Blog Post

Relational Leadership Convening: Connection and Transformation in Healthcare

November 29, 2023
Intend Health Strategies Blog
Relational Leadership Convening: Connection and Transformation in Healthcare

The inaugural Relational Leadership (RL) Convening was an exhilarating experience, leaving those who attended filled with hope and a determination to continue to create positive change in healthcare. We welcomed more than 100 attendees, with 45+ presenters and 35 sessions, for two-and-a-half days of connection, collaboration, and transformation.

Through all-community conversations, workshops, and learning exchanges, we learned and shared, revitalizing our commitment to work toward a more human-centered healthcare ecosystem. Learn the story of RLConvening - watch the video:

“The RLConvening is really around movement-building and the acknowledgment that we're at the very early stages of a relational movement in health care. The kindred spirits need to get together and share ideas, share best practices, and really start collaborating.”
— Andrew Morris-Singer, MD, founder and chair, Intend Health Strategies.

So many insights, gems of connection, and memorable moments emerged from our time together, and here are just a few highlights. Editor’s note: affiliations for speakers cited are at the end of this article.

The Power of Connection

The theme of RLConvening was the power of connection, with the thread of story — the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now — woven throughout.

Alexander Mansour illuminated the significance of storytelling in our collective journey. Building on Matt Lewis's insights from the previous evening, Alexander delved into the triad of head, heart, and hands — the intellectual, emotional, and practical facets of our work. He said, “We focus on the what and the how, but what often gets lost is the why, the heart. We access the why through stories, the stories that tie us to our core values, our purpose, our motivations. Stories are the vehicle for sharing those with others.” Stories are not just anecdotes; they are the threads binding us into a tapestry of shared purpose.

In her opening remarks, Sarah Smithson set the stage with infectious enthusiasm. A primary care doctor by training, Sarah wove a tale of personal awakening — one sparked by a patient encounter that transcended the clinical norm. Her introspection led her to grapple with burnout and the nuanced challenges of patient care coordination. Her narrative unfolded against the backdrop of her evolving identity as a healer, doctor, and mother.

Sarah's poignant story underscored the power of one-to-one relationships, emphasizing their role as the linchpin for both personal wellbeing and systemic change. Her call to action resonated, challenging each participant to reflect on their impactful connections and consider the transformative potential embedded within the spaces between individuals.

Fractals: The Small Becomes the Large

In closing out day one, speaker Brian Park described how he was inspired by a walk that morning, where he stumbled upon a group of ferns in a nearby park. Explaining that “ferns are fractals, shapes that are repeated so that the small becomes the medium that becomes the large,” Park noted that fractals show up in nature; they are everywhere. There are social fractals that show up in relationships, he said, and shared a quote:

“What we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.”
— adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

Krisda Chaiyachati echoed this during Wednesday’s All-Community Conversation, noting that “small choices have big impacts” as he described his journey with Intend Health and how it has grown into a strategy for creating change. During the same conversation, Alice Schenall spoke about her work in public health and how Relational Leadership practices have helped bridge gaps, create safety, and address health equity issues. She described how making connections between a team at a community-based organization and state officials led to a shift in small “p” policy, and how small changes can create larger transformation.

Meg Zomorodi shared her experiences applying Relational Leadership practices in education and during the COVID-19 pandemic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasizing the power of storytelling to connect with others. What began as an effort to connect and move forward during the pandemic became the COVID Carolina Student Services Corps, growing from 300 pre-health student members at the beginning to 1,800 students, who delivered 34,000 hours of service to their community.

In later remarks, Christina Kelly reminded us that “Relational habits can be those small steps that change into those big impacts. And it happens that way by doing these small things just a little bit better each day, which then turn into habits, which then turn into systems, which then turn into a culture, and then it is muscle memory.”

Humans in Dialogue

In their captivating “Humans in Dialogue” conversation at the beginning of day two, Justin Bullock and Will Bynum shared personal experiences exploring the relationship between shame, identity safety, and human connection. Justin described the three pillars of identity safety and the interconnected concepts of power, identity, and vulnerability, sharing his own experiences as a Black, gay man with bipolar disorder.

Will underscored the significance of addressing shame to nurture belonging and agency in relationships, introducing the concept of "shame competence" as the key to engaging with shame constructively. Will and Justin further discussed the distributed nature of shame, occurring at individual, interpersonal, organizational, and societal levels, as well as the transforming of structures perpetuating shame. Will reflected on the transformative power of shame competence, leading to enhanced empathy, support, and the creation of relational cultures. The conversation highlighted the potential for growth and connection when individuals navigate shame in a constructive and compassionate manner. As Will eloquently put it:

"[Navigating shame in this manner] lets us walk through our lives in a more connected way, thinking about all the growth, inspiration, and connection that comes next."

Community as Medicine

Elizabeth Markle led an interactive and experiential keynote, “Community as Medicine.” This was a joyful, high-vitality, heartfelt, playful, and dynamic exploration of physical, emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing in the healthcare context. With Liz’s encouragement, we danced around the room like eighth-graders, connected one-on-one based on shared values around seemingly general topics that gave rise to deep conversations, and considered small, specific actions to take to care for ourselves. She concluded the experience with:

“Truth plus desire gets us to vitality, plus compassion gets us to wisdom. But even wisdom can be this sort of mountaintop moment that's gone the minute you fly home from the conference — unless it's paired with committed action, which is what we're doing here, because committed actions become our habits.”

A Commitment to Taking Action

While it was wonderful to feel so reinvigorated and inspired, we were reminded that, to maintain momentum, taking action after the convening was essential. In her closing remarks, Jane Cooper-Driver asked participants to identify five things that they were going to do when they return to their homes and workspaces, so that the work and the collaboration that took place at RLConvening would continue. This call to action echoed Brian Park’s observation that “the small becomes the large,” and a key takeaway was that by creating relational habits — small, consistent actions that lead to cultural change — we can create great and lasting transformation.

"This was one of the rare conferences that led to further connections after the event. This is how we build a new way of leading healthcare! Great job, all!"
— Dawn Ellison, MD, CPC, President, Influencing Healthcare, LLC
"I left feeling so hopeful that there is a strong foundation, because of Intend Health, that the values being acted on to move forward are in place, flourishing, and spread out across the US, from Oregon to North Carolina, Massachusetts to Utah, and so many other places, as well."
— Toby Adelman PhD, RN
Speakers Cited:
  • Justin Bullock, Nephrology Fellow, University of Washington School of Medicine
  • Will Bynum, Program Director, Family Medicine Residency, Duke University School of Medicine
  • Krisda Chaiyachati. Senior Medical Director of Care Delivery, Verily Inc.; Board Member, Intend Health Strategies
  • Jane Cooper-Driver, Chief Program Officer, Intend Health Strategies
  • Christina Kelly, Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences
  • Alexander Mansour, Director, Relational Leadership Institute, Oregon Health & Science University
  • Elizabeth Markle, Co-founder, Open Source Wellness,
  • Brian Park, Assistant Professor, Oregon Health & Science University Department of Family Medicine; Founding Director, RELATE Lab
  • Alice Schenall, Director, Cross-Sector Leadership and Facilitation, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
  • Sarah Smithson, Vice President of Partnerships, Intend Health Strategies
  • Meg Zomorodi, Assistant Provost for Interprofessional Education and Practice, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Experience the energy of this amazing gathering — watch the video and read the recap!

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