Relationship: learning, mutuality and emotional bonds

Picture credits: Flickr relationships by Paul G, Sourced from Flickr and reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

Relationship: learning, mutuality and emotional bonds. What is a relationship, and what special qualities are present in in community learning and development, informal education and social pedagogy? We suggest that the focus on learning, mutuality and the emotional bond between people are important features of the sorts of relationships that educators and animateurs like these are involved in.

Contents: introduction · relationship for starters · some features of relationships · relationship as a catalyst · relationships that facilitate learning · conclusion · further reading and references · links

There is, and has been, a lot of talk about relationship in informal education, social pedagogy and community learning and development. Two themes emerge with some regularity. These are:

Education for relationship. The ability to develop good and satisfying interpersonal relationships is seen as the main, or a major reason for fostering learning. This has been one of the main themes lying behind many informal educators concern with social education.

Education through relationship. Our relationships are a fundamental source of learning. By paying attention to the nature of the relationship between educators and learners, it is argued, we can make a significant difference. In particular, the quality of the relationship deeply influences the hopefulness required to remain curious and open to new experiences, and the capacity to see connections and discover meanings (Salzberger-Wittenberg et al. 1983: ix).

Here we are going to explore what we mean by ‘relationship’, some particular features of the relationships involving informal educators, relationship as a catalyst and the facilitative qualities of relationship.

Relationship for starters

Relationship is one of those words often used, but taken for granted. We ‘know’ what it means. We know relationships are important. We know relationships can be difficult. We know relationships can bring great happiness and sadness. But what actually is a relationship in the context of human behaviour?

George Goetschius and Joan Tash (1967: 137), in one of the classic texts of youth work, provide us with a good starting point: ‘A relationship is a connection between two people in which some sort of exchange takes place’. In other words, there is some sort of link between people – and it involves interaction. That connection may be something that we are born into, such as is the case with families, or it might arise out of a particular need. A classic example of the latter can be found in the marketplace. We might want to buy bread, so we look for someone who can sell us it. What is interesting about this is that the two sides have different interests (buying and selling). However, they can come together as their interests are compatible – both can be satisfied. There is advantage to both in the link. We can also see here the nature of the exchange – bread for money. At this sort of level there is at first glance very little emotion involved. As George Goetschius and Joan Tash (1967: 137) again say, a relationship ‘may be verbal, emotional, physical or intellectual, and is often all of these’. They further comment:

It may include an exchange of ideas, skills, attitudes or values, or even the exchange of things – money, tools or food. Relationships ‘happen’ at all times, in all places, in all parts of society, and in all phases of the development of individuals. We are involved in relationships all the time.

It is important to hold onto an appreciation of relationship as something everyday. However, we also need to recognize just how complex even apparently simple relationships such as buying and selling are. They entail cooperation and trust.

Building such cooperation and trust is a fundamental aspect of relationship. We have to work at them. Relationships are things people do, not just have (Duck 1999: 21). This said we should also recognize the contribution of our social instincts. As Matt Ridley (1997: 249) put it, ‘Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative’. He continues:

Humans have social instincts. They come into the world equipped with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labour… Far from being a universal feature of animal life, as Kropotkin believed, this instinctive cooperativeness is the very hallmark of humanity and what sets us apart from other animals. (Ridley 1997: 249)

To this extent, the cultivation of reciprocity, honesty and trust is less about building alien institutions and structures, than creating the conditions for their emergence. Relationships are strongly influenced by context.

Lastly, it is worth making the distinction between personal relationships and social relationships. The former are relationships between two people ‘who cannot be exchanged without changing the nature of the relationship (Duck 1999: 124). An example of this would two people who are ‘best friends’. In contrast, social relationships are where ‘two partners in an interaction could be exchanged and the relationship would be the same’ (op. cit). Here a classic example would be sales assistant and a customer in a shop. Informal educators largely work through personal relationships.

Some features of relationships

Felix P. Biestek (1961) in The Casework Relationship argues that while the many possible interpersonal relationships have similarities, each has its special features. He suggests a number of questions:

What is the purpose of the relationship? The purpose will largely determine its nature and qualities. For instance, the purpose of parent-child and the caseworker-client relationships immediately suggest many differences.

Are both parties on terms of equality, are the benefits resulting from the relationship mutual? They usually are in a friend-friend relationship but not in the teacher-pupil or leader-follower relationship.

Is there an emotional component in the relationship? It is present in the parent-child relationship but absent in the ticket-agent-traveller relationship.

Is it a professional relationship, such as physician-patient, or non-professional, as between friend-friend?

What is the normal duration of the relationship? The teacher-pupil is temporary; friend-friend may be temporary or permanent; the parent-child relationship is lifelong. (Biestek 1961: 5-6)

If we then consider these features with regard to educators (he looks at the casework relationship) then a number of interesting aspects appear. To rephrase Biestek (1961: 6), the educative relationship differs from others on a number of points. It differs from the parent-child relationship in that it is temporary, and the emotional content is not so deep and penetrating. It is unlike a friend-friend relationship in that there is not quite the same degree of mutuality and equality. This is how Biestek op cit. describes it in terms of casework:

The caseworker and the client are fundamentally equal as human beings; but in the casework situation the caseworker is the helping person, while the client is the person receiving help.

The same applies to educators. While there is some mutuality in the exchange – the educator may learn as well as the ‘learner’ – the fundamental focus of the exchange should be the learning of the student or participant.

It is also interesting to look at the emotional content of the exchange. In some teaching situations the interaction may be at an overtly intellectual level; in others an emotional component may be a necessary element for achieving the purpose of the relationship. A common mistake (and one that Biestek falls into) is thinking that teaching and educating are essentially intellectual.

Another interesting dynamic arises out the extent to which both parties are active. It could be said, for example, that arguably most doctor-patient relationships are characterized by a fair degree of passivity on the part of the patient. They are the receivers of the doctor’s services. Patients have to cooperate, but it is the skills and medicines of the doctor that do the curing (Biestek 1961: 6). In contrast, Biestek suggests, ‘In casework the client does more than merely cooperate; he is helped to help himself’. Within the literature of lifelong learning and adult education, this theme is reproduced in discussions of self-direction.

If we go down Biestek’s list when considering what informal educators do then we might conclude that:

The fundamental purpose of the relationship lies in the fostering of learning in the group or the individual that the educator is working with. There are two important elements here as we have seen. First, through the relationships people make they learn about the interests, issues or enthusiasms that have brought them together. For example, an informal educator may encourage a group to take part in an ‘adventure weekend’. As part of that experience the worker may invite them to try canoeing. Because of the relationship they have with the educator, the group is willing to try new activities. The worker may also encourage them to reflectupon the experience and to gain new understandings. Second, a significant part of the learning will be about the experience of relationships themselves. If take our example further, it is quite likely that the educator will ask people to think about the relationships in the group (if they need any encouragement!) – how they work together and treat each other, who takes leadership roles and so on. In other words, people learn about relationship through being in relationship.

There is a strong degree of equality and mutuality involved in the relationship – it should be one where people encounter each other as subjects rather than the educator seeking to act upon the other as an object. This is a point that Freire makes with some force. However, we cannot get away with the fact that as educators we do have some areas of expertise. For informal educators this may well be around the process of learning, an appreciation of the nature of human relationships and human flourishing, and in some subject areas. This is not to deny that our partners in the encounterdo not also come with expertise and understanding in particular areas. Indeed, it is important to recognize the encounter as an exchange, a dialogue.

There is a significant emotional content to the relationship. As Salzberger-Wittenberg et al. (1983) have shown, fundamental emotions are involved in learning and run through the relationships of educators and learners. Learning can be painful as well as exciting. Educators, thus, have a particular role to play in creating environments in which powerful feelings of fear and pain can be contained. Informal educators may well try to create places of sanctuary, spaces where people feel safe. One aspect of this is people having some sense that they are away from the things that cause them pain or concern. Here they need educators and the other people in the setting to treat them with respect, to be tolerant, and to give them room. An important feature of this is for educators to acknowledge people’s pain and difficulties, but not to push and prod. Sanctuary doesn’t involve sweeping issues under the carpet, but rather creating the conditions so that people can talk when they are ready. This often involves educators in treading a fine line between quietness and encouraging conversation. Often powerful feelings are contained because people feel they are with someone who is safe, who will not condemn them for the emotions they are experiencing or the things they have done. This brings us squarely to the person and disposition of the educator. As we will see below when we come to discuss Carl Rogersexploration of the core conditions for a helping or learning relationships the ‘realness’, ability to prize and accept, and capacity to appreciate what people may be feeling are of fundamental importance.

A further, key, aspect of such helping or learning relationships is the extent to which transference’ may be present. Freud argued that transference lies at the core of the therapeutic relationship but it also can be a significant part of educative relationships. In therapy it entails patients placing ‘the intense feelings associated with parents and other authority figures’ onto the therapist (Tennant 1997: 23-4).

We mean a transference of feelings on to the person of the doctor, since we do not believe that the situation in the treatment could justify the development of such feelings. We suspect, upon the contrary, that the whole readiness for these feelings is derived from elsewhere, that they were already present in the patient and, upon the opportunity offered by the analytical treatment, are transferred on to the person of the doctor. (Freud 1973: 494)

In other words, in an educative relationship all sorts of things might be ‘placed upon’ educators. They may come to represent in some way someone else who is significant to the experience of the people they are working with. Exploring how people see us educators may well give us some clues about people’s other relationships.

We need to attend to our role. Informal educators may be specially trained and paid to work with individuals and groups, or they may be an educator by virtue of the relationships they have. Parents, for example, often teach their children, or join with them in ‘learning’ conversations. This involves them in establishing and maintaining a role as an educator. However, this is often more easily said than achieved. Many professional informal educators, for example, operate in settings where they have to work very hard at being recognized first and foremost as educators. The agency may well employ them as, say, a key worker within a hostel or day centre. As such they may well be drawing upon an understanding of a role derived from social work or care management. Similar conflicts can arise within youth work, community development and other agencies. There is a further struggle in terms of working with the project participant or client. They may well come to the group or the setting not recognizing it as an educational setting. For example, they may have wanted to take part in a particular activity or interest such as a sport or some sort of creative arts. Deepening their abilities in football, say, may well be part of their agenda, but they may well not see the worker in the group as an educator. What we have here is a classic question of role. The educator is seeking to establish themselves in that role – and they need that role to be accepted by others if they are to function.

One further thing needs noting here. The behaviour that is directed at us may well derive from the way people see and experience our role, rather than the people we are. In a community group we may get abused because we ask questions about the way money is being handled. These questions can arise directly from our role with the group (as informal educators we are committed to certain valuese.g. around justice and truth, and to furthering and deepening associational life). Some of the abuse may come because of the way we ask questions (i.e. the person we are in the situation); sometimes there may be transference (see above); but often it is the role that is the issue.

For professional informal educators relationships are mostly temporary. Indeed, they can be very short – just one encounter. However, in some working situations, such as in a school, club or project the relationship may exist over a number of years.

Relationship as a catalyst

Helen Harris Perlman argues that what we call ‘relationship’ is ‘a catalyst, an enabling dynamism in the support, nurture, and freeing of people’s energies and motivations toward solving problems and using help’ (1979: 2). She is guided by two propositions. That:

The emotional bond that unifies two (or more) people around some shared concern is charged with enabling, facilitative powers.

In an increasing anomic and depersonalised world, there may be potential humanizing value in even brief and task-focused encounters between one person and another. An understanding, emphatic relationship contributes to a person’s sense of inner security and alliance with their peers. (ibid.: 2-3).

The fact that someone is prepared to ‘share’ our worries and concerns, to be with us when we are working at something can be very significant. It can reduce the feeling that we are alone and that the tasks we face are so huge. Their pleasure in our achievements or concern for our hurt can motivate us to act. Crucially, their valuing of us as people can help us to discover the worth in ourselves, and the belief that we can change things. Relationships can animate, breathe life into situations.

Relationships are obviously not all that we need. It is not at all a substitute for the opportunities and material things people need in order to flourish. But it is an essential accompanying condition, ‘because it is the nourisher and mover of the human being’s wish and will to use the resources provided and the powers within himself to fulfil his personal and social-well-being’ (Perlman 1979: 11).

Relationships that facilitate learning

Carl Rogers once wrote, ‘The facilitation of significant learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities that exist in the personal relationship between facilitator and learner’(1990: 305). He highlights three significant qualities or attitudes that facilitate learning:

Realness in the facilitator of learning. Perhaps the most basic of these essential attitudes is realness or genuineness. When the facilitator is a real person, being what she is, entering into a relationship with the learner without presenting a front or a façade, she is much more likely to be effective. This means that the feelings that she is experiencing are available to her, available to her awareness, that she is able to live these feelings, be them, and able to communicate if appropriate. It means coming into a direct personal encounter with the learner, meeting her on a person-to-person basis. It means that she is being herself, not denying herself.

Prizing, acceptance, trust. There is another attitude that stands out in those who are successful in facilitating learning… I think of it as prizing the learner, prizing her feelings, her opinions, her person. It is a caring for the learner, but a non-possessive caring. It is an acceptance of this other individual as a separate person, having worth in her own right. It is a basic trust – a belief that this other person is somehow fundamentally trustworthy… What we are describing is a prizing of the learner as an imperfect human being with many feelings, many potentialities. The facilitator’s prizing or acceptance of the learner is an operational expression of her essential confidence and trust in the capacity of the human organism.

Empathetic understanding. A further element that establishes a climate for self-initiated experiential learning is emphatic understanding. When the teacher has the ability to understand the student’s reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seems to the student, then again the likelihood of significant learning is increased…. [Students feel deeply appreciative] when they are simply understood – not evaluated, not judged, simply understood from their own point of view, not the teacher’s. (Rogers 1967)

As we have discussed elsewhere (see Carl Rogers, the core conditions and informal education) his third condition ’empathetic understanding’ does raise a number of problems. Rogers emphasizes achieving a full an understanding of the other person as is possible. Here we might argue that in conversation, the task is not so much to enter and understand the other person, as to work for understanding and commitment. This is not achieved simply by getting into the shoes of another. Conversation involves working to bring together the insights and questions of the different parties; it entails the fusion of a number of perspectives, not the entering into of one (Gadamer 1979: 271-3). However, the core conditions that Carl Rogers identifies are a very helpful starting point for considering the attitude or orientation of informal educators in relationships.


In this piece we have seen how relationship is both a medium through which informal educators work, and a state that they want to foster. Being in relationship allows us to flourish. It involves an emotional connection with another and can animate us.

Relationship is a human being’s feeling or sense of emotional bonding with another. It leaps into being like an electric current, or it emerges and develops cautiously when emotion is aroused by and invested in someone or something and that someone or something “connects back” responsively. We feel “related” when we feel at one with another (person or object) in some heartfelt way (Perlman 1979: 23)

Informal educators should not just concerned with the way in which one individual relates to another, they should also look to group and the life of the association. In other words, their concern with relationship isn’t an individual affair. It links to a concern to work so that all may share in a common life. As Richard Bernstein once put it, it is important ‘to try and try again to foster and nurture those forms of communal life in which dialogue, conversation, phronesis, practical discourse, and judgment are concretely embodied in our everyday practices’ (Bernstein 1983: 229).

Further reading and references

Biestek, F. P. (1961) The Casework Relationship, London: Unwin University Books. 149 pages. Classic exploration with an opening chapter on the essence of the casework relationship and then a discussion of what Biestek sees as the seven principles of the casework relationship: individualization, purposeful expression of feelings, controlled emotional involvement, acceptance, non-judgemental attitude, client self-determination, confidentiality.

Perlman, H. H. (1979) Relationship. The heart of helping people, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rogers (1967) ‘The interpersonal relationship in the facilitation of learning’ reprinted in H. Kirschenbaum and V. L. Henderson (eds.) (1990) The Carl Rogers Reader, London: Constable, pages 304-311.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I., Henry, G. and Osborne, E. (1983) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 155 + xii pages. One of the few books to tackle the subject at any length. Written by a group of writers attached to the Tavistock Clinic, the book examines the nature of the relationship between the student and the teacher and the emotions involved.


Bernstein, R.R. J. (1983) Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Science, hermeneutics and praxis, Oxford: Blackwell.

Buber, M. (1958) I and Thou 2e, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Translation: R. Gregory Smith.

Duck, S. (1999) Relating to Others 2e, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Gadamer, H-G. (1979) Truth and Method 2e, London: Sheed and Ward.

Goetschius, G. W. and Tash, M. J. (1967) Working with Unattached Youth. Problem, approach, method, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Perlman, H. H. (1979) Relationship. The heart of helping people, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rogers (1967) ‘The interpersonal relationship in the facilitation of learning’ reprinted in H. Kirschenbaum and V. L. Henderson (eds.) (1990) The Carl Rogers Reader, London: Constable, pages 304-311.

Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge.

Vermes, P. (1988) Buber, London: Peter Halban.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2001-12) ‘Relationship’ in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education [ Retrieved: insert date ].

Acknowledgements: Picture credits: Flickr relationships by Paul G, Sourced from Flickr and reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

© Mark K. Smith 2001-2013