13 October, 2020

I love fashion … or ‘style’ as I decided to rebrand it once I grew too old for Topshop and needed to justify to myself why I’m paying double for my clothes these days. And indulging this love, I was recently in a re-opened John Lewis, cruising the rails of ladies-wear.  My arms were slowly filling up with potential gems, when a polite voice cut through my private reverie, ‘would you like a trolley for those items madam?’. I looked about me… ‘Madam?’…all I could see were my own old Converse trainers and scruffy jeans, the voice couldn’t be talking to me. But in John Lewis of course, all the women of ladies-wear are ‘madam’. The shop assistant was extremely kind to me, I accepted the trolley with gratitude, and duly filled it!

In systemic psychotherapy practice, a distinction is made between two parts of any communication; the content of what is being said, and the relational position implied in the saying. By referring to me as ‘madam’, the woman in John Lewis positions us in a relationship; she becomes the respectful shop assistant and I become the discerning valued customer. And whatever we say to one another afterwards in our interaction falls into this relational context.

And once we notice these two parts of any communication, we can notice the powerful impacts of each. Of course, the content of the words hits us first. We can tend to think this is what is really being said. But closely behind the content, follows the hit of the relational positioning. We may or may not spot it clearly, but we certainly feel it.

In our work at MyST, young people tell us that regardless of the content of the words they hear from adults, they know very clearly when the relational communication is one of being looked down upon, pitied, disliked, feared, othered or excluded. They can also see right through those who communicate a relational position of respect, value, equality, acceptance or hope. Of course young people can see these relational messages loud and clear, we all can. The tone and implications of the relational position being enacted is often way more important to us all than the content of the words uttered. When a man on the street calls a woman he doesn’t know ‘love’, is he patronising her or showing her warm respect? It depends on the relational position they’re in. When a woman smiles at a man pushing his child’s pram around the park, is she belittling fathers as second-class or connecting with a fellow parent? It depends what relational position they’re in.

So if we want to work successfully together, before we speak, we are wise to reflect on the relational position we are in with the other person. If it is a good one, our words will probably land pretty well, even if we disagree. If it is a bad one, even the prettiest words will probably strike a bum note. It’s easy to research; in everything we hear and everything we say, we can ask ourselves what is being implied about the relational positions being constructed, and notice which communications seem to go best. And when people upset one another, we can ask whether it is always the content of their words that does the damage? Or is it sometimes that their relational positioning (real or imagined) was off beam?

So perhaps when it comes to getting along, it isn’t always what we say, but who we imagine ourselves and the other person to be when we say it. It’s relationship at the centre once again.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service