Covid-19 changed how we connect with each other. In this blog, Arukah Network mentor and coach ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT reflects on how we have the opportunity to build better relationships: in our families, communities and countries.
At Arukah Network, we often talk about our ‘process’ in terms of three steps: connect, inform, and influence. Connect comes first, because we think that it makes it easier for appropriate information and influence to flow. But what does starting with connection really mean? Here’s a few things it means to us:
Building a foundation of trust
Asking questions and being curious
Being in relationship and encouraging two-way learning (and moving away from the idea of the outside expert ‘fixing’ or ‘doing to’ a community)
Realising that organisations and institutions are made of people, not glossy branding or numbers
Guiding each other to the right people, information and resources at the right time
For obvious reasons, connecting in a time of physical distancing feels difficult. We’re all adapting to new ways of living and working, which is harder for some than others. People who were lonely before Covid-19 might be struggling even more. People who are not technologically literate, or who do not have the internet, might find online meetings intimidating or inaccessible.
But connection and relationship needs to be a priority as we move beyond Covid-19 and create a future that works for everyone. Here are a few thoughts and ideas on the importance of and creation of relationships.
1. Where we speak of ‘networking’, perhaps we could more helpfully think of ‘creating relationships’
For some, ‘networking’ can mean going to a conference or an event because we know others will be there. Or perhaps it’s about advertising our skills to find opportunities. People at networking events often ask, ‘what do you do?’. Generally, I think people asking that question mean, ‘what job do you have?’. I find that question hard to answer because I don’t have one ‘job’. I do various things. It also doesn’t take into account who I am. In fact, I would rather answer the question, ‘who are you?’. But that’s quite an intimidating question to ask (and answer) when you meet someone for the first time! Still, I think about ‘networking’ as really about ‘creating relationships’. The root of the word ‘relate’ means to carry, to bear. In relationship, we carry each other. When I think of this, it makes it a bit easier to take off my mask and share my uniqueness, hopes, challenges, and ideas. I find this can encourage others to do the same. We move from networking to relationship-building.
2. We must learn how to be with people who have different experiences and think differently to us
The English poet and painter William Blake said, “without contraries [there] is no progression.” But how do we sit with people who we just don’t agree with? How might we use difference as a strength, rather than a reason to get defensive, or even disregard the other? This question feels important for us as individuals, and as communities and organisations. Progression will not be true progress if only certain voices and experiences shape it. So how do we get on with people we disagree with?
There are a few things that help me. One is listening well – not just picking up a few words and creating what I think I’ve heard, or seemingly listening but really just preparing what I’ll say next. Listening deeply and actively takes energy, but I think it can lead to better discernment, and better next steps. Another thing I find helpful is starting with the common ground. What do we both agree on? Where can we start from? This might be, for example, a sense of shared values, or wanting what’s best for a particular place. Exploring the common ground can inform our understanding of the motives and goals of the other, and so support better communication and shared goals.
It’s also OK not to know or be able to do everything. Our gaps and blind spots might be the areas of expertise of someone else. Knowing this makes it essential that we are in relationship with others who are not like us, so that we can put pieces together to create a whole. Of course, for many of us it can require personal work to even recognise our blind spots and be able to ask for help. Perhaps that’s a blog for another time.
3. We might create impressive programmes to solve complex challenges. But if these programmes do not have human relationships at their heart, then they may not be sustainable or even appropriate
Funding can help turn good ideas into reality. But funding on its own (or technology, or branding, or other seemingly attractive things) won’t listen, or lead, or discern, or prioritise for us. Only people can do that. And so we need to hear all voices, and then we need to synthesise the ideas, wisdom, challenges and needs that we hear. Sometimes, the resulting solutions might require funding. Sometimes they will cost nothing. We won’t know until we get into good relationship and talk to each other. During the Covid-19 outbreak, we need to listen to scientific advice (this will vary depending on your country’s advice, but may include staying at home, washing hands, etc). But perhaps we could also think about the opportunities for our neighbourhoods and communities once Covid-19 passes. What locally led, low-cost initiatives have made sure people get food and company during the crisis? How are we listening to these and using them to shape the future? Perhaps low-tech, locally led solutions might also help us tackle other complex challenges like the climate crisis. I think complex challenges don’t necessarily need complex solutions. They need people who are in good relationship, and able to work together.
As Arukah Network evolves, this starting point – relationship and connection – will always be a core part of who we are and how we work. This year, we will be making our ‘handbook’ widely available in the hope that it might help you to put some of these things into practice where you are.
Listen to Elizabeth's podcast interview: 'Joining The Dots: Elizabeth Wainwright on Local Politics, Climate Change & 'Generalists'.