Relational Authority: An Invitation to Simply Be
For the purposes of privacy, all identifying factors have been changed or removed.
The first time I walk into Patient A’s room, the lights are off, and their head covered with a blanket. They let me come in and sit with them, but they are faced away from me. The first 5 minutes are filled with silence, and the next 5 minutes are filled with short 1–2-word answers. When this person starts to open up to me, they are angry about being hospitalized and want to leave. From what I gather, they do not have a steady support system or home life. I patiently sit with them to hear the woes of a teenager on the brink of adulthood and independence, frustrated they can’t do more for themselves. They tell me they are tired and want to sleep.
One might get the impression this patient wouldn’t want me to come back, or that they are not interested in Spiritual Care. But something tells me otherwise and I go back to visit over the next few days.
They lighten up and share more. We laugh and smile together; I hear more about their life and their stories. Over the course of their hospitalization, I see them regularly and, over time, there is a subtle but dramatic shift in our conversation. The shift is in their perception of my role: at first, I am someone they saw as “another adult telling me what to do”; slowly I become “someone that I am able to have deep conversations with.” This young person starts to seek my input.
My relationship with this patient is an example of the power of Relational Authority. Springtide Research Institute defines Relational Authority as, “a framework based on the understanding that young people often need to feel they are cared for before they can be receptive to the influence or authority of others in their lives.” I think about Patient A and the various kinds of instability they have faced in their life. The common thread that has helped them push through those difficulties? The presence of consistent relationships with those they can trust. These are the people who have continued to show up no matter the circumstance. Not only are these relationships able to provide a sense of grounding and familiarity, but they can provide the structure and stability for someone to thrive.
When Patient A first arrived at the hospital, they were at one of the lowest moments in their life—a time when seemingly all of the support systems and caring people meant to help a young adult thrive and flourish were not present. Faced with an unknown and unfamiliar future, they were now living in the world of a hospital with its own rhythm. It is this framework that allowed Patient A to see themself in a new light and path forward. As I met with Patient A, I had to figure out the balance between creating a space for them to share whatever may be on their heart or mind, and finding the openings where I could push them a little bit more at the edge of comfort to invite growth.
Relational Authority is a practice. It is not a singular set of rules and actions, it is an invitation of being that opens the opportunity for deeper connection. The five dimensions of Relational Authority are: listening, transparency, integrity, care, and expertise. While each of these are integral components on their own, the more they are used in conjunction with one another, the more powerful and transformational. As a chaplain, these are the tools that I use on a daily basis to engage with the youth at my hospital. More often than not, I only see them once or twice, and I don’t expect to have a “meaningful” or “deep” conversation from the get go. The more that I am able to practice Relational Authority, the greater likelihood that I might be invited into the room for a second or third visit. I believe the reason that Relational Authority is such a powerful tool is that it invites the person I am talking to lead the conversation and bring themselves to the conversation as they are. Many young people expect adults to have an agenda when they come for a conversation. Relational Authority is the opposite by allowing our relationship with one another to be the center.
Chaplain Seher Siddiqee is a pediatric staff chaplain at a hospital in Oakland, CA and a member of the Springtide Research Advisory Board.