Qualities of Authentic Relationships across Differences

Michigan State University Extension staff members share suggestions for building and sustaining relationships across differences.

Building, nurturing and sustaining healthy relationships is hard work. And developing trust, an essential aspect of healthy relationships, is particularly difficult across human differences due to the complexity of our target and non-target group identities within the historic and current context of racism, sexism and other systems of oppression.

Michigan State University Extension staff members, Karen Pace and Dionardo Pizaña, have taught extensively about the importance of relationship building and have written a piece titled Qualities of Authentic Relationships across Differences. They explain that these are examples of qualities that have been extremely important to their own learning and growth and their ability to develop, nurture, navigate and sustain an authentic relationship across differences for many years. The qualities include:

  • Willingness and eagerness to be challenged. I understand that out of the challenge comes a deeper understanding of my privileges and the continued work that I must do to remain in an authentic relationship.
  • Willingness to not be in a place of denial and resistance. I know that denial and resistance maintain power and pain and serve only to block the growth and understanding of myself and others.
  • Willingness to look first at myself when feelings of mad, sad or scared surface. When these emotions surface, I ask myself first what is going on with me rather than becoming defensive, judgmental or critical of others. I focus on what my feelings are telling me about what I need. I communicate my feelings and needs with the goal of staying in right-relationship with others.
  • Willingness to remain humble. I don’t know what I don’t know – and I will never know everything. It’s particularly important to remain humble when I’m operating from my non-target group experience.
  • Willingness to recognize and own my places of privilege. I am clear that authenticity in relationships cannot happen if I do not confront my privileges, own them and work at using them differently – from a place of empowerment rather than guilt or shame.
  • Willingness to engage in a healing process around my target group experience. I understand that I cannot be an effective ally from my dominant or non-target group experience if I am not engaged in healing processes around my own painful target group experiences.
  • Willingness to avoid "hierarchy of oppression" debates. I understand that oppression exists in many forms and at many levels. I resist the temptation to try to convince others that “my pain is greater than your pain.” I work toward unveiling the interconnectedness of “isms” (i.e., racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism) in order to create change at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels.
  • Willingness to hear the anger of target group members without taking it personally. I know that anger and rage are the understandable by-products of oppression. I do not become defensive or take it personally when people in target groups need to talk about their anger and pain in powerful ways.
  • Willingness to be compassionate with myself and others. I understand that I am no good to myself or others if my existence is centered in guilt, shame and anger. Compassion for myself – while owning my points of privilege and power – will allow me to provide the same for others.
  • Willingness to be patient with myself and others. I am keenly aware that multicultural growth and change are slow and sometimes painful processes. I remain committed to my own learning and change process, and resist the urge to give up on myself or others when “the going gets rough.”
  • Willingness to be on the journey of growth, learning and change for life. I understand that authenticity is not a one time conversation or interaction. I put myself in places that provide ongoing and lifetime opportunities for continued growth. I am committed to being “under construction” and de-construction for a lifetime.
  • Willingness to be an active listener even when I am not ready to hear. I appreciate that active listening assists in my personal understanding, growth and learning. As I listen, I am open to accepting “gifts” from others even though they may not be gift-wrapped in ways that are most familiar or comfortable to me.
  • Willingness to remain in relationship. I realize that most of us are not practiced or proficient in authentic relationship-building because of the pain of oppression in our lives. This is not a prescriptive process. It is fluid, continually open for redefinition, nurtured, open to tension and designed to create sustainability.
  •  Willingness to be honest and trusting. I understand that I need to work very hard and over time to build trust and honesty in relationships across differences. Oppression and “isms” have not supported the development or presence of either of these relational characteristics.
  • Willingness to be grounded in integrity. I know that I am only as good as my words and actions. Being an individual of integrity will lead to building and sustaining trust.
  • Willingness to maintain a relationship grounded in safety and healing. I fully understand that this is not an easy process and that there are times when I need to be aware of my personal and spiritual safety. I am also aware of what I need to heal myself as I unveil realities which redefine my world and which challenge my power and privilege – or lack thereof. A commitment to a healing process assists in my ability to continue to be fully present in authentic relationships.
  • Willingness to understand the power of language. I know that language is a primary way in which we communicate our thoughts and ideas – and that language has been influenced by racism, sexism and systems of dominance that contain inherent biases, prejudices and power. I am open to understanding and unraveling my use and misuse of language.
  • Willingness to focus on the impact of my words and actions rather than my intentions. Well-intentioned racists and sexists are simply that – racists and sexists. Focusing on the impact of my actions rather than the intentions, allows me to challenge my points of privilege and work toward more meaningful and authentic relationships across difference.
  • Willingness to express and nurture humor. Humor can be a uniting and healing force. It can provide levity in times of deep emotions.
  • Willingness to allow each other wholeness in spirit. A solidifying force in any authentic relationship is the ability to allow those to bring the wholeness of everything they are into the relationship. It is through this act of non-judgmental acceptance that healing can take place and social change is possible.
  • Willingness to be comfortable with unfinished conversations. Authenticity will occur if individuals are willing to be in intentional, purposeful and intimate dialog which is ongoing and very rarely “finished.” With each conversation new ground is explored, new risks are taken and deeper understanding is revealed.
  • Willingness to share and listen deeply to each other’s stories. We are made up of a multitude of stories which when told; provide insight into the depths of our souls and spirits. These stories are our lived experiences and provide the foundation of how we have walked in our world. Unveiling these stories with others provides a keen insight into who we are, our world view and a point of healing to move us forward on our journey toward wholeness of spirit and positive social change.
  • Willingness to hold both joy and pain in relationship. I am clear that authentic relationship-building across human differences brings me pain at times as we challenge each other and ourselves. I am also energized regularly by the abundant joys that come with a truly authentic relationship across race and gender differences.

Michigan State University Extension provides additional resources focused on diversity, equity and inclusion as well as other areas of social and emotional health and wellbeing

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