Emotions in public policy
There are many versions of the story but certain elements re-occur. Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta. They left him to die in the countryside but he was found by shepherds and adopted. When he grew up Oedipus killed a stranger who turned out to be his father Laius. Oedipus then married Laius’s widow Jocasta, his mother. On discovering that she had married her son, the murderer of her husband, Jocasta committed suicide. Upon which Oedipus blinded himself with pins from his mother’s dress.
2. Emotions that disconnect
Oedipus knew he had done wrong. He killed his father, married his mother and drove her to suicide. Some response was needed. Oedipus was no psychopath. He felt shame, he was not shameless. We might speculate on his motivations but not to much avail. So much of what we are is unchosen. But once we have done something extraordinary society demands some response, an emotional response.
So much of what we are is unchosen.
Shame is an assault on the global self. It is a public matter of reputation. Shame is primitive and self-centred. One can feel ashamed about a disability, and it is common to those with eating disorders. It reflects how we think the world perceives who we are or what we have done. A typical response to shame is to hide, to exile oneself or, in the case of Oedipus, self-destruction.
Guilt is more for the individual conscience. One cannot feel guilty about a disability. Guilt is often viewed in positive terms as in ‘he admits he did wrong’, and is adaptive as in ‘he can right his wrong’. There is an acknowledgement of wrong doing. The response is exposure, to say to the world I did this, and possibly that I feel sorry for my deeds.
Blame is implicated in both shame and guilt. We seem to have a need to blame. We could speculate that the British are peculiarly effective in blaming. We want someone to be held to account for something gone wrong. Blame is a shame shifting strategy.
Alison Denham is a professor of philosophy at Oxford and Tulane.
3. Hiding away
Even in economically developed countries some young people have to deal with a weight of challenge that would sink the most capable. These are young people who have no bed to sleep in, who abuse drugs and alcohol, who get into trouble with the law, who suffer mental ill-health, and, and, and….
Even in economically developed countries some young people have to deal with a weight of challenge that would sink the most capable.
They may not be responsible for their disadvantage but they feel a social response. Sometimes it is real, sometimes not. But they feel it. They feel shame. And so they withdraw. They hide away from people and organisations that might help. They find a place that they describe as ‘rock bottom’, a place where they cannot be hurt anymore.
Many people reach forward to help. Too many doing so express pity, they place a metaphorical arm around the shoulder that exudes the sentiment that everything will be alright. Young people are highly attuned to pity, and recoil from it. It accelerates their disconnection.
But that which chases young people away from the help they need also has the potential to raise money for those who want to help, a theme Bruna Seu will pick up on in the next post.
4. Guilt and money
Guilt, shame and pity are highly effective fund-raising strategies. Non-governmental organisations know that citizens of the global North, who feel guilty about their own well-being in comparison to the suffering in the global South, will make amends by sending money. This also applies to suffering in the UK. ’Skip lunch, save a child’ the highly successful Save the Children campaign raised millions for needy UK children living in poverty. This stimulus-response mechanism has become ubiquitous.
In the absence of such action people feel they have been manipulated into giving money, so they get angry and resentful.
But over time individual donors reflect. Guilt demands morally significant actions. In the absence of such action people feel they have been manipulated into giving money, so they get angry and resentful. Worse, the Pavlovian response of sending money to salve a guilt created out of images of suffering that dehumanise, reinforces stereotypes about hapless and helpless Others. It also evokes pity.
These constructions of the suffering Other build up in social sediment — for example, the ‘Africa thing’ as focus group participants call it — that becomes difficult to shift and affects people’s capacity to empathise with suffering and to take appropriate action.
In view of this, it might be worth exploring communications that evoke shame, rather than or as well as guilt. Potentially, audiences can be shamed in responding to major appeals with the thought ‘I don’t want to be the kind of person who does nothing’. They may give once, but perhaps not twice?
Next week, Kate Stanley, who has helped to transform a UK national charity reflects on reconciling the challenge of raising money to do good in a way that doesn’t make the problem worse.
Bruna Seu is a Reader in Psycho-social Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
5. Conscious and unconscious systems
Ineconomically developed nations, the social response to human suffering is often bound up in the work of public systems. These systems have a conscious and an unconscious. The conscious side we acknowledge. It has the stated objectives such as improving educational attainment, reducing crime, improving mental health. We are less keen to talk about the unconscious side, the unspoken but as powerful aspects of their activity. I recently chaired a workshop at a NSPCC conference and several members of the audience, some leaders or workers in public systems, talked of the ‘war against abuse’, a good illustration of the unconscious. There is no explicit government or local government policy about going to war against abuse but the construction of child protection systems allows such a war to rage. It positions we the good guys against them the bad guys. It invokes emotion, especially the emotions of guilt, shame and blame we have talked about here.
A conscious engagement makes it possible not only to build but also to sustain healthy human relationships.
Much of my work has been focused on building a more relational approach to social issues. I have found that systems suck the sustenance out of relational work. They don’t do this consciously. It happens without thinking. A conscious engagement makes it possible not only to build but also to sustain healthy human relationships. Teams I set up with Participle in the early 2000s continue to flourish today, with lower sickness and greater staff retention than comparable contexts.
Hilary Cottam is an innovator and protagonist for relational social policy.
6. Blame and meta-blame
I understand the roots of the unconscious parts of the child protection system, the invocation of a ‘war against abuse’ that Hilary Cottam mentioned in the last intervention. In child protection, blame seems to be the dominant emotion. Blame guides so many decisions about the best interests of the child. When things go wrong — and many things have gone wrong in efforts to protect children from maltreatment — public systems focus on procedure and compliance. When this fails a sort of ‘meta-blame’ starts, a collective jerk of the societal knee that indicates that it is all the fault of useless social workers or lazy governments or both.
Josh MacAlister is CEO of Frontline, bringing innovation to social work training.
7. Shaming, blaming and missing the point
Police officers are always being told they are falling short. A problem is identified, for example policing of modern slavery. A senior officer might be publicly blamed for shortcomings by a select committee. The police are told they are not doing it right. They are told they have a problem to fix. So they ‘fix it’ by concentrating energy and resources on that one specific topic. Then another problem comes along, with another dose of blame and shame. But the underlying systematic issues that lead these problems to emerge are never addressed.
Rachel Tuffin is Director of Knowledge, Research and Education at the College of Policing.
8. Manageable emotions
Edward: I want to bring the conversation back to emotions. There is a philosophy of emotion. Some of it focuses on the comparison of the emotions. Does shame trump guilt? I am not sure how helpful these comparisons are. Better perhaps is the way we philosophers talk also about whether an emotion is constructive in form -leading to something good- or destructive -leading to something bad. I take away from the previous discussion Bruna Seu’s idea of manageable and unmanageable emotions. If it is unmanageable or overwhelming, any emotion, shame, guilt, blame, anger, fear… will be a problem.
Much of this depends also on whether emotions are digestible in the context in which they occur.
Rachel: Fairbairn’s moral defence argument in the context of victims of abuse also demonstrates how emotions can be either a force for good or ill. Victims of maltreatment see themselves as deserving blame because it recovers agency. Bruna says that guilt without morally significant actions produces anger and resentment. We can only know how an emotion will play out in situ, in the actual relationship. We have a measure for more or less everything but we don’t have a measure of constructive human relationships.
Edward: Much of this depends also on whether emotions are digestible in the context in which they occur. I might feel shame, I might perceive pity in the support offered by another, but if I am in a context that I understand and over which I have some control — or if I get the right quality of support from others — I can digest and manage those emotions, and then go on to do something with them. If I am overwhelmed with stress or fuddled by drugs or alcohol I cannot. If I am feeling shame, guilt and pity, can I distinguish between them? And if I cannot will I be able to manage the emotions?
Edward Harcourt, professor of philosophy at Oxford and Rachel Tuffin, Director of Knowledge, Research and Education at the College of Policing.
9. More Manageable Emotions
Bruna: I always struggle to separate emotions from reason, the heart and from the mind. Meaningful understanding facilitates the processing of emotions thus making them more manageable. But understanding is always emotionally charged. So emotion and cognition are intertwined and inform each other in ways that can potentially both foster and hinder connectedness. Later on in the conversation I will say something about the ‘3M’ model that in some ways addresses this challenge.
Rachel: Time must play its part in the nature of the emotional response. An emotion that is manageable in the long-term may not be so in the short-term, and vice-versa. Responding to terrible events is often marked by a rush of emotion followed by a rational phase.
Edward: Deci and Ryan’s work with diabetics used money to encourage compliance to a drug regime but early positive results evaporated over time, maybe because the importance of the compliance was overshadowed by the financial reward. So perhaps it is no surprise that if you try to incentivise people to give money to charity by saying ‘if you don’t, you will feel guilty’, you wont succeed, because you are signalling that helping people matters less than avoiding the nuisance of guilt.
Bruna Seu from Birkbeck, University of London, Rachel Tuffin, from the College of Policing and Edward Harcourt from Oxford.
10. Cognition and Agency
Rebeca: There is a cross over between the way emotions play out in raising money for NGOs and in the resolution of challenges in people’s lives. Bringing it back to the latter, the Inquiry we facilitated for the LankellyChase Foundation (reported on their website) emphasised the place of relationships in freeing up space to think, or widening cognitive bandwidth as people say these days. The young people leading this Inquiry, all of whom had faced great adversity in their lives, talked about the way relationships caused them to reflect ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, that they began to wonder whether they should continue be homeless or continue to take drugs. Or they might ask themselves ‘what’s the good of skipping school?’ Thinking about the alternative course of action is not the same as acting upon it. But the very act of wondering about homelessness, drugs or skipping school is a step in the recovery of agency. To paraphrase the young people, collectively they said ‘I was exposed to all kinds of horrible things when I was young but I took the decision to do drugs, to steal things, to sofa surf. And I will be the one to decide to stop doing drugs, stealing and dossing around’. The Inquiry led us to hypothesise that a healthy relationship led to a change in cognition which led to different kinds of decisions and possibly better outcomes. Reflecting on this conversation I can see how the cognition part could be making some of the unmanageable emotions manageable.
Penny: And I wonder who is most effective at the kind of relationship that provides the catalyst for the changes Rebeca describes. Of course there is great work taking place by practitioners in public systems, social workers, psychologists, youth justice workers. But some of the most responsive people, those with what we call relational capability, are not professional, not trained.
Rebeca Sandu is a curator of RatioTalks and working at Ratio and Penny Mansfield, Director of One Plus One, the relationship charity.
11. The Paradox of Shame
All other things being equal, most people would rather not experience guilt or shame, and the same goes for most ‘negative emotions’. We experience them not because we seek them out for their own sakes, but because they are our unavoidable responses to some of what life serves up. But even granted all that, guilt and shame get a very mixed press: some people describe them as ‘pathological’, others say that we’ve got something wrong with us if we don’t feel them. Can both be right?
Unfortunately people don’t seem able to agree which is the good one and which the bad one, a sign that assigning either into the pathological category is a mistake.
One way to accommodate both sets of thoughts is to say that one of these emotions is per se pathological and the other per se healthy. But is guilt the bad guy, because it’s a backward-looking and thus pointless form of self-punishment — contrast the ‘do better next time’ message of shame? Or is shame the bad guy, because — like a jeering mob — it merely expresses other’s evaluations, unlike (good) guilt which expresses one’s evaluation of oneself? Or because shame condemns the whole person, in contrast to the scalpel-like act-by-act operation of guilt, which targets one’s bad acts and leaves the rest of oneself untouched?
Unfortunately people don’t seem able to agree which is the good one and which the bad one, a sign that assigning either into the pathological category is a mistake. Both come in exaggerated forms and thus take in more than is their proper target; both come in alienated forms, that is, express judgments on oneself that are not fully one’s own. But both come in healthy and constructive forms too.
Another way to explaining the difference between those forms of shame and guilt that are healthy and constructive and those that aren’t — though surely not the only one — is to think about whether an emotion or experience is digestible. I take this idea from the Kleinian tradition in psychoanalysis and especially from the British Kleinian Wilfred Bion and his followers.
We can say that someone suffering from PTSD might be said to be affected by past experiences but unable (as yet) to digest them, because they keep returning in the form of flashbacks. That the sufferer hasn’t yet got to the point where he can just forget about them, still less voluntarily recall them, reflect on them, and experience sadness or relief about what happened. People can vary greatly in their capacity to digest experiences. Positive emotions — like excitement — are as hard to digest as negative emotions.
We can help others to digest emotions by, for example, offering them ways to put the emotions into words. This could be a matter of naming the emotions themselves, but it could also be about describing what happened in an emotionally inflected (as opposed to, say, a dismissive) way, and this needn’t involve the use of emotion-words. When this doesn’t happen, both shame and guilt can be very destructive — as much because of the lengths people will go to in order to hide way from them as because of the destructive effects of the emotions themselves.
Edward Harcourt is a professor of philosophy at Oxford.
12. The Paradox of Shame
In The Sovereignty of the Good, Iris Murdoch explored the power of our ‘ideas of perfection’ embodied in our moral, social and aesthetic values. Our choices and conduct are shaped and structured by such ‘conceptions of the good’ — by our notions, for instance, of courage and liberty and strength and beauty. At the same time, these values can never be fully realised in an ordinary, imperfect human life; to love them is to love the unattainable, and to confront the imperfections of one’s own nature. As Murdoch observes, ‘Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves … Love is the tension between the imperfect soul and the magnetic perfection which is conceived of as lying beyond it.’
The shameless person is someone who lacks a moral compass altogether.
The tension Murdoch identifies is not, however, only experienced as love. It can also be the mirror in which we view our personal failings, and it is then experienced as shame. Shame is ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress’, typically caused by the consciousness that one has transgressed some internal standard — a standard to which one is held accountable not only by others, but by oneself. Normally, pain and distress are conditions we condemn and seek to avoid. However, shame also has a positive dimension and significance. To be incapable of shame is to be shameless — to have abandoned one’s ‘ideas of perfection’ altogether. Aristotle thus regarded shame as a ‘quasi-virtue’, and today its absence is recognised as pathological: the absence of shame is a primary diagnostic marker for psychopathy, narcissism and borderline personality disorder. The shameless person is someone who lacks a moral compass altogether.
This poses what might be called the paradox of shame: while basic moral agency entails a capacity for shame, the scope of shame extends far beyond the boundaries of agentive responsibility. Consider Oedipus, who did all that he possibly could to avoid the terrible deeds for which the gods had destined him. (He aimed above all not to murder his father and wed his mother). While Oedipus was clearly not ‘responsible’ for his transgressions in a forensic sense of that term, they still belonged to him, both in his own eyes and those of others. So it is unsurprising that Oedipus’ response represented the characteristic impulse of the shamed: to become invisible, to hide, to exile oneself — to retreat in ‘pain and humiliation’.
Likewise today, many in our community are born into conditions visited upon them no less forcibly, inevitably and irrevocably than Oedipus’ fated sins. Children and adolescents fail our shared ideas of perfection before they are even aware of them. They do so through inherited ‘imperfections’ of class, of race, of education, of family structure, of physical and emotional strengths, of beauty and health. Their failings are the utterly commonplace and everyday sources of shame, and of exile — an exile that is too pernicious and profound for our popular and vapid talk of a ‘lack of social inclusion’. Young people burdened in these ways live the paradox of shame: they fail innocently, yet culpably, holding themselves to account for what they are or have become — but have not done.
Alison Denham is a professor of philosophy at Oxford and Tulane.
13. Against Empathy
In the next few weeks, The R Word draws this conversation about shame, pity and guilt in public policy to a close by examining some propositions for change. One might think that empathy, our capacity to see the world through the eyes of others is a good place to start. Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy takes the opposite view. With his permission we include two extracts.
The argument against empathy isn’t that we should be selfish and immoral. It’s the opposite. It’s that if we want to be good and caring people, if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy.
If we want to be good and caring people, if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy.
Or to put it more carefully, we are better off without empathy in a certain sense. Some people use empathy as referring to everything good, as a synonym for morality and kindness and compassion. And many of the pleas that people make for more empathy just express the view that it would be better if we were nicer to one another. I agree with this!
Others think about empathy as the act of understanding other people, getting inside their heads and figuring out what they are thinking. I’m not against empathy in that sense either. Social intelligence is like any sort of intelligence and can be used as a tool for moral action. We will see, though, that this sort of “cognitive capacity” is overrated as a force for good. After all, the ability to accurately read the desires and motivations of others is a hallmark of the successful psychopath and can be used for cruelty and exploitation.
The notion of empathy that I’m most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel -experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the term. But I should stress that nothing rests on the word itself. If you’d like to use it in a broader way, to refer to our capacity for caring and love and goodness, or in a narrower way, to refer to the capacity to understand others, well, that’s fine. For you, I’m not against empathy. You should then think of my arguments as bearing on a psychological process that many people -but not you- think of as empathy.
The idea I explore in the book is that the act of feeling what you think others are feeling -whatever one chooses to call this- is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good. From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without it.
Many people see this as an unlikely claim. Empathy in this sense is a capacity that many people believe to be vitally important. It is often said that the rich don’t make the effort to appreciate what it is like to be poor, and if they did we would have more equality and social justice. When there are shootings of unarmed black men, commentators on the left argue that the police don’t have enough empathy for black teenagers, while those on the right argue that the critics of the police don’t have enough empathy for what it’s like to work as a police officer, having to face difficult and stressful situations. It’s said that whites don’t have enough empathy for blacks and that men don’t have enough empathy for women. Many commentators would agree with Barack Obama that the clash between Israelis and Palestinians will only end when those on each side “learn to stand in each other’s shoes”.
I think this is mistaken. The problems we face a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy. Actually, they often due to too much of it.
Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favouring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity towards others. It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.
Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at Yale. This is an extract from his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion currently available, as they say, in all good bookshops.
14. For Symmetry
There are numerous cases where you want someone to feel as you do, where you want them to feel empathetic toward you. Adam Smith’s calm friend might want his agitated buddy to catch some of his calmness. Other examples range from the religious (If only you could know, as I do, what it’s like to be loved by God), to sexual (I wish you could know how good that feels), to the mundane (Dude, you just have to try these tacos — they’re awesome!).
It’s not all positive feelings, though. Often we want others to feel our pain. After all, we know that feeling empathy for an individual makes you more likely to help them. So if I’m suffering and I want your help, I can try to evoke your empathy. There is some risk here, though. You have to hit a sweet spot because too much empathy can be paralyzing. Someone who might otherwise have helped me feel my pain, might find it too much to bear, and walk away.
There is another, very different reason to want others to feel your pain. When people who are wronged describe their feelings towards those who harmed them, they often say that they want them to suffer, but sometimes they say something more precise -they want the wrongdoer to feel the same pain as the victim.
In On Apology, Aaron Lazare offers a similar sentiment: “what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offence and redirect it to yourself”.
Why an “exchange” of shame? It’s unsatisfying having someone who has victimised you feel no pain at all, but it’s also not enough for that person to feel pain of a sort that’s unrelated to the victimization -ideally, the sexual harasser should feel what it’s like to be the victim of sexual harassment. If he suffers because his child falls ill or his house burns down, it might be satisfying, but it’s not quite the same.
Empathy allows for a perfect eye-for-an-eye correspondence, where the perpetrator experiences the very same suffering as the victim.
Why is this symmetry so important? One consideration is the connection between understand and experience. The victim might believe both that a sincere apology requires the perpetrator understanding what he or she did wrong …. and that truly understanding what one did wrong requires having the experience yourself.
Then there is the wish to restore balance. An apology involves an acknowledgment that it is acceptable to harm someone without just cause. For this to work, it has to be somehow costly; you need to know that the person means it, so some suffering is needed. Empathy allows for a perfect eye-for-an-eye correspondence, where the perpetrator experiences the very same suffering as the victim.
Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at Yale. This is an extract from his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion currently available in all good bookshops.
15. Shame, guilt and connectedness
Let us look at this another way. Could shame and guilt play a role in fostering longer term connectedness with humanitarian issues? Much of this conversation shows that shame makes people withdraw and hide, and guilt prompts us into reparative action. Both emotions regulate social relations and the boundaries between self and other.
So far so good. But I suggest we leave aside for a moment the negative effects of shame and guilt and concentrate instead on the triangle of actors in humanitarian aid — the sufferer, the member of the public who wants to help and the NGOs that want to connect the two. What can we learn from these social relationships?
We found that guilt-motivated donations simultaneously reproduce the positions of generous giver in the North and grateful receiver in the South.
Inevitably, these relationships are complicated by the historical ties between the global North and global South, by the history of colonisation, by the continuing power differences. In the North we are aware of these ties, we are self-conscious about them, and we frequently feel guilty about them. As much was clear from our research into public responses to humanitarian disasters reported in our book Caring in Crisis?
Giving salves the guilt. But it doesn’t last. We found that guilt-motivated donations simultaneously reproduce the positions of generous giver in the North and grateful receiver in the South. Not surprising then that, although people still respond to guilt inducing messages in emergencies, they are increasingly resentful and resistant. They come to understand that it is a transactional model, one that dehumanises donor and recipient.
So what is the alternative? People want to give, as one of the participants in our research put it, ‘blood and tears’ through a model of helping that is based on solidarity, curiosity about the other and sharing, all this to replace guilt. They are looking for morally significant actions that connect people meaningfully and creates pride, the opposite of shame.
A transactional model of humanitarian response shames both parties, trapping them in unequal and materialistic exchanges, while a relational model returns dignity and pride to the connected parties.
Bruna Seu is a Reader in Psycho-social Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Her book with Shani Orgad “Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGO’s” is published by Palgrave.
16. What Moves People to Demand Social Change: Responsibility or Obligation?
These days, campaigns for social change are likely to elicit from the public a sense of fatalism and of futility. Governments around the world are making noise about reform on issues such as immigration and mental health. But most have so far failed to make meaningful change.
To change policy in meaningful and sustainable ways, we need public support and engagement. When an issue has public will behind it, policymakers are pressured to act.
But how do we engage people, build public will, and create demand for change on stubborn issues like poverty, immigration, and climate change? Unproductive thinking about these issues appears fixed in the fabric of society.
When an issue has public will behind it, policymakers are pressured to act.
Communications science shows that we can loosen the threads, building public support for innovative solutions. This is communication for change. What does it look like?
Researchers and practitioners are thinking about this question from a variety of angles. There are people doing great work on how to correct misperceptions; scholars studying the effect of metaphor on how we think and act on social issues; researchers working on how new, fringe ideas become normalised, accepted and even expected; and others thinking about the effect of values on people’s engagement with and support for solutions to social issues.
One particularly strand of work on public will-building focuses on ideas of responsibility and obligation, and how activating these values might build public will and help move social issues forward.
Senses of personal responsibility have been found to correlate with pro-social behaviours (particularly on environmental issues). In other words, people who feel personal responsibility for an issue also tend to act positively and engage in addressing the issue. While most of this work has been at the level of correlations, it at least suggests prescriptive potential: if we can find ways of evoking personal responsibility for an issue, people may be more likely to think and act to solve the problem.
But there is more to shifting thinking and building engagement than just getting people to feel responsible. Some research suggests that the location of responsibility or obligation is significant. Research is finding that internally derived responsibility is a more positive and effective motivator than externally imposed obligation. The latter may backfire, increasing negative emotions and depressing willingness to engage.
This evidence suggests the potential of finding and tapping into people’s personal and internal senses of responsibility around issues of justice, for example, rather than activating and relying on external senses of social norms or obligation. In this way, eliciting personal responsibility seems a more effective framing strategy evoking than social obligation.
One provocative idea to consider is the difference between responsibility and obligation and whether this difference has any “frame effects” — that is, whether switching from appeals to obligation to responsibility creates significant differences in how people think, feel, and are willing to act. Much more work is needed to understand these processes.
The distinctions between obligation and responsibility remain fuzzy. As a framing researcher, where these lines lie and implications of being on one or the other side are important questions to pursue.
17. True Help is an Art: relational work in practice
We want to help others. It is a natural human instinct. But how to support change in the lives of others? Can we manage the anxiety of not intervening? Can we be courageous enough to really face the problems of others and then know when and how to act. This is Relational Work.
Amy is a “relational worker”; her role is unlike any existing role within our existing welfare services. Her core skills and modus operandi cross traditional boundaries. Health problems, troubles at school, with the law, in the family or at work, a desire to make change in any area of our lives: relational practice moves across these borders.
Amy knows how to listen, to hear the person behind the problem. She knows how to be ‘relatable,’ in other words how to be herself, to bring human warmth to every inter-action without crossing inappropriate boundaries. She also knows — and this is the most challenging bit — how to support others to make their own change. Amy does not offer sympathy, she does not solve your problems for you. But she is fully engaged in the practice of change.
I see in Amy someone who deploys with ease the basic tools of the designer; tools for visioning, to create the sticky steps towards action, to have difficult conversations, to measure progress in a way that is personally meaningful.
Relational work represents a shift in power: one that puts us the citizen in charge of the change process; one that offers the citizen the skills and support to grow capabilities and flourish.
The vital ingredients are listening and relating. This is the process that allows change to happen. Then there is the content — the core role of fostering capabilities. The process is often copied but without the nurturing of capabilities, change does not happen.
Those who manage services in the welfare state have become masterful at re-badging old practice with new labels. This is a survival tactic: when money becomes scarce, we can re-name old things so they are captured in the glow of the contemporary fashion. Whether the work is good or bad funding follows.
So let me be clear Relational work is not another name for a personal worker. Relational Work is not about changing the methods of referral, joining up services or putting the ‘patient’ at the centre. These might be important but they are not sufficient. Relational work represents a shift in power: one that puts us the citizen in charge of the change process; one that offers the citizen the skills and support to grow capabilities and flourish.
The relational workers emerged from Participle. The idea came from many sources: design, social work, teaching, and health. The training is practical. You have to learn through experience, through trial and error, through facilitating real life situations. Change is the result of a shift in power and the lack of traditional professional boundaries. It isn’t for the faint heated.
‘Aren’t you colluding?’ someone asks Amy in a workshop? It’s a good question. ‘No’, Amy, responds, ‘I know where the relationship begins and ends, we are here to help you, not me, but I can still be authentic and I can still share my personal development’. Amy knows where the boundaries are. In fact she may be colluding less than the 20th century professional who promises a cure when there is none, or falls back on sympathy when some frank talking is what it really needed.
This is a way of working without hard and fast rules. It is a way of working which might seem almost fantastical in a world where we no longer trust teachers to independently assess their pupils’ abilities and where doctors refer most of their patients with non medical symptoms on to hospital at an annual cost of over £3 billion because they are so concerned about the consequences of getting it wrong, that they no longer dare rely on their professional judgement. It is certainly a way of working that many modern managers would see as risky. However, again and again, often in almost impossible circumstances I have seen how, allowing the struggling person to define their own path, with open and kind support, allows change to happen that is meaningful and lasting.
Hilary Cottam has written Radical Help, a book on the future of The Welfare State published by Little Brown in 2018.
18. The relational capability framework: putting the heart back in public services
Relationships are a fundamental part of being human, for in relationship to others we address a profound need to give and receive love and care, security, support, and advice. Our connectedness makes us feel valued and competent, creating networks of shared values and interests.
For 40 years and more OnePlusOne has been trying to figure out how best to enable people to build relationships in the private and public realm. One result of that work is what is referred to as relational capability framework. It draws on the Capability Approach of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, which Hilary Cottam has talked about, as it has been further developed by the philosopher and ethicist Martha Nussbaum. They argue that societies and governments should promote the capabilities of individuals to live a life they value. According to Nussbaum, engaging in a relationship is one such capability. From our perspective that resonates deeply with the extensive body of research around why and how relationships matter.
The building blocks of relational capability are laid down in infancy and early childhood.
At OnePlusOne we have focused on an individual’s capacity to initiate and maintain relationships, and, the opportunity to utilise that capacity. So, our concept of relational capability differentiates between internal relational capability (the skills for making and maintaining relationships) and relational opportunity (the conditions that enable individuals to use those skills).
The building blocks of relational capability are laid down in infancy and early childhood. This is when the child develops social and cognitive capacities, such as emotional understanding, perspective taking and emotional regulation. These form the basis of internal relational capability. With these foundations in place, children are able to create the relationships that see them engage successfully, first, with those closest to them, then with others they encounter in education, the workplace and an ever-widening social world. Capability begets capability.
Relationships also sit at the heart of good public services. They underpin a meaningful and respectful engagement between client and practitioner. In this way they facilitate good outcomes. As others in this conversation have alluded, there is a growing concern that the drive for efficient, contractual models of service delivery has emphasised the transactional and undermined the quality and importance of human relationships, rendering services less able to meet the goals for which they were established.
OnePlusOne has worked with an English local authority, Essex, to address this threat. The relational capability framework sits at the heart of the collaboration. We trialled a new observational tool with a small group of practitioners, to identify opportunities for relational skill development in interactions with clients. Essentially we showed them what they did well and highlighted skills for development. Individual coaching and group workshops reinforced the learning. At the same time our partners in the Innovation Unit worked with parents, practitioners and leaders to identify and address system level barriers to relational working.
Feedback from practitioners suggests the approach is promising. They observed positive changes in their practice which, in their eyes, translated into better outcomes for parents. Time will tell if these modest results build and sustain.
There is much more to be done. Essex, like most public systems, is dealing with huge fiscal constraint and an ever-changing national policy environment that too often stands in the way of relational practice. At OnePlusOne we continue to refine our approach, including the observation tool, subjecting it to increasingly rigorous evaluation with other willing partners.
Penny Mansfield, Jenny Reynolds and Jan Mitcheson work at OnePlusOne, a charity bringing evidence about relationships to bear on policy and practice
19. Recovering Oedipus
If we are to think differently about the response to human suffering, as much of this conversation suggests, do we need also to think differently about what we are trying to achieve?
Had he lived today Oedipus would no doubt hear a professional voice suggesting post-traumatic stress disorder.
Let’s go back to Oedipus. He killed his father and his mother committed suicide, both irrevocable. He was blind. No coming back there either. He carried for the rest of his life the shame of having slept with his mother. In today’s world we might demand an outcome, or at least an output. But what outcomes would we seek for Oedipus?
Had he lived today Oedipus would no doubt hear a professional voice suggesting post-traumatic stress disorder. There would be a lot of interest in his ‘self-harming’ behaviours. And then somebody would go about fixing the problems, and measuring their success in doing do.
Would progress on either or both of these fronts alter Oedipus’s fundamental condition? I suspect not.
How would Oedipus reflect on his future, on his outcomes? One starting point might be the series of states he had experienced over his life; the extremes — a child abandoned by his parents, the patricidal, incestuous man- and the humdrum of ordinary life with its own vicissitudes, a period underachieving in school maybe, a time when he was drinking a little too much perhaps.
Armed with this knowledge, Oedipus might think less in terms of being unwell, and how to get better, and more in terms of a life of continuously changing, co-existing health and ill-health. Just as he might not think of himself as good or bad, considering instead his goodness and badness. Like all of us he would be subject to the constant internal tussle of the passions to be more good and less bad.
His condition puts me in mind also of others who have fallen spectacularly from social grace, the UK politician John Profumo, for instance, who accepted his ‘badness’, sharing his bed with women who also slept with Russian spies, and pursued a life of doing good, seeking the virtues of integrity, honesty and dignity.
One of my studies (with Beca Sandu and Beth Truesdale) focused on people whose lives had been transformed by a relationship in the way that Hilary Cottam alludes. These were people whose outcomes, in the conventional sense, were at best variable. Like us they lapsed, and recovered, then lapsed, before recovering, again and again. Like Oedipus their condition had been fundamentally altered by mind boggling circumstances. Like Profumo they sought virtue, and peace, not the things that matter to public systems like school, work and health.
As I write I think back to one of them J., once a coke sniffing, alcohol fuelled, gun toting sorter out of drug dealers’ problems, now a volunteer in the project that, as he put it, saved his life. A man who meditates two hours a day, living a few blocks away from his family so that when he is at home he can be everything to them that he wants to be. I never did get the measure of him.
Michael Little is a curator of RatioTalks and working at Ratio. The book he refers to is Bringing Everything I Am Into One Place, available here.