Relational Literacy 101

How relational literacy can improve all of our relationships.

Posted Apr 10, 2020

Think of some of the greatest joys in your life, and also some of your deepest sorrows and frustrations. Chances are, they all have to do with relationships: finding your life partner, being toasted by your colleagues for an important achievement, the death of a dear friend (or perhaps of a beloved pet), the family member whose politics offend you, or the neighbor who refuses to turn down their music.

Now consider how, even though most of us have to learn complicated geometry that we’ll probably never need to use, we don’t get a single lesson in how to have healthy relationships.

And consider some of the most pressing problems, not only in our lives, but also in our world, such as war, poverty, sexism, racism, political polarization, widespread toxic communication, animal exploitation, and climate change. These are not problems caused by the fact that people can’t do geometry. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and to despair when we think of all these problems as separate and distinct, as having to be resolved one at a time. But they all share a common denominator: relational dysfunction, or problematic ways of relating. 

Relational literacy is the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating. And the good news is that anyone who wants to develop relational literacy, can, with awareness and the right tools. 

The good news is also that the very same principles and tools for creating healthy relationships apply to all kinds of relationships: interpersonal, intrapersonal (our relationship with ourselves), and collective (between social groups). They even apply to relationships between humans and animals, and to interactions—an interaction is basically a mini relationship, just as a relationship is essentially a series of interactions. So, the same principles and tools for healthy relating apply, whether we’re relating to a stranger on the street, to our life partner, or to the broader community or system of which we’re a part. 

In fact, if our collective level of relational literacy weren’t so low—if we weren’t still living in the relational Dark Ages—we would be much better positioned to make the kinds of choices that support a functional democracy. In a more relationally literate society, more people would recognize nonrelational (relationally dysfunctional) policies—such as those that grow, rather than mitigate, unjust power imbalances—for what they are, and withhold their support from them. More people would also recognize and reject nonrelational ways of communicating, such as those that thrive on vitriol and disinformation. Furthermore, people who challenge nonrelational systems, such as advocates for social change, would be more effective in their outreach, and the movements they represent would be less prone to infighting and therefore more empowered and impactful. 

When we develop relational literacy, we can deepen virtually all of our connections, even with those whose opinions are radically different from ours. And we automatically become a part of the solution, helping to create a kinder and healthier world for everyone. 

My new book, Getting Relationships Right, is a practical one-stop guide to building relational literacy. Download the first chapter for free here.