While everything we do is fraught with ‘relationship’, – it seems to me that the ways most of us think about that is too personal, too one-dimensional, and too cautious to support transformation. Especially in contexts where there are significant differences and exchanges of value, where there is work and an intention to shift some undesired status quo. 

Especially that status quo part, because honestly, WE are the smallest unit of status quo – of hierarchy, inequity, all the oppressive and limiting structures we need to transform. So changing the structures between us changes them beyond us. And if we can’t change them ‘in here’, we’ll be less transformational ‘out there’.

WE are also the smallest unit of Magic. Life has taught me that. All impossible-seeming things, all previously unimaginable solutions that emerge – come out of some US. 

Healing, transformation, innovation – all an US. 

So even if you couldn’t give a shit about human relationships, the beyond-human challenges you’re probably trying to address like climate change & clean water. . . still in the hands of some US. And without deepening and enhancing your understanding of that US, your effectiveness will remain some small fraction of what it could be. 

Ok – I’m either preaching to the choir here, or if blunt enough, I’ve maybe made the case for why it matters. So what do I mean by ‘too personal, too one-dimensional, and too cautious’?

Let’s start with the simple and familiar.

Representing Relationships in Online Social Networking Platforms

This might seem elementary, but bear with me a moment:

In Facebook or LinkedIn, I’d ask and you’d give permission to ‘be friends’ or ‘be linked’. We both have to agree. It would be visualized with a dot for each of us and one arrow, pointing in both directions. Like this:

Whereas in Twitter, I don’t have to ask permission – I can just ‘follow’ you whether you give me permission or not. When I follow you on Twitter, the arrow in the visualization would point only from me to you:

But of course, you can, if you choose, follow me back. Now you might think that would be visualized similar to Facebook or LinkedIn, with a single bi-directional arrow. But that would be wrong. Because each ‘follow’ is independent of the other, each one gets its own arrow. If we follow each other, there would be two arrows, like this:

So What?

So these two approaches have different implications. 

The Facebook/LinkedIn approach implies that there is one single mutually-defined relationship. That one mono-dimensional thing exists between two people. It implies a unity of experience and perhaps even intent (such as to share and know all this ongoing personal stuff).

Whereas with Twitter, it’s clear that relationships look different, depending on which partner is defining it. Even with something so small and simple as a ‘follow’, me following you is not at all the same as you following me. If I follow you on Twitter, you don’t even have to know who I am. I might be having a vivid relationship with you, while you’re experiencing NO relationship at all. These are simple examples, but fundamental to what comes next.

In the context of social network platforms – one approach isn’t better than the other. They serve different purposes. But in the context of Social System Mapping we use the Twitter-like dual arrow approach. I get to say how I understand our relationship, and you get to say how you understand it. There isn’t one mutually-agreed uniformity between us – we each have our own perspective. 

That simple fact can be confusing. People often want a ‘right’ answer, and it’s only ‘right’ if it’s mutual. The two mapped arrows also add visual clutter to an already chaotic picture, compounding the confusion. But the implications of the concept of ‘one uniformity between us’ is destructive to our understanding of ‘us’. It generates dominance.

In Social System Mapping, we surface that confusion, ambiguity and clutter by mapping it. And protecting space for different interpretations about what’s going on between us can easily become a tension, offering an opportunity to think through that discomfort and explore it with others.

About that Tension

In conversation on the subject, Motaz Attalla of the Garfield Foundation framed it this way:

There’s a subtle dramatic tension around two people reporting different connection strengths. At the surface, it evokes the universal human trope around mismatched perceptions around a relationship. I.e. “I thought we were friends” / “No we’re just work colleagues,” or “I thought we had something” / “No we’re just friends”. I’ve heard a few times people–in a social systems mapping context–jokingly express disappointment that someone they reported having a strong connection to in sumApp reported having a less strong connection to them.

Here’s the example that triggered this conversation with Motaz:

I do a lot of work with Sarah Ann Shanahan of the RE-AMP Network. We’ve made several Social System Maps together. We collaborate constantly around map design, teaching, and experimenting with new ideas around Social System Mapping.

But what that really means is that Sarah and I talk & imagine & plan a lot – and then my spouse & partner Tim Hanson implements all of the technical mapping work that we come up with. He does the excruciating data-wrangling/Kumu-settings experiments. He makes the magic we envision happen. He probably spends 3x as much time working on one of Sarah’s projects as I do, and an even greater multiple of Sarah’s time spent on them. And although Sarah knows that Tim does all the technical work, I’m the one she thinks with. 

Tim and I work with clients in this way – with me as go-between – in part because the language and assumptions of a mapping ‘Visionary’ or ‘Sensemaker’ (i.e. Sarah) are different from the language and assumptions of a mapping ‘Technician’ (i.e. Tim). They often sound the same, but their underlying meanings are far apart. So – to avoid too much time spent in misunderstandings and frustration on the parts of each of them, one of my main roles in almost every client mapping project we do is to act as interpreter.


On the particular map that prompted this discussion with Sarah, Motaz, and others – Tim (who often isn’t even ON our maps, because he’s an outside, hired, service-provider and rarely attends mapping-client events – but this instance was an exception) reported having a ‘currently collaborating’ relationship with Sarah (ranking the relationship a 4), while Sarah reported ‘knowing of’ Tim (ranking their relationship a 1), which looked like this:

Tim was a little hurt when he saw that, but it made sense to him – at that time he was spending a significant portion of his work-days on things Sarah was central to. I.e. ‘Sarah wants this. . .’, ‘Sarah and I decided that. . .’, “Sarah and I think it would be really cool if. . . .’, ‘Where are you at with Sarah’s . . .?’. She was a big piece of his daily pie, while he was a much smaller piece of hers. And even when she WAS dealing with their shared work, I was the conduit. She hardly ever actually saw or spoke with him.

Cover That Up!!

Seeing this kind of relationship differential starkly diagrammed in thick and thin arrows makes most of us uncomfortable. People will ask: ‘Can’t you just take the average of the two responses and show that?’ or ‘What if I say something different than they do?’ or ‘Is there any way we can hide that?’.

Motaz again:

While in real life this might be characterized as unrequited love/friendship, in a social systems network the strength differential in a two-way connection tells a story about the roles people play in a network and thus about the functioning of the network itself. I’m thinking of Tim’s interpretation of his and Sarah’s connection. . . So one thing a strength differential might indicate is the existence of service roles.

As an occasional fundee – receiving funding for sumApp development, I’ve realized a similar dynamic where, to me the funding amount was a huge help – it made all the difference. Whereas to the person making the funding decision, my $30,000 was a drop in the bucket compared to the millions that person dispenses annually. 

In that instance, it makes perfect sense for my ranking of the relationship to be higher than the funder’s. A reflection of our relative importance to one another’s work.

I’ve even heard of an instance where a funder didn’t want a fundee to be able to show that recipient relationship at all, due to political & security reasons. They wanted to give money but claim no relationship whatsoever.

Surfacing Different Truths Could Damage Relationships

Still on the topic of funding – it’s not uncommon for me to be in conversations where network members wish they could map money flows – who is funding who & by how much & for what – which network activities are generating income for which players, where that income is going, etc.. That’s technically not at all that complicated and would have a powerful impact. But we don’t even quite know how to handle the personal differentials yet. To be able to see differential economic flows in a simple network graph that everyone can see – that would be highly politically charged – that would be radical transparency.

We need to learn to handle this uncomfortable glimpse of these generally-hidden realities responsibly before we go blowing things up. I’d love to see it, and am trying hard to figure out HOW we might ‘handle that responsibly’, but I’m not holding my breath yet. (or, perhaps I’m just being cowardly. . .).

It’s Also About Language.

Another place I see this tension – where I myself often experience discomfort – is when we have different meanings for whatever words are being used. For instance, your ‘collaborating’ may be my ‘coordinating’ or ‘cooperating’. 

Or your perception of how significant a role I play in your work may be very different from mine in other ways than time spent or money given. We might work together, but I might undermine you in ways you would not rank as ‘collaborating’.

Given the many Social System Maps I’m in, I often have this internal debate. I could rank someone as they ranked me, even though I feel differently, so as not to hurt their feelings or contribute to them feeling less of a sense of belonging. Or I could rank them based on what’s in my heart – knowing that I have higher expectations and more demanding definitions than most.

I experience a reverse tension as well – with people with whom I’ve never done anything resembling ‘work’ (let alone documentable ‘collaboration’) – and yet, for reasons that are impossible to quantify (they ‘see’ me, they sense from a distance when I’m down & need uplifting, they comment on my blog posts & make me feel like my writing is worth the time it took), at an emotional/spiritual level they support my ability to do this work far more than many people I DO ‘collaborate’ with. I find it difficult to rank them a 2 when in my heart they’re higher than most 4s. We’re collaborating at a spiritual level which isn’t explicitly called out by the connection questions, and I don’t want to mis-lead, but I can’t report literally either. 

My symbolic presence in lots of Social System Maps has sensitized me to relationship differentials between me and others, and made me more curious about other people’s experience. It’s the first thing I tend to look for when a new map emerges. The strength differences I find reflect my relative importance in some contexts and unimportance in others. They help me see my ‘showing-up’ differently than I’d estimate it on my own (which, yes, is sometimes painful). And they help me identify – in the places where it matters (which isn’t everywhere) – where I have some work to do – either on myself, or with specific other people.

What’s Next?

Anyway – if we’re going to learn to system-shift with humans, this tension should be treated as an opportunity, a source of shared learning. Not just a discomfort to to evade & protect each other from.

In this era of dating apps, it’s kind of like someone swiping right (indicating “like”) on a person’s picture but that person swiping left (“don’t like”) on that person’s picture. Except in social systems mapping it’s different because indicating connection strength is not a blunt thumbs up or down about liking nor even a more nuanced continuum of liking more or less but rather a specific description of the nature of interaction, a description that yields valuable, actionable information about how a group of people are working together.

Noticing and exploring differentials can help us learn more about one another (and ourselves), be more ok with complexity, take things less personally, and empower one another.

And beyond ‘you and me’, there’s the network. A significant principle in any generative network is transforming relationships, as a fundamental step toward transforming the nature of the exchanges, making the ‘flows’ more generative, increasing complex reciprocity.

We can use mapping to help us see our blind spots, in conversations that – ideally – are less threatening than direct interpersonal confrontation. We can use mapping to see flows that exist beyond what a single person can be aware of. 

If we leverage the tension mapping generates to learn what’s really happening, what works, what can be done differently – we’d become more comfortable with complexity, increase our ability to see from other perspectives, and start to make small changes that can make a real difference. Plus – that magic I referred to earlier that resides between and within ‘us’ – tensions are almost always a catalytic element of that dynamic. So let’s embrace it.

Surfacing Different Truths Can Also Strengthen Relationships

It can be as simple as this: After noticing the difference between how Tim and she ranked their relationship, Sarah made a point to spend time getting to know him during the event we’d made that map for. They sat together at dinner one evening and every time I looked over at them, they were engaged, laughing, each gregariously being their own wacky & unique selves. They came away with a much deeper appreciation for one another and as a result, I feel more comfortable leaving them to work out their map design confusions w/o me having to always be in the middle. 

That frees them up to learn one another’s language and be more creative together. It frees me up to spend less time coordinating and interpreting between them (which wears out both my brain and my heart). We’ll all be a little bit more effective as a result of that bit of discomfort we experienced. While that’s not exactly magic, it lowers some of the barriers to it.

Having a map that surfaced the differential between Tim and Sarah’s experience of one another generated some really good conversation and helped shift a relationship.

And at a larger scale – where we can collectively notice ways to shift flows, intervene, support one another in complexity – how much more impactful might we become through facing and learning to explore this tension-fraught way of surfacing and representing group interactions together?

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Jim Best
Jim Best
1 year ago

Really nice point about the value of that tension built on relational difference!

It makes me think of mapping done in a Relational Coordination context where individuals in roles rate other roles they work with. For example, nurses rate the relationship of doctors to nurses at the role-role level along dimensions comprising the Relational Coordination (RC) index (do I think doctors and and nurses have shared goals, understand each others' work, have mutual respect, and communicate well?). What we often see is that when you ask doctors about nurses they rate the relationship as having high RC while nurses relate the relationship as having low RC. If the change agents have done their work properly, this kind of mapping reveals a tension to the nurses and doctors that becomes the stimulus to work on this relationship. Of course, it often threatens the doctors and they withdraw.  I've even seen management bury the results of such mapping because it was too politically sensitive. It's a fine balance of just the right amount of tension to the resilience for transformation.