Relational vs. Transactional

August 2, 2021

The following is an excerpt from Erin Okuno, (former NH board member and Executive Director of Southeast Education Coalition) published on her Fakequity blog. I thought this article was timely as we live our values (one of our core values is relationships), and do the important work of building community and increase access to housing, health, education and economic opportunity. To read this and other posts on her blog, click here.

One of the ways I try to use the Fakequity blog is to demystify or explain racial equity jargon. I remember when I was a newbie sitting in trainings and people would say something that made sense to 95% of the room and would move on. Jargon and insider phrases are a way to keep an inside game, inside – a form of power and to create a club. Hopefully, Fakequity is helping to cudgel some of that jargon.

The terms relational and transactional are somewhat self-explanatory based on their definitions, but I still consider them jargony. When we understand terms, we can identify behaviors and change them for the better – which is at the heart of racial equity work.


Let’s start with the more detrimental of the two terms. Transactional means to treat people as a transaction – something to do, something to accomplish, a checkbox sort of activity. Transactions are ways of treating people as something that needs to be done versus something connecting to someone. We don’t create a sense of belonging in transactions.

Transactions can have elements of relationship building, but they may still not be relational. As an example, as parents we often receive emails or other communications from programs or schools with instructions. These emails are important, but they aren’t meant to build relationships, they are meant to convey information – a transaction. I know as a parent I look for these since they help to keep programs running smoothly and often have helpful info. On the school end these tools are a great way to share information with large groups in a timely manner. Yet these types of communications are transactional and are not a substitute for building relationship with families on their terms.

If all our interactions with programs and schools are reduced to transactions, we have little incentive to personally invest in the school or program. If we’re not invested it is harder to push programs to do better and to expose blind spots, share information, and ultimately bring about change.

Transactional interactions can also be power-plays. Such as hoarding and holding information and only sharing what they want, not inviting input or considering new information. “I have information you need and I’ll tell you what you need to know.” If we racialize this line of thinking, how often has a privileged group had access to enrollment or other information and shared that information in relational ways (e.g. person to person, through social networks, etc.), yet Black and Brown communities were only given the transactional information – a notice buried in an email and no personal interaction?

Relational and Relationship Building

Relational ways of interacting are how we make change. It humanizes each other and can lead to deeper social change. Relational work means investing more of ourselves into the work and personalizing the work, which can feel taxing at times but in the long haul it leads to deeper and more impactful work.

As humans we need to create connections with each other to build trust, iterate off of each other’s ideas, and to connect. The trust that comes with relationships allows us to probe more deeply and to make changes that improve services and programs. As an example, one of my work partners does amazing work with the Cantonese speaking community. Many of the parents she works with are accustomed to the schools treating their interactions as transactions – read a translated flier, answer pre-selected questions, etc. Yet, when I watch my partner interact with her families in their native language and building on the trust she developed with them I can see the families flourish. They share so much more information and they ask for what they need vs sitting and accepting what they are given. This may sound scary for people who now have to deal with new needs, but if we listen carefully the families are often also offering solutions.

When working in relationship with each other, we create a feeling of belonging — accountability to each other, even if it is through brief interactions. We see each other. Relationships built on listening, trust building, longevity and openness will flourish more than interactions that are one-off or one-sided. Relationships over transactions.