Relational psychology is an approach to meeting, understanding and creating change in people. It finds its point of departure in a fundamental truth: The relationship is the cornerstone of all development. Therefore, relational psychology has a lot in common with personalism, and can be understood as an example of the practical unfolding of the relational anthropology.
By Else Marie Bech, psychologist at the Institute of Relational Psychology (Denmark)
The fundamental thesis on the relational basis of development is based on a massive foundation of research and theory. Theses discoveries stem primarily from neurobiological scans, detailed observations of the interplay between infants and mothers, philosophical considerations and ethnographic accounts.
These discoveries unambiguously point toward the need to guide the health sector in the direction of a relational anthropology and theory of development. The following contains a brief introduction to the approach of relational psychology to therapy, education and organizational development, as it is practiced at the Institute of Relational Psychology.
Within the field of therapy, conversations are offered in which the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist is the crucial component in relation to the client’s change and development. Previous painful relational experiences, that affect the client’s quality of life negatively, are brought up and processed in the therapeutic relationship. In line with the relational anthropology, both client and therapist are active players. Through their relationship they affect each other mutually. It is therefore crucial that the therapist is aware of the feelings that he or she experiences, so that their origin as well as their effect on the interaction can be identified. In the therapy of relational psychology two equal persons meet. They both step forward carrying a relational past, which opens and closes possibilities of development within the relationship.
Likewise, the relationship becomes a guinea pig in the testing of new social competences that might be applied in the client’s current relationships. The approach of relational psychology carries the fundamental premise that problems and challenges created in a relationship only can be processed and solved through a relationship.
Therefore, the client’s relationships become a central focus point. They are incorporated physically through the therapeutic space, as well as mentally through the realization that this specific person has developed his or her competences, resources and challenges through interaction with other people. Therefore, we also deal with networks (group- and family therapy) in order to strengthen the individual’s chances of establishing strong and positive relationships.
Also in the education of teachers, managers and others within the pedagogical, social and health related areas, the relationship is the primary focus. A point of departure is taken in the professional’s ability to establish strong relationships and produce collegial environments that collectively makes the relationship a priority, and also develops the ability to identify and repair fragile relationships. At the same time there is a strong focus on the impact of the professional’s personal relational experience, and on his or her ability to enter into new relationships. Therefore, the supplementary education programs also present a focus on personal development, in which ones own relationships are addressed and developed.
When working with larger organizations, the approach of relational psychology will attempt to create change and development on several levels simultaneously. People are affected by the relational environment on many levels, and it is therefore difficult to create more permanent changes in the smaller group without considering and incorporating both the larger community, the management and the values and culture of the organization. All these levels are mutually connected, and constitute the framework of each individual’s relational opportunities.
A holistic perspective
In praxis many of the approaches mentioned above will be at play. An example can be found in the handling of a municipality’s psychological health-system: When we encounter an employee who suffers from stress, the treatment will revolve around a series of conversations. The process will typically use management-dialogue and the possibility of group therapy. It focuses on how the current stress-condition is affected by previous relational experiences, and how new relational experiences are created in order to promote new possible developments and solutions. Such a process is also focused on the person’s relational work-environment and the possibility of arranging the process so it leads the client, the work-collective, and the organization as a whole, into a process of development and strengthened relationships.
Though many years of experience with psychological and pedagogical activities on a relational foundation, it is our experience that this work is being perceived as very meaningful. This is due to the fact that the approach of relational psychology is supported by a still growing empirical foundation, but to an even larger extend it is catalyzed by the fact that we have the personal experience that the work feels intuitively right. Relational psychology opens up the possibility of a holistic approach, in which empiricism - along with intuition, body and heart – guides the encounter with the individual person.