Restorative Justice Facilitates Effective Apologies

Research from Ohio State University has recently identified six elements of an effective apology. The elements are:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Of those six elements, two are particularly important to having your apology accepted. The most important is acknowledgement of responsibility, which involves saying that it was your fault and you did something you should not have done. The second most effective element is an offer of repair, committing yourself to taking actions to make things right.

When I read this article, it struck me that the two most essential elements to an effective apology are the backbone of restorative justice. In order to participate in restorative justice, an offender must take responsibility for his or her actions through telling the story of what happened and naming the impacts he or she sees. Following this acceptance of responsibility, the offender listens to the story from the perspective of the people most impacted and repeats back the harms, showing that he or she understands the full impact. Once all of the impacts are out in the open, together the offender, victim, and community members form a plan for what the offender can do to repair the harms and make things right. After all parties reach agreement, the offender follows through and completes the required repairs.

When the restorative justice process is examined in contrast to the traditional court system which encourages offenders to deny responsibility and prescribes punishments that so often do not relate to the reparation of harm, it is clear why restorative justice so often leads to genuine apology, forgiveness, and the reparation of relationships. Through creating a space where the essential elements of an effective apology are encouraged, restorative justice facilitates the healing of human relationships.

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Restorative Management

Increasingly, restorative practices are being applied in a wide range of sectors, reaching far beyond the criminal justice system and school discipline. The Chair of Restorative Justice at Victoria University is involved in implementing restorative practices in the University residential halls, in workplaces, in elder abuse cases, in the police complaints process, with surgeons as a response to medical errors, and even in forming entire restorative cities. More applications are emerging every day. Clearly, prioritizing relationships and learning new ways of responding to conflict are something the human community is craving. There is a great deal of creativity that goes into thinking about how the principles of restorative practices can be applied and enacted in diverse contexts. For restorative practitioners, this often involves looking inward at where we can learn to use restorative practices with loved ones, in the workplace, and in daily interactions.

The restorative justice non-profit I worked with in Colorado (LCJP) strives to form a restorative community among the staff and volunteers in addition to building these practices in the wider community. The organization is incredibly fortunate to have a leader whose commitment to walking the talk and creatively living out our message to the community is a shining example of the transformation that can occur when a group of people truly commits themselves to these practices. I have been reflecting lately on some of the instances of restorative management I saw Kathleen bring to our team and would like to share a few of those lessons here.

Lesson one: Always make time for relationships.

My first interview with Kathleen was from the living room of my apartment in China. It was 4am for me and I was equal parts excited and nervous. Kathleen asked all of the questions she needed to ask (about my prior experience, testing my Spanish proficiency, assessing my understanding of restorative justice), but still we spent nearly half of the interview laughing about the challenges of living abroad, how much I missed cheese, and what I would be eating when I got back to the US. This pattern has continued through every meeting we’ve ever had. The work always gets done and is done well, but plenty of time is made to laugh together, to check in about our lives, and offer support. Every meeting with the whole staff begins with a connection circle in which each staff member answers a relationship-building question. The staff takes turns facilitating those circles.

Above all else, restorative practices prioritize the building and maintaining of relationships. We all have a want and a need to feel belonging and the only way to accomplish that is through opportunities for genuine connection. Furthermore, positive interpersonal relationships are a major influence on behavior. Research has shown that when we feel connected, heard, and appreciated at work, productivity increases. It is always worth the time to spend fifteen minutes laughing about cheese before you get down to business.

Lesson two: See and encourage individual passions.

Restorative practices place a great deal of emphasis on being strengths-based. This means identifying and supporting an individual’s assets: the positive passions, skills, interests, and connections that make him/her unique.

In any job, there are certain tasks that must be done, but beyond those tasks, there is normally some flexibility. So much of workplace satisfaction comes from giving individuals the opportunity to use their unique skills and pursue their passions through their job. In my case, this looked like Kathleen assigning me training development tasks and helping me to become a better trainer through feedback, encouragement, and new opportunities. I spent extra time in conferences both as a facilitator and community member and wrote case studies and proposals for us to present at conferences. These extra pieces often spilled into evenings and weekends, but ultimately fueled my enthusiasm and energy for the rest of the work.

Lesson three: Establish a productive way for staff to deal with conflict and remain open to feedback.

Within the toolbox of restorative practices is a conversation model called the restorative conversation. This is a way of addressing one-on-one conflict that focusses on the impacts and what can be done to make things right moving forward. As an organization, we trained volunteers in this method so that they would have a restorative way to resolves disputes among themselves over unreturned phone calls or differences in facilitation styles. The restorative conversation is also encouraged as a way for staff to deal with conflict and all members of the staff are training in the model.

During the first training that Kathleen and I delivered as co-trainers, I was thrown off when she introduced herself as the lead trainer because it didn’t fit with the training dynamic we had discussed before. I have always been shy and soft-spoken and still appear very young so I work hard to establish myself as a confident expert at the beginning of trainings and presentations. When it was my turn to introduce myself next, I felt out of the flow. The training went well, but still, throughout the weekend the introduction was sitting heavily with me. When Kathleen and I sat down the following week to debrief the training, I brought it up. I asked her permission to share something from the training that was sitting heavily with me and explained the introduction. I shared how much I enjoyed training together and how excited I was to be moving into the role and I also shared how I had been impacted by the introduction, how it had confused me and shaken my confidence. Kathleen listened attentively and showed that she heard me. She explained the thoughts that had been going through her head at the beginning of the training and the nervousness she had experienced. Together, we formed a plan for how introductions would happen the next time we trained together and she followed through. After the next training we ran together, she made time to check in with me to see if the introductions felt good. Because we had a tool for dealing with conflict, I didn’t have to let the feeling fester, we were able to hear each other and form and commit to a plan to make things better.

Lesson four: Listen and show you are listening.

About a month before Christmas, Kathleen facilitated the connection circle at our regular staff meeting and asked the question “How do you like to be appreciated?” One staff member mentioned that she likes to be included in things, in making plans. Another said she just likes to hear a genuine, heart-felt thank you. I said that I am very verbal, so like to hear that I am appreciated. I shared that I still had a voicemail that Kathleen had sent me after a busy week, saying she appreciated all of my hard work, saved on my phone so that I could listed to it from time to time. I thought it was a great connection circle question, but didn’t think much more about it until Christmas came around a few weeks later. When each of us opened our present from Kathleen, we found a message of appreciation in the way we had said we most liked to receive it. In my case, I opened a small box to find a note that said “Check your email.” When I checked my email, there was a voicemail from Kathleen sharing how much she appreciated me!

Active listening is a pillar of restorative practices. Facilitators are taught to show that they are listening in the moment through eye contact, body language, questions, and reflective statements. Real listening though, goes beyond the moment.

Lesson five: Create experiences of connection and appreciation.  

On my last day of work before moving to New Zealand, the staff was all together doing a New Year’s purge and cleaning of the house. At the end of the day, Kathleen gathered us together for a final staff meeting before my departure. She opened the connection circle and invited each person to share a favorite memory of working with me or something they really loved about me. I cried throughout the entire circle hearing the wonderful things everyone had to say. I felt so seen and loved. I also had the opportunity to share my favorite memories and the things I love about each of the people in the circle. All the things that you want to say to the people you are close to, but so often never get the chance to say. As a goodbye gift to me, the team gave me the space to hear and say it all. Reflecting back on that circle, I am more and more struck by how lucky I am to have had that experience. So few people ever really get the chance to feel so seen. And yet, that is what we are all craving: that feeling of being a seen and adored individual within a supportive and interconnected whole. The more that we can learn to create these experiences for each other, the more we will learn to live in peace with one another. Bringing the values, the principles, and the tools of restorative practices into our daily lives is a great way to begin to do just that.