime

(Jordan, 2017)

Indicators of Growth-Fostering Relationships

  1. Zest (an increase in energy)
  2. Knowledge and clarity (increased knowledge and clarity about one’s experience, the other person, and the relationship)
  3. Creativity and productivity
  4. A greater sense of self-worth
  5. A desire for more connection

(Miller & Stiver, 1997, as cited in Jordan, 2017, p. 7)

Watch the video Relational Cultural Theory (Therapy with Ghesline, 2019).


Reflection and Dialogue

Read each principle and reflect on what it means for you. What is the significance of growth-oriented relationships in settlement work?

Consider the five indicators of growth-fostering relationships. Can you think of a relationship that meets all or some of these indicators? How can you use these indicators in your work as a settlement practitioner?

In a dialogue circle, share how these indicators show up by giving examples (to respect confidentiality it is unnecessary to reveal personal details). For example, what leads to a sense of zest, empowerment, clarity, integrity, or closeness? What kind of relationship are you describing? In a second round, share what resonated with you from other people’s stories. In a third round, consider how this might apply to relationships in your work as a settlement practitioner. Notice where these relationships are on the Circles of Care and Concern map. What is the significance?


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

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