RDI: The Power of Relationship Skills Over Social Skills

Relationships teach us about multiple perspectives and provide the experience to show us that there is more than one right way of thinking, feeling, solving a problem and behaving.

Through relationship encounters, we see the world through another’s eyes and notice it is not identical to our own. Relationships teach us to think about the world in a relative and not absolute manner. In a relationship our actions cannot be interpreted as right or wrong. Rather, they are meaningful or not depending on how they impact the individuals involved in the relationship.

Rather than pushing a button or following a script, relationships require us to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the state of our connection to one another and make ongoing adjustments.

The essential skills of relationship differ from the typical social skills taught in classes or social skills groups. We are accustomed to thinking of social skills as teaching behaviors such as making eye contact, waiting your turn, smiling, asking good questions and similar behaviors.

Scientists refer to these as Instrumental Skills and they are mainly about getting what you need and about fitting in. Both types of skills are important, but only Relationship skills lead to the ability to have friends and intimate relationships.

Instrumental skills are applicable to situations in which people typically behave in predictable, scripted ways and when we employ them, we tend to use people like instruments to get our needs met. Relationship skills have a very different purpose. They are used when social contact is an end in itself; to create and deepen connections between people, share excitement and joy, and participate in joint creative efforts.

Relationships, like friendships and children’s play encounters occur in a rather unpredictable, non-scripted improvised manner. Flexibility and creative thinking are valued, along with remaining co-ordinated.

Related: A Relationship with My Daughter

We have found that the two types of skills require very different learning methods. This fundamental difference is the reason we developed Relationship Development Intervention.

When we teach instrumental skills we work with memorized scripts, employed in a specific manner to reach a desired endpoint. We teach people to recognize the proper context to perform a particular script, such as a lunchroom, or a supermarket. Instrumental skills are best learned in natural environments, so that you will recognize the context and connect the script with the specific setting.

They are best taught through direct instruction, social stories, behavioral shaping and modeling. The partners we choose for learning instrumental skills are typically more competent people. Often we will assign a more capable buddy to serve as a role model. The curriculum for instrumental skills involves learning a set of rules and expecting that everyone will follow them. The progression of learning entails accumulating a large repertoire of discrete scripts for as many settings as possible. Skills are selected based upon the age of the person and the daily settings he must encounter.

The reason we teach instrumental skills is to help people learn the relatively unchanging social rules that govern non-emotional interactions. Whether they are happier, experience greater enjoyment, or feel closer to another person is not the point. The main objective is to help the person cope with day-to-day problems and situations that he may face in routine situations.

Relationships do not rely on pre-selected scripts. Actions we choose to take in a relationship encounter depend heavily upon what our partner is doing at that instant. Therefore the right response will change from moment to moment. We seek out relationships to add new ideas, to integrate ideas and to collaborate and co-create. Therefore, relationship encounters are filled with novelty and variation. Because they involve the ongoing introduction of novelty, relationships interactions require constant evaluation and regulation.

We have to make sure that there is not so much variation that the interaction degenerates into confusion and chaos. But, on the other hand, if there is too little novelty and creation we lose the purpose of the encounter. The relationship becomes stilted and boring. Success requires learning to continually monitor and regulate a relationship balance of creation and predictability. It is like an ongoing juggling act, where we wish to add as many balls as possible and at the same time prevent any ball from dropping.

Because of their complexity and need for full attention, relationships skills must first be learned and mastered in simple environments. In RDI, as in typical development, the first relationship coaches should be adults, who act as both guides and participants. They function using a model that noted theorist Lev Vygotsky termed Guided Participation. Initially the best teachers are adults who act as both guides and participants. Gradually, they can lead the child on a path of learning to a point where they can manage more complex environments.

When the child is ready to work with a peer, research again clearly tells us that it is best to find someone who is at the same level of development. More competent children tend to delay the development of regulation and referencing skills that are necessary for relationship competence. They tend to inadvertently do the important evaluation and regulation “work” of the relationship for the more impaired child, leaving him or her in a highly dependent and incompetent position.

Even the best juggler will add too many balls or become distracted for a moment and the same is true with relationships. No matter how skilled we are, relationships are always becoming disconnected and so participants must learn to monitor for breakdowns and quickly effect repairs. They will not do this if more competent partners are taking care of problems for them. Relationship competence requires a careful, systematic layering of skills. They must be taught with increasing complexity carefully added. Each step we take in constructing relationship competence, serves as the scaffolding for the next step in a carefully crafted manner.

This article is an excerpt from the book, “Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children” by Steven Gutstein and Rachelle Sheely. Kingsley, Jessica Publishers; 2002


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