Counseling Today, Dignity, Development & Diversity

A relational-cultural approach to building unity and vision: Part II

Dana L. Comstock, Judy Daniels and Michael D’Andrea August 10, 2006

This article is the second in a four-part series that explores Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) and its relevance for the work which counselors do in the field. In this month’s column, we build on the issues addressed in the first part of the series by exploring several concepts central to RCT. The concepts will provide a theoretical basis that can expand counselors’ understanding of some of the key issues that are important to address in fostering revolutionary changes in the fields of counseling and psychology in general and the American Counseling Association in particular.

The first column examined how mutual empathy and connections and disconnections, as defined in RCT, impact human development. One of the primary goals of this article is to define additional RCT terms and concepts, such as the “central relational paradox,” “controlling and relational images” and “blocks to authentic relating.”

In discussing the impact that blocks to authentic relating have on people’s lives, we examine some of the ways in which various organizations, including ACA, inadvertently promote such blocks. These unintentional blocks foster exclusionary practices that undermine the full participation of individuals from marginalized and devalued groups in organizational settings. Finally, we briefly examine how RCT concepts can be used in overcoming obstacles as counselors work to create more relational and socially just practices in organizations such as ACA.

Behind the central relational paradox

The foundation of RCT, which is supported by a growing body of research, including empirical studies in neurobiology, is built upon the idea that human beings yearn for connection in all their respective developmental and relational contexts. RCT also acknowledges that in spite of our yearnings for connection, we all exercise strategies of disconnection, which is a central consideration of RCT. The tendency for people to manifest various connections and disconnections in the face of their yearning at different points in their lives is referred to as the “central relational paradox.”

The strategies people use in exercising different types of connections and disconnections with others are unique to each of us. The factors that influence people’s efforts to formulate connections and the strategies employed when disconnecting with others are influenced by a host of factors, including an individual’s converging background, familial patterns, identity markers and history of trauma, to name a few.

Disconnecting strategies can range from emotional withdrawal to physical violence to simply censoring the feelings people try to share in interpersonal interactions. While all organizations are impacted by the types of connections and disconnections individuals manifest toward one another, very few organizations utilize RCT concepts, which are intentionally aimed at promoting mutuality and authentic interactions. This column recognizes that the central relational paradox (disconnecting in spite of yearning for relationship) represents adaptive strategies that are manifested in the lives of all individuals, both inside and outside of organizational settings. We therefore emphasize the need to create greater opportunities for authentic connections and mutual empathy in a world that continues to operate from culturally stratified, exclusionary and oppressive practices. The continued perpetuation of these forms of stratification, exclusion and oppression – in our contemporary society in general and organizational settings in particular – foster what RCT theorists refer to as “power-over dynamics.”

Examining power-over relational constructs

RCT theorists assert that “power-over relational dynamics” are commonly reflected in most of the interactions we have with other people. This includes interactions with our clients, colleagues, mentors, professors, students, supervisors and leaders in our professional organizations. These power-over relational dynamics make it difficult and risky for persons in subordinate positions to express their authentic feelings about the nature of their interactions in individual, counseling and organizational settings.

While it is challenging for dominant persons in power-over positions to listen and be responsive to the thoughts, feelings and needs expressed by individuals in subordinate positions, responsiveness is essential to building relationships that reflect the mutual empathy and authenticity which are foundational to RCT. Unfortunately, many persons in dominant positions in organizational settings, much like dominant groups in the larger culture, are often unresponsive to persons in marginalized groups and backgrounds. This lack of responsivity leads to different forms of shaming and silencing. Such silencing and shaming commonly represents the dominant person’s resistance to change and an effort to maintain a particular “image” that preserves perceived levels of power within the status quo.

RCT suggests that anytime we consciously or unconsciously operate from a power-over “image,” we move out of connection with others. In doing so, people diminish their ability to realize new and transformational connections with others – connections rooted in mutual empathy and authenticity.

This dynamic plays out not only in familial interactions, friendships and client-counselor relationships but in organizational settings as well. In a broader context, RCT theorists point out that organizational growth requires the sort of courage, dialogue and constructive conflict resolution that promotes mutual empathy and interpersonal authenticity. In turn, this diminishes the power-over dynamics that underlie many of the disconnections that characterize organizational life.

RCT emphasizes that the degree of courage and safety one experiences when interacting with others in organizational settings is directly related to how much power or mutuality one experiences or expects in relationships with others. RCT theorists also note that it takes a certain type of courage and vulnerability for people to authentically express their thoughts, feelings and needs in organizational settings. This is especially true when “controlling images” are played out in interactions that maintain dominant-subordinate relational dynamics.

Controlling images

Numerous multicultural theorists, including Peggy McIntosh, bell hooks and Patricia Hill-Collins, have influenced RCT. In her book Black Feminist Thought (2000), Hill-Collins describes the notion of “controlling images,” particularly as they impact African-American women.

She suggests that the dominant cultural-racial group in the United States promotes “stereotypical images” that are used to control Black women and justify various forms of oppression related to sexism and racism. RCT posits that controlling images are utilized to perpetuate the oppression of persons in marginalized and devalued groups by maintaining power-over dynamics both in society and in organizations.

From an RCT perspective, these controlling images covertly operate to maintain and normalize the oppressive nature of cultural and social stratification that persists in our nation. Controlling images distort relational possibilities by:

  • Limiting individuals’ perceptions of who they are and what they can become in the world
  • Diminishing people’s capacity to interact in mutually empathic and authentic ways with others, especially those who are in power-over positions

RCT resists the constricting nature of controlling images and strives to stimulate more positive, healthy and egalitarian relational images and interactions in organizational settings. RCT can be used as a model for organizational transformation as persons in dominant and subordinate positions are encouraged to examine the impact that controlling images have within their specific organization. This, in turn, can help organizations learn new ways to implement intervention strategies that are intentionally aimed at nurturing mutual empathy and social inclusion.

Professional organizations such as ACA could begin this empowering collective endeavor by making time for persons in dominant and subordinate positions to:

  • Examine the different ways that power-over dynamics are perpetuated in the organization
  • Identify the different types of controlling images that help to maintain these power-over dynamics
  • Explore new ways of operating that will ameliorate the sources of resistance and disconnection, leading to new, more vibrant and more authentic relationships within ACA

What ACA can do to support RCT concepts

Counselors have a responsibility, as change agents, to promote positive changes in professional organizations such as ACA. This can be accomplished, in part, by encouraging all members of ACA to participate in the creation of a new vision for this important professional organization. As RCT advocates, we suggest the counseling profession needs a vision that is much more inclusive and holistic and includes an explicitly stated commitment to promoting multicultural counseling and social justice advocacy competencies.

The creation of such a vision needs to be guided by a heightened sense of mutual empathy and authentic interaction between all this organization’s members and leaders – and especially among those members who feel excluded from many of the decision-making processes that characterize ACA.

We further suggest that efforts to promote a greater sense of inclusion be facilitated by leaders who intentionally strive to eliminate power-over dynamics that emerge from controlling images.

ACA has a unique opportunity to take its commitment for cultural inclusivity to new organizational heights. It can use many of the RCT concepts discussed in both this column and the previous column as guidelines to create a new and more unified vision for the counseling profession.

By implementing organizational development strategies rooted in RCT concepts, ACA can serve as a model for other large professional organizations. All these organizations would benefit from effectively promoting the types of mutually empathic and authentic interpersonal interactions that lead to more democratic, inclusive and transformational changes.

Fundamentally, this would require ACA leaders to create a space in which the voices of persons who feel excluded from much of the politics and policy-making processes that characterize our professional organization could be heard. These persons should be included in future vision-building and organizational policy development processes.

ACA leaders would do well to think about implementing new RCT organizational development strategies that foster greater levels of inclusivity, mutual empathy and authenticity. These strategies should be implemented now and in preparation for the 2007 ACA Convention in Detroit, where thousands of counselors will gather to discuss the challenges we face as a professional group.

Several RCT and multicultural-social justice counseling advocates met recently with ACA President Marie Wakefield and ACA President-Elect Brian Canfield to discuss many of the ideas presented in this column. This resulted in exploring some of the practical things that could be done at the 2007 and 2008 ACA conventions to address the power-over dynamics fueled by controlling images. These images unintentionally promote exclusionary organizational practices that are not in the long-term interest of any large professional organization.

Both Marie Wakefield and Brian Canfield are to be commended for demonstrating an open-mindedness to exploring an RCT-multicultural-social justice approach to organizational development during this initial meeting. Future discussions are being planned to see how the concepts presented in this column, as well as other multicultural-social justice constructs, could be useful in building a new vision for the counseling profession and promoting a greater level of inclusivity and vibrancy in ACA.

The remaining two articles that will complete this four-part series will discuss plans to implement RCT and multicultural-social justice organizational development strategies in ACA in the future.

Note: This article is dedicated to Jean Baker Miller, the founding scholar of Relational-Cultural Theory, who died at her home in Brookline, Mass. on July 30.

Dana L. Comstock, a professor of counseling at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, is the editor of Diversity and Development: Critical Contexts That Shape Our Lives and Relationships, the first RCT-based development text. She is also featured in How Connections Heal: Stories From Relational Cultural Therapy. Direct comments or questions to dcomstock@stmarytx.edu. Judy Daniels (Jdaniels@hawaii.edu) and Michael D’Andrea (Michael@hawaii.edu) are professors in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Hawaii. Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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