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Posted February 28, 2005

By Lon Woodbury

Success in every human activity eventually seems to boil down to relationships. In any business organization, the person who gets ahead is usually the one who builds positive and constructive relationships with their colleagues and clients.

Successful parenting, marriages and functional families occur because at least some of the people in them are successful in building positive relationships. Children lucky enough to have a positive adult mentor relationship while living in very dysfunctional situations, often surprise people by maturing in ways that overcome their background. In education, students often respond best to a teacher they trust and who inspires them, in other words, a teacher who develops good relationships with their students. Mental health research continues to conclude that a good relationship between a therapist and client is a more important factor leading to healing than any other aspect of theory, technique or credential.

Unfortunately, the only body of literature that emphasizes the importance of relationships for success is in the personal development or self-improvement field. A common theme is the concept that in order to be successful, you first have to be able to get along with people. The assertion is that if you cannot do that very well, then even if you accumulate a lot of money, it is unlikely you will ever make a lasting contribution in any field. In every other field, good relationships tend to be overlooked, assumed, minimized or taken for granted.

For example, in the medical profession, as medical technology improved over the 20th century, medical doctors began to see themselves as "scientists." They began to distain the concept of "bedside manner," which is basically developing human relationships with their patients. Everything except scientific fact was gradually dismissed as of little value. Fortunately, the medical profession is rethinking that and starting to accept that how the Doctor relates to patients is vital to healing even though it might be "unscientific."

Another example is the mental health field, which evolved its foundational concepts from the scientific basis of the medical field. Mental health literature is full of discussions regarding the advantages of one theoretical approach over another, or the variety of treatments for specific diagnoses, or developing accurate diagnoses, or specific techniques, or the advantages of specific training resulting in accepted credentials etc. It is only lately that an alternative view started to emerge in the literature. A view that is based on research showing how healing is more successful when the therapist builds a good relationship with their patients, regardless of therapeutic orientation.

The literature in the field of education is similar. The usual focus is on topics such as the advantages of various curriculums, or how to develop tests that more accurately measure progress. This is so the teacher can work on areas of weakness, or the advantages of various classroom and school facilities, and of course the importance of teachers having proper credentials. In mainstream education, the importance of relationships are simply assumed, or taken for granted, while alternative educators have always been aware of the importance of teacher-student relations, and several private schools have practiced this for years.

Even though the importance of developing relationships was not emphasized in either mental health or education training, good professionals in those fields always intuitively understood their success was dependent on the importance of working to develop good relationships. When you find a good teacher, you have someone with the ability to develop good relationships with their students, at least one that commands respect and inspiration. The same is true in the mental health field. When you find a good therapist, you have a professional that puts developing good relationships with their clients of prime importance.

If top quality professionals in the fields of mental health and education intuitively understand the importance of developing good working relationships with their students or clients, and that their career success depends on developing those good relationships, then why don't their professional publications, associations and training put relationship building as a top priority? In my opinion, it's a function of convenience, administrative control and measurement.

Trying to understand the specifics of relationship building is very vague and nebulous. Predicting how two people will relate is very difficult. It is an art much more than a science. There are too many variables that could be important. We all know couples with long-term happy marriages that everybody predicted would never last. At the same time, we all know couples who seemed perfectly matched, yet whose relationship never got off the ground. The same goes for teacher-student relationships, and therapist-client relationships. The only predictor of value would be experience, and the track record of the teacher or therapist. And, even using a person's track record would still be tricky. For example, a teacher who is very successful in inspiring the students in a suburban school might be a miserable failure teaching in an inner city school, and vice versa. Decision making by administrators based on ability to develop relationships would be hard work, and not very convenient, especially in this era of mass education with single schools numbering in the thousands.

However, if you can convert all the variables to numbers, or to specific measurable factors like credentials, and just assume positive relationships without paying much attention to them, then administrative decision-making for any one situation is a snap. If a student is suicidal, then just assign a therapist trained in that. Easy! Nothing to it! If a student has a learning difference, no problem! Give them to a teacher trained in special education. If you want to find out how much a student has learned, calculate how many days he or she has spent in the classroom, probably measured by how many credits he or she has earned where attendance is a major factor. Or, to double check that, provide some easily administered and scored tests that an authoritative source assures you will accurately measure the amount of learning the student has done.

To hire staff, you screen out all those without the best credentials, have a brief interview and order a background check, and if they seem pleasant enough, hire them. To succeed in this approach, all an administrator needs to do is manipulate numbers, check if the credentials are properly earned, and keep the paper trail moving. This approach is rather more convenient than focusing on the quality of relationships an applicant might be able to develop.

An alternative approach is to base a school on the ability of staff to develop good relationships. Administration of this model is harder work, and more time consuming. But if done right, and with intuitive insight (an art more than science), the school will be much more effective since the focus will be on building relationships that inspire. Many of the best emotional growth/ therapeutic boarding schools hire staff and enroll students this way. In these schools, staff interviews are multi-day events, giving a chance for the administration to watch how the applicant and students interact. Some enroll students the same way, giving administrators the chance to see how the student behaves in the school environment, and the chance to watch for any tendencies that the school is not prepared to work with. Paper credentials can be as important or unimportant as the administration wants them to be in the application process, but the focus remains on how effective the applicant is in developing relationships with the students.

Unfortunately, in this era of mass public education and mass services, dictated to by distant legislators, and emphasizing the economies of scale, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to develop a relationship-based school culture. The importance of fostering school relationships is one of the main reasons the best emotional growth/ therapeutic schools and programs are small, usually with fewer than 200 students. The de-emphasizing of the importance of relationship building in favor of mass administration is also a major reason public education, as it is now constituted, will continue to struggle with bullying, alienated students and high drop-out rates. Those problems will decrease only when schools learn how to build school communities that foster relationships.

Copyright © 2005, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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