of Aotearoa New Zealand
All that I can hope to
make you understand
is only events: not
what has happened.
‘And people to whom
has ever happened
Cannot understand the
unimportance of events.’
TS Eliot The Family Reunion
This quotation is taken from one of TS Eliot’s plays where a family group gets together to try and sort out their past difficulties. One of the characters is so frustrated by the way the conversations proceed, that he blurts out the above lines. I understand this to mean the difference between what is on the surface and obvious, as against the less obvious things that take place in any interaction between people: the emotional fall-out, the vast gulfs in perception, the challenge of remembering things differently, the challenge to find the words to express what has so far been inexpressible. According to Wikipedia, the play charts the journey of the main character ‘from guilt to redemption’ even if there is some debate about how well the play achieves this.
So, what has this quotation from a play now 100 years old, got to do with Restorative Justice conferences? Believe it or not, there are some similarities: each genre has a script, even if the RJ one is not written down. The characters in each genre are all brought together through relationship – one of kinship, and (in the particular incident I wish to describe) one of accident. In each case the relationship is problematic, and has to be sorted out. Although the processes for ‘sorting things out’ vary quite a lot in a play from an RJ conference they do both have a ‘process.’ One utilizes exits and entrances, speech and action, and the actors deliver lines that are carefully crafted by the playwright. In the other, the lines are ad libbed and are shaped by the ongoing dialectical nature of the encounter, each speech shaping its reply. Both genres however may set up dramatic tension, even if one is by design, and the other by the interplay of unrehearsed utterances. Where that ‘dramatic tension’ is mutually resolved one has a satisfactory play and a satisfactory RJ conference. By happy coincidence Eliot’s play and my conference arrive at similar redemptive endings even if their paths to that point are divergent.
The significance however of this comparison between a 100 year old play and a very recent twenty first century RJ conference is that the question tormenting the play’s main character (‘But how can I explain’?) is exactly the same question we need to ask about the process of any RJ conference – what is it that is going on in this conference that creates a redemptive ending?
The motivation for this essay was facilitating a conference where the parties had been involved in a road accident. I shall describe the conference as ‘an event’, that is, something that did happen (people meeting and talking together for a brief period of time) something with a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet the conference was more than just the words spoken; ‘something happened’ that was more than just the words spoken. What was that ‘something’ that ‘happened?’ One answer might be that ‘a resolution’ was what happened. It seems however, that every answer merely implies another question: ‘How did the meeting arrive at that resolution (and not some other one)?’ What follows is an attempt to answer that question, firstly by detailing ‘the events’, and then by running our ‘night- vision binoculars’ over the script so that we might begin to see those things which were not immediately visible, the ‘things that happened’, in Eliot’s cryptic phrase. I shall subject the conference to some degree of verbal analysis in an attempt to explain what is distinctive about the RJ process – how does it actually ‘work?’ I do so in the earnest hope that my readers are luckier than Eliot’s protagonist who felt that his hearers would ‘understand less after [he] had explained it.’
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The relationship between the father and his adult son appeared on the whole to be healthy and working well. However, there had been some deep challenges throughout the years that put an underlying strain on their relationship. It all came to a head one night at the local club with verbal and physical outbursts between the two.
Restorative practice was recommended. Both came separately to talk with the Facilitator about whether this approach would be appropriate. The Facilitator agreed it would be a starting point for them through providing an opportunity for them to talk openly in a safe forum. They both agreed to initiate a restorative approach.
A restorative approach always involves two trained Facilitators who talk confidentially with each person involved and asks questions around the emotional impact on them, what their part in the harm is, and what they can offer to start to repair the harm. Facilitators also assess participants’ safety in bringing all parties together, identify support people and also consider who else may need to be involved. As only one support person was identified, participants agreed a support person from a local community agency would also be involved.
Restorative Practice Facilitators provided a safe environment for the participants to really listen to what was needed to be said. In this format they gained a new understanding of each other, acknowledged their own part in the problem and took responsibility in resolving the issues. They were then able to agree the actions they wanted to take, something they would not have been able to on their own, due to their strong emotional involvement.
As always the Facilitators followed up with the participants 6-8 weeks after bringing them all together. Out of the three actions they had decided, one had been carried out and the remaining two had been replaced with a more suitable action. This was encouraging as it reflected ownership by them finding a better action to help repair their relationship breakdown. In addition, the new action also supported the son to be a better father himself.
Restorative practice provided an opportunity for the father and son to re-connect and understand each other better. It also showed care, concern and respect for participants who were then in a better position to want to make positive changes.
“You are the first ones, since the formal investigation started, to ask how I feel about this situation.
“We’re not best buddies, and never will be, but we understand each other better now.”
“Restorative practice is new to me. It was difficult to begin with but I’m pleased I took part. I could finally see what made him do what he did and I could finally tell him how it [bugged] me!”
In a workplace experiencing a revolving door of ineffective Team Leaders over 10 years, it’s no wonder the team culture was increasingly toxic. Staff roles became blurred causing confusion, miscommunication, information holding and broken trust leading to a dysfunctional and unproductive team. Some staff left and replacement staff didn’t last long. Tension between two of the remaining staff became more obvious resulting in a number of physical eruptions. In response to formal complaints, the acting Department Manager and HR Manager commenced a formal investigation.
The long investigation revealed a number of issues and subsequent actions of performance improvement plans, mediation and others attempted to resolve the tension. After some time, it was acknowledged the relationship between the two staff hadn’t been addressed and also wasn’t improving. This is where restorative practice provides a positive approach to transforming the harm caused so that staff can continue working together in an improved way.
A restorative approach to serious breakdown in relationships, always involves two trained Facilitators who talk confidentially with each person involved and asks questions in relation to the impact on them, what their part in the harm is, and what they can offer to start to repair the harm.
Participants are also asked what their outcomes are from taking this approach and usually the outcomes are the same for all participants. Facilitators also assess participants’ safety in bringing all parties together, identify support people and consider who else may need to be involved.
In addition to the two staff members and their respective support people, the acting Department Manager and HR Manager were included. They were able to bring an organisational perspective to the team’s work and also hear first-hand the issues leading to the dysfunction.
A Restorative Workplace Meeting provides a safe environment for participants to voice their perspective on the difficulties and to really listen to each other face to face. When participants gain an understanding of each other and acknowledge their own part in the problem, they are more likely to take responsibility in resolving the issues.
In this case, following the exploration of various perspectives and the harm caused, the participants were able to discuss and agree the actions they felt were needed to start to repair their working relationship. As the acting Department Manager was present, they were able to receive immediate organisational support.
The actions were many and ranged from learning general communication skills, understanding each other’s communication needs, attending employer assisted counselling sessions through to learning anger management skills.
As always, Restorative Practice Facilitators follow up with participants 6-8 weeks after bringing them all together. There were some actions that needed more time to complete and others had been completed leading to some progress in improving their working relationship. The participants were still willing to ensure all actions would be completed and this gave everyone the confidence of future progress.
After many years of dysfunction with staff either “avoiding” issues or “attacking” others, restorative practice provided an opportunity for the staff in conflict to understand each other and therefore elicit the willingness to work better together.
A recent request came from Mayor Annette who believed a restorative approach could help resolve a tenant’s inappropriate behaviour at one of the Council’s housing complexes. The inappropriate behaviour had been occurring for over a year and when Council staff received complaints about the behaviour, they approached the tenant to resolve it. Unfortunately, the behaviour continued and as Council were concerned for the welfare of the other tenants, there were grounds for the tenant to find alternative accommodation.
Shelly Harkness and one of our Restorative Justice Facilitators, Rere Sutherland, implemented a restorative approach firstly meeting individually and confidentially with all those concerned to hear their stories about what they were experiencing. A number of issues were raised and the majority were not about the inappropriate behaviour of the tenant in question, but were about issues that contributed to it. Shelly and Rere decided the focus of the meeting, when everyone came together, would be to discuss the major issues of car parking, who tenants contact for particular needs and finally, what type of behaviour the tenants wanted to enjoy in the housing complex. The issue of the tenant finding alternative accommodation would be considered in private following the meeting.
Careful preparation before bringing everyone together led to a successful restorative meeting. Four tenants, a Social Welfare Worker and three Council staff experienced the magic of restorative meetings where the incredible tension and angst felt in the beginning was relieved through everyone sharing their stories and of course, everyone listening to others’ stories. There were certainly some heated moments! However, this is conducive in a restorative process where sharing concerns and releasing built up emotions in a safe environment, is the first step clearing the way for the group to then work together towards a positive outcome.
At the end of the restorative meeting, there were acknowledgements the process helped them to understand each other and what everyone needed to live compatibly in the complex. Council were to make changes to the car parking to alleviate that major issue, everyone now knew who to contact for what need (eg Council for landlord issues, Police for safety issues, Social Worker for welfare issues), and the group came up with a Code of Conduct to ensure appropriate behaviour was encouraged. Subsequently, the tenant in question had a meeting with Council and with the new Code of Conduct in place, did not have to find alternative accommodation.
A sound restorative approach always includes follow up to ensure what was promised in the meeting has been actioned and whether the changes needed had been sustained. Seven weeks later, Shelly and Rere were pleased to hear the following:
“everyone’s got the message [about the behaviour] and are getting on well now”
“it’s made me realise how I come across to other people”
“it was a worthwhile intervention…we could all see the reasons behind the inappropriate
behaviour and address those”
“it’s a good process”
“there’ve been no issues since”
“we’re not so closed minded now, we’re willing to discuss things”
The following quote reflects sustained behaviour change:
“[the tenant] has realised [their] behaviour was inappropriate and hasn’t done it again”
This example reflects how the principles of restorative practice can be applied in any environment where people interact. We’re thankful to Mayor Annette Main and to all the participants who were open and willing to resolve the difficult issues through restorative practice.
We look forward to continuing working closely with the Whanganui District Council, and other organisations / community groups in Whanganui to transform conflict in a respectful way. Every time we implement restorative practice we are working towards the Restorative City vision: creating an environment for all people to thrive and succeed together through respectful relationships.