Restoring the Circle: A New and Old Approach to Conflict

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Restorative Circles

“For thousands of years we have gathered in circle – around fires, around bodies, around altars – because we can’t do this alone.” – Wayne Muller

I’ve been learning about Restorative Circles (RC’s), and I’m very excited about how they support people to work with conflict in a way that leads to more compassion, accountability, collaboration, creativity, and connection. An RC (as developed by Dominic Barter and the people he’s worked with in the favelas, schools, court systems and prisons of Brazil) is part of a systemic approach to working with conflict restoratively instead of punitively. It is designed so that communities of all kinds (families, neighbours, students, co-workers, etc.) can work with conflict in a way that restores connection and supports accountability. An RC is not for deciding who is wrong and how much to punish the wrongdoer. Instead, an RC supports all who are impacted by an act that breaks connection in the community to be heard and understood about how the act affected them. The RC process also supports each person to take responsibility for why the act was done or for how it was responded to. Once mutual understanding and self-responsibility have taken place, circle participants co-create an action plan that addresses the consequences of the act, including the connection lost as a result of the act.
The RC process is most effective when it is part of a restorative system. A restorative system is free of hierarchy and has five key elements: 1. Some or all members of the community are in agreement about using Restorative Circles as an option for dealing with conflict; 2. A space that is quiet and in some way symbolic of connection and equivalence (non-hierarchical) is designated for holding the restorative circles; 3. Some or all members of the community are trained in RC facilitation; 4. Information on the RC process is widely and equally available to all in the community; 5. A means to initiate an RC is equally and easily available to everyone in the community.
An RC can take place before a restorative system is implemented or with a restorative system only partially implemented. However, the better the five elements of a restorative system are implemented and attended to, the more restorative the RC’s will be. The system will also be more restorative if community members have equal choice about whether or not to partake in any given Restorative Circle to which they have been invited. However, someone choosing to not partake in a RC would not stop an RC from happening. If no strategies can be found to make it work for someone who does not initially feel comfortable partaking, then the circle goes ahead with a substitute filling in for that person. And, once again, the system will be more restorative if substitutes are used only after sincere efforts have been made to attend to the needs of those resistant to participating so that they might feel safe and comfortable to be in the circle.
Another reason I am excited about Restorative Circles is that they offer people an experience of the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) consciousness without needing to first learn the NVC language. RC’s offer a process that supports the same values and same intentions that NVC does. Without attachment to any outcomes, the RC process and the facilitators of a circle support each person in a circle to be heard by whomever he or she would like to be heard by, heard understood about the words communicated and the meaning beneath the words. This support offers the possibility of a shift from good/bad, right/wrong, blame, and punishment thinking to an experience of empathy, compassion, authenticity, accountability, and collaboration. RC’s can also help cultivate the awareness that all our actions are attempts to meet needs, even when the actions are painful for others. When those involved in a conflict are heard and understood about their pain and responsibility is taken for how conflict happened was responded to, it is natural to want to collaborate on finding ways to restore connection and meet the needs that weren’t met by a painful act.
Over the last fifteen years Dominic Barter and the people in the Brazilian favelas, schools, court systems and prisons have been developing the Restorative Circles and System that he is now sharing with the rest of the world. One of my favourite parts of his workshops is the stories he tells about some of the RC’s he has supported. I’m particularly inspired by some of the action plans from his RC stories. One action plan involved an owner of a store hiring the man who robbed him. Another action plan had a boy who had stomped on flowers while walking through a community garden give a presentation to his class that included some history of the woman who tended the garden, why the garden was so important to her, and why he was helping her with restoring her garden. Finally, a third action plan I heard about, this one from a different facilitator, included the father agreeing to play with his son, just the two of them, four times a week (this was one piece of the action plan). What I love about this story is that the conflict was between his two children. He was participating in the circle as a community member. One of the benefits of an RC is that all who participate are asked to contribute to the action plan so that there will be the most amount of connection restored for all.
Conflict is inevitable for groups of people who regularly spend time together. Most of us are somewhere between nervous and terrified of conflict because we have had far more painful experiences of conflict than positive, connecting experiences. This fear of conflict can lead us to try and avoid conflict or to default to some version of a punitive justice system in which the intention might be to help the “victim” feel less pain by having the “wrongdoer” feel more pain. A restorative approach can help us see that conflict is an opportunity for learning, growth, and greater connection. This approach is not new; indigenous peoples have been practicing some version of restorative justice for a long time. The Restorative Circle system that Dominic and his Brazilian friends have developed is simply a new version of an old practice that many of us have forgotten.
Often, I still feel something between nervous and terrified when conflict occurs in my life, but the more I practice NVC and Restorative Circles, and the more I experience greater connection from having gone through conflict, the more I’m inclined to move towards conflict rather than running for cover.


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