The Power of Building Relationships

Cultural Humility and relationships

How do we undertake such important work with others and maintain the posture of humility? As my colleagues and I have continued our study of the framework of cultural humility, we have identified several core themes which have shaped the way we do our work in Kenya.  The first core theme is building relationships.  As Liegenfelter and Mayers wrote: “The key for successful personal relationships and ministry is to understand and accept others as having a viewpoint as worthy of consideration as our own” (as cited in Cross-cultural servanthood, by Duane Elmer, 2006, p. 125).

One of the core values of cultural humility is that of relationship building. The start to any successful work or ministry must first be built on this important value. Without honest and trusted relationships, it is difficult to begin, much less carry out or sustain effective programs or ministry. Effective relationship building through the lens of cultural humility in cross-cultural settings says to the other person or groups:

  • You are made in the image of God and you have value
  • Your opinion matters and is important
  • I want to hear your voice
  • I want to learn from you
  • Your experiences are important to this process
  • Your expertise is needed in this work or ministry

Too often from a western viewpoint, we seek to get things done as quickly as possible. We have an agenda, mainly our agenda. We want to be efficient in our work and make progress.  In developing world cultures, it is the person that matters first before the process. In other words, people matter first. Relationship building is intentional and takes time.  It is important to learn people’s names (even pronouncing the names correctly), learn the culture, and basic words in the language.  This also means we must listen to the people, treat them as equals, eat with them, pray with them, stay where they are staying, fellowship with them, learn with them, walk the road with them, learn to love them as Jesus loves them, and find ways to connect with them in meaningful and authentic ways. Only after we are intentionally building ongoing and trusted relationships, can we enter into meaningful work and ministry together.

My institution has a two-word phrase that drives our philosophy of relationships across the campus. Be known. Simple, yet profound. During one of my trips to Kenya I experienced the power of be known. We were delivering a series of professional development workshop sessions for the principals and leaders in a certain region of Kenya. Some of the participants I had recognized from previous workshops where we had been creating curriculum for peace studies in secondary schools. As I was greeting the participants of this workshop, I shook the hand of one lady and said to her: “Emily, it is good to see you again!” She froze in place with a look of amazement on her face. She then began to cry. She said: “you remembered my name, you remembered my name!” I replied: “of course I did! I have worked with you on the curriculum!”  We then shared a number of conversations and interactions during the rest of the workshop.  This encounter was a critical reminder for all of my work whether in the US or abroad.  People first.