The Sustainable Development Goals: The Missing Dimension
In Geneva this April, The Relational Thinking Network hosted its first Round Table Dialogue , focusing on the “missing dimension” in Social Development Goals. You can download Dr. Michael Schluter’s paper below. A report will follow soon on the conference itself.

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Relational Thinking™

Learning to think relationally is the first step towards building a more relational world.  There are three main elements to Relational Thinking™:

- learning to see public policy and personal issues through a relational lens

- changing goals, values and practices of organisations, and

- developing an analytical framework appropriate to relationships

1. A Relational Lens.  This means learning to see life from the perspective of relationships, as opposed to seeing it from the viewpoint of materialism or individualism.  Instead of assuming that income or profit should generally be the ultimate goal for personal, corporate or government decisions, we argue for relational wellbeing instead – since ultimately our relationships are what matter most in life.  Learning to think relationally calls for a Copernican revolution: instead of placing material wealth, or individual rights and freedom, at the centre of our metaphysical solar system, with all other things – including relationships – revolving around them, we place relationships at the centre, to reflect better what we ultimately value.

As an example, take the decision to buy a microwave oven: we may consider the decision financially (can I afford it?), or spatially (is there room in the kitchen?), or environmentally (how does this affect my carbon footprint?) – but what about relationally?  Having a microwave could either enhance or lower relational wellbeing in the household.  Reducing the time spent on preparing food could either permit more time for talking together over the meal, or else lead to family members eating at different times and not talking together at all.  Looking at the decision through a relational lens will bring this dimension into perspective.


2. Changed Goals. Relational Thinking™ leads to changing the priorities and goals of organisations and of nations. 

At the government level, Robert Kennedy pointed vividly to the inadequacies of using GDP to measure the quality of life in a nation [full quote].  Relational Thinking challenges the assumption of the prevailing economic paradigm that it is best to pursue economic growth at whatever social cost, and then pick up the pieces of poverty and broken families afterwards through tax and redistribution policies.  An alternative approach, which puts relational priorities first, would seek to protect families and communities while pursuing growth, and thus avoid the need for subsequent redistribution and social intervention.

Changed priorities in schools would mean no longer aiming to maximise the potential of each child, expressed in terms of economic or individual achievement.  Instead, the first priority of schools would be to ensure that by the time young people leave, they are able to relate well to others, prepared to take responsibility, ready to contribute to the wellbeing of their family and community (both local and global), and knowing what it takes to build a lifelong, committed relationship as the foundation for a new family. 

Alternative goals based on relational thinking in the criminal justice system would have far-reaching consequences.  Instead of the system aiming simply at retribution, or at rehabilitation of offenders, the primary goal would be to reconcile relationships between offenders and the victims of their crimes, permitting them to be restored into responsible membership of their community.

businesses would no longer have the primary goal of maximising “shareholder value”, at whatever cost to the other stakeholders.  Recognising that there is more to sustainability than short-term profits, a relational company would seek to maximise relational wellbeing among all the stakeholders.  Financial returns remain important, but are no longer the “bottom line”; profit would be seen as an important element in building good relationships.

For further examples, please see the Resources area of our website.


3. A framework for analysis.  The corporate world has a well developed framework and vocabulary for analysing business and finance: budgets and balance sheets, profit and loss accounts, assets and liabilities, cash flow, debt to equity ratios etc.  Managers use these every day.  But in the realm of relationships, we need fresh categories and vocabulary to allow us objectively and accurately to describe and analyse what is happening to relationships.  The following principles for analysing relationships were originally outlined in Michael Schluter And David Lee’s book, The R Factor and subsequently developed into the Relational Proximity Model™ by our partner organisation, the Relationships Foundation.  It is based on 5 key characteristics:

  • Directness considers the degree of presence in a relationship, and how that is mediated by technology (email, phone, texting etc.), time and other people.
  • Continuity: since time is the currency of relationships, continuity looks at how much time is spent on a relationship, as well as its overall length and stability.
  • Multiplexity examines the breadth of knowledge in relationships, especially of people outside work: family roles, hobbies, community involvement, past experiences.
  • Parity deals with power in relationships; differentials may exist but do they foster participation and respect, or are relationships poorer through misuse of power?
  • Commonality considers the extent to which goals and/or identity are shared; where they diverge, especially through hidden agendas, tension is created in relationships.