Spatial Relations Theory and Spatial Relations Visualization (which we’ll look at next time) are closely related. Together, they measure two sides of the same coin: a person’s preference to mentally deal with the “real world” of objects and systems or a person’s ability to deal instead with the realm of relationships and intangibles. People high in both are often dealing with the world in a hands-on capacity like engineers, doctors, and physicists. People low in both are much more comfortable dealing with the world of relationships, laws, and other abstractions. They are often counselors, managers, and accountants.

People high in spatial relations theory find it very easy to mentally imagine and manipulate multi-dimensional spaces and objects. They have the ability to both conceptualize and design equipment and machines and to conceptualize complex organizational structures like government, businesses, or families. With an almost innate sense, they seem to just “get” how things work—even things like gravity.

One of my friends is pretty high in spatial relations theory. Whenever he walks into a room, he’s instantly figures out the electrical wiring inside the walls. He doesn’t have to work at it; he just “gets” it.

Even though people high in spatial relations theory can visualize how things work, they aren’t necessarily able to make those systems or machines. That ability is linked with the other side of the coin, spatial relations visualization. Also, since they are so adept at “systems thinking,” they can often have a hard time remembering to take care of practical things.

People low in spatial relations theory aren’t particularly interested in abstract things like higher math, physics, or cosmology. They aren’t interested in how electricity works or where the wires run in a room—they just want the computer to turn on when they push the power button. People lower in spatial relations theory are much more interested in people and staying in direct contact with people. They think much more practically than the more hypothetically minded people higher in this ability.

People low spatial relations theory can have a very hard time visualizing or understanding models of systems like organizational charts. They can still change these systems or improve them but they don’t naturally “get” all the interacting relationships.

One of the first times I became aware of this ability and its application to fundraising occurred when our staff was trying to schedule mailings for the coming year. More and more things were needing to be communicated to our constituents. It seemed everyone in the room had a knee-jerk reaction that each new thing required its own mailing. We were coming up with far more mailings than our small office could handle and then our constituents would tolerate. We felt more and more overwhelmed.

I remember getting really frustrated with the way the conversation was going. After a while, I just couldn’t hold it in. Almost irritably I asked, “Why don’t we just do this?” and proceeded to effectively blend the messages into our existing mailings. I didn’t know about this ability at the time. I just knew how frustrated I was that the others didn’t “get it.” Could I be the only person in the room to see how all the mailings interacted with each other?

It turns out, I was. That’s not a value judgment. Not being able to see the systems isn’t a good or bad thing. I can easily miss the practical—like remembering to have sufficient postage for our mailings.

Rather than getting frustrated that people were missing something I thought was so obvious, I learned to choose to see my perspective as a gift I could offer the team. And others will remind me to have the right postage!

I can also see implications for donor cultivation and stewardship involved with this ability. Some donors will be incredibly interested in organizational mission and vision and how the organization is structured to empower that mission. Others couldn’t give a rip. They want to know about the people involved and the practical things like where their money is going.

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