OP-ED: Embracing the Feedback of Conflicts

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John Lash

Have you ever begun to talk into a microphone only to have the speakers emit a terrible high pitched shriek? If not, you’ve probably seen someone else do this. The sound system is experiencing a feedback loop, causing it to malfunction. It’s usually not too difficult to fix, moving the mic or the amp a little, or making an adjustment to how the electronics are set up.

There are other kinds of systems all around us, and they too give us feedback, some of it unpleasant. One innovator in the field of restorative justice, Dominic Barter, describes human conflict as just such feedback, giving us information from our social systems that something is awry and calling for our attention.

I find this to be a powerful image for two reasons. First, it depersonalizes whatever unpleasantness I am experiencing. I can view conflict as not so much about me as about the way that I am in relation to the rest of the system. I can try to discern what the feedback is telling me and make an appropriate adjustment or series of adjustments. The second reason I enjoy this analogy follows from the first. It enables me to approach the conflict with curiosity instead of anger or fear. This is known in academic circles as a “positive orientation to conflict” and points to the idea that conflicts are actually opportunities.

One problem we face is that even though we are enmeshed in systems of all sorts we are often unaware of them, or at least of the rules that govern how they function. Whether it’s our family, workplace, church or government, a lot of the rules are unconscious or never discussed. I leave to those inclined to philosophy to determine whether or not systems are “real”, but as a tool for examining relationships, they work.

For those interested in engaging and changing systems it is necessary to approach with the greatest level of awareness and consciousness that we can bring to bear. Restorative justice work often begins with those on the outside of the official system, or with those inside the system but on the margins. How do we exercise our own power to influence the system?

Dominic has said that this work of consciously creating systems is the most important piece of what we do. There are, frankly, a lot of methods that can work for restorative justice, but if the work is not done as part of a larger system it is often limited in its impact. Restorative Circles as I have learned them gives us five steps to consider as we embark on creating change. The quotes are from a handout I received a few years ago.

First, “identify and engage sources of power within the community.” Some of the power is obvious, but not always. Within the system here in Athens, Ga., for instance, one of the court workers has tremendous influence on whether or not we get cases (and what types of cases, as well). Other sources of power exist in the community, in the form of influence or contacts. Even though they don’t show up in an organizational chart, their ability to assist us is great. We need the agreement of those in the system to use a restorative approach.

The second step is to “identify a space where the practice will be held.” Locations carry a lot of information and can boost or shadow restorative practices. Because of negative associations we choose to conduct our own circles away from the courthouse. The symbolism of such a place is sometimes threatening and can make it difficult to create the atmosphere of openness and authenticity that we want

Next, “develop human resources necessary to implement the practice.” This includes facilitators as well as those who can offer various kinds of support, including training, preparation, debriefing, and other tasks that aren’t always obviously important. Even the most dedicated facilitator can’t handle everything that needs to be done, and can’t be her own support system either. This is not a place to go it alone.

“Ensure basic information on the system is widely available within the community”, the fourth step, means to let people know about how the process works and how to participate. The best system in the world is worthless if people don’t use it. This means getting the word out and increasing the number of people who are conscious of the restorative options.

Last, “develop a means to initiate the restorative practice that is available to all”. A follow up note says, “seek means that highlight that the decision to respond restoratively belongs to those experiencing the conflict.” This is something that is more difficult to do in court connected systems, since to some extent some of the people are involved against their will. In that case, we make clear that participation is optional for all parties, and that the process can be ended at any time and the case returned to court. In a community setting we would establish a non personal way to trigger the restorative response, one that wasn’t dependent on someone evaluating the worthiness of the request.

Using these steps is one way to approach the feedback of conflicts, whether in our neighborhoods, schools, or courts. They give us a template for co-creating systems alongside those most impacted by harm.

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