how do i build impactful partnerships with families?
The first aspect of living partnership focuses on how partnerships between families and helpers come about. We found the most impactful partnerships were built up through many actions and steps that make a significant difference to the relationship and what becomes possible through it. The way of building a safe relationship for learning is one example of how the study found small things with big effects to be crucial in impactful partnerships.
Effective partnerships are built up through many smaller actions and steps that make a big difference.
Seemingly small steps can still require a lot of work. Smallness relates not to the effort involved nor to significance, but to their being part of a bigger, expansive partnership-building process, and to their coupling with effects that are proportionately bigger.
The relationship underpinning an impactful partnership is not just established at the start, but is an ongoing accomplishment that changes as people work together. Building impactful partnerships is an evolving art – it changes from family to family, and over time with any one particular family.
The core of this spiral is the safe space of the relationship between helpers and families
Effort taken by helpers so that they are accepted by families has significant payoffs
Using labelled praise, considering self-care, and respecting what families see as important
Ways of prompting change that may be not be explicitly discussed as such
More obvious ways of guiding change that are openly discussed as part of the process
Just as in parent-child relationships, helpers and parents often need to address strains between them
Building on an idea expressed by a helper, we think of partnership-building in terms of a spiral. At the centre is the essence of partnership – help, challenge and possibility. The spiral indicates expansion, linking to the idea of partnership as mind-expanding, and suggests that the process is non-linear. Spirals occur often in nature and can convey both dynamic and stable, secure qualities.
“It’s the little steps that make the big changes. A lot of little steps, big changes in the end.” (Helper)
Building impactful partnership can be conceptualised as a journey along the spiral.
Building impactful partnership can be conceptualised as a journey along the spiral. Different steps progress the relationship (indicated by movement along the line), and expand possibilities (indicated by outward movement). As the relationship-building advances, the same issues may be addressed multiple times, but each time from a new relational place (indicated by the loops of the spiral around a centre). Each successful investment in the relationship has consequences for the core essence: help, challenge and vision (indicated by the lines curving back to the centre). A shift in the relationship may make help more acceptable, may elevate scope for challenge (either of parents or helpers), and can make new things possible.
This reminds us that partnership-building is not for its own sake, but serves a purpose that relates to making change happen for families.
We found many examples of small steps and actions that had big effects in terms of the partnership itself. They can be collected into these groups: working to gain acceptance; working so that families value themselves; subtle intervention; and obvious intervention.
Building impactful partnerships also involves working at the frontier of the relationship. This means not always resting in a comfortable relationship space, but always being alert to the possibilities that a new aspect of the relationship may bring about.
Key concept: partnership-building as an expansive, evolving art
Building an impactful partnership with families is not a one-off process. A relationally safe space for learning is never finished as long as the work with families continues. The process is not linear, but is expansive, meaning it is about opening up new possibilities for learning together. Describing this work as ‘evolving’ implies small steps, and as the word ‘art’ suggests it requires nuanced judgement and relational skill, rather than strict adherence to rigid protocols or sequences. See the conceiving impactful partnership overview for more.
Helpers need to earn the trust of parents, to be accepted as an intimate outsider in family life
Helpers need to earn the trust of parents, to be accepted as an intimate outsider in family life. This means someone who shares in some of the most difficult, private things, but who is not part of the family.
Gaining this trust and position takes effort and skill, and is itself an evolving art. Examples of how this is done include:
- Listening to what parents have to say
- Reflecting back to show you are listening but not judging
- Securing quick wins to show you’re there to make a difference
- Living out that you care – remembering details, bonding with the child.
In some services, acceptance work was done quite quickly, although it never finishes. In Tasmania’s Child and Family Centres, practitioners sometimes worked for months or years to help parents feel comfortable about accessing support.
“You might not like something that someone does, but you accept them because everyone does things differently. It’s helping people to not judge people as much outside in the community, and to accept people how they live differently." (Parent)
The time taken to secure acceptance should not be a barrier to families getting the help they need.
Steps relating to acceptance are contagious - small things with big effects - because they enable other aspects of partnership-building to proceed. They also nurture the essence of partnership.
helping families value themselves
Partnership-building involves helping families feel positive, capable, and that they have something important to contribute to the process
This is about helping parents feel positive and that they are capable of good things. It is also about helping parents feel they have something important and valuable to contribute to the partnership relationship itself. They are not victims being rescued, but crucial agents in a collaborative, shared journey. A mutually mind-expanding partnership is not possible if parents see themselves as passive, of limited worth, or wholly dependent in their relationship with helpers.
Many parents feel like they are failing and have low self-regard. Those who are convinced they are hopeless are unlikely to commit to the challenges that change inevitably requires.
Helping parents recognise their own value and worth is a way of revealing to parents that they are important and capable and have lots to give in the partnership. This can be done by:
- Using specific, labelled praise to reflect what parents have accomplished
- Encouraging parents to consider how they look after themselves
- Taking time to dwell in the issues that parents feel are important, even if they are not the focus of a particular service or practitioner role.
These actions show the parent that the helper respects and values them as an active partner. They also help the parent see themselves in a new light. A changing sense of how they are in a relationship with a helper can be one of the many shifting interpretations that support changing actions in a mind-expanding process.
Subtle intervention contributes to partnership-building in a gentle but not stealthy way
Subtle intervention is offered gently, but never by stealth or hidden from parents. It helps to build the relationship by effecting relevant change without confronting parents with overt challenges or strategic discussions that might feel corrective or daunting. We found that helpers usually offered subtle intervention of their own accord, drawing attention to aspects of it later on. Examples include:
- Comments that show helpers notice something about a parent’s physical or mental state – suggesting their wellbeing is as important as their child’s
- Putting a young child down on the floor for some tummy time and watching with the parent how she or he responds
- Asking parents questions that require them to think in specific ways, such as ‘What do you think he feels when you cuddle him?’
Such small, gentle steps help to build strong, purposeful partnerships that can deliver lasting positive change.
Obvious intervention is explicitly negotiated, but it may take time to build the partnership to a point of readiness for this
Some intervention is obvious in the sense that it is subject to negotiation about what to do, why, when, how, who with, and so on. It is part of what is referred to as guided or planned change in the Family Partnership Model. Not all partnerships are ‘ready’ for obvious intervention, especially right at the start. However, obvious intervention can also contribute to the relationship between helpers and parents, by explicitly working on issues that parents have said are important to them.
While other steps in building impactful partnership may work towards making obvious intervention possible, obvious intervention is itself a way of strengthening the relationship between helpers and parents.
Working through an obvious intervention can nudge the relationship along the spiral, creating new kinds of shared experiences. It moves outwardly (expands), as it means the relationship is now being used as a basis to take on new aspects of what matters to a family. It also nurtures the essence of partnership – sometimes addressing help, challenge and possibility simultaneously.
repair after rupture
When partnership relationships are strained, work needs to be done to acknowledge and repair
Many of the impactful partnership relationships we studied had moments when the relationship was strained or even broken in some way. Readers may recognise ideas of rupture and repair from descriptions of relationships between parents and children (as in the Circle of Security). Helper-parent partnerships are not impervious to ruptures, and when these happen, repair is needed. Such ruptures can arise through logistical mishaps (like when home visitors turn up at an unexpected time or when parents miss appointments), through expectations not being met, or sometimes confrontation or behaviour that is not okay. Helpers who take the lead in facilitating repair enable parents to recognise that they are important in the relationship, and that they matter to the helper.
Using the building partnership spiral to enhance your practice
The main worksheet (ready to print on A4 or A3 paper) is designed for practitioners to reflect on their practice. There is also a version that you may find helpful to use in your actual work with families - this contains the main figure and some key prompts.