How Can Restorative Justice Improve Relationships and Communication?

Type of process: Community Group Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Offender- George
  • Hall Manager- Daisy
  • RA/Impacted Party- Jonathan
  • 2 Facilitators

Disciplinary Measure Pending: In the worst case, being evicted from the Residential Hall for assault

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: What started as George teasing his RA Jonathan about his outfit escalated when George shoved Jonathan. George perceived it as messing around, but Jonathan saw it as aggressive and clearly crossing a line.

Narrative: Jonathan is the type of RA who likes to have a good time with his residents, often joking around and hanging out with them in the hallway in the evenings. Over the first few months of the school year, Jonathan had become good friends with many of his residents, including George.

Jonathan was on his way back to his room from a hall event when George stopped him in the hallway to poke fun at his clothing, which was overalls he had chosen as a fun outfit for a hall gathering.  The two jokingly argued back and forth for a while with Jonathan saying that George shouldn’t judge people by what they wear. Then George shoved Jonathan, causing him to stumble backwards a few steps. Jonathan explained that it was a big deal and that shoving a person in that way is something George could be written up for. George responded by laughing and saying that he wasn’t afraid of Daisy (the Hall Manager). Jonathan felt that George really wasn’t taking the incident seriously and worried about how the other residents in the hall would perceive the event and returned to his room to file a report.

When we spoke with George in the pre-conference, it was clear that he had not grasped the impact of his actions on Jonathan and felt that they had just been joking around and that Jonathan had overreacted. Going into the conference meeting, he was taking responsibility for what had happened, by did not understand why it had been a problem.

When we met with Jonathan, he talked about how in the town he is from, shoving someone in that way is often the beginning of a physical fight. His first reaction in that moment was concern that the conflict was escalating and awareness that George is a much larger guy than he is. He also felt very aware of his role as an RA, as a student leader and authority in the hall. He felt that George shoving him like that disrespected his role as an RA and put him in a difficult position as he tries to balance being both George’s RA and his friend. He worried that George wasn’t respecting the RAs and Hall Manager in the building.

When we brought George, Jonathan and Daisy together in the restorative justice conference, it was tense at first. Jonathan and George had talked briefly in the hallway the day after it happened to ask if everything was cool, but they hadn’t really had a chance to talk about what had happened and how they each were impacted. The understanding wasn’t there so the relationship hadn’t really been repaired.

Through the process, the two men saw the incident from each other’s perspective. By the time we were done discussing the story and the impacts and had moved on to ideas to repair the harms and make things right, George, Jonathan and Daisy were laughing and joking with each other. As a contract item, George agreed to help Jonathan plan and lead an inter-floor video game tournament to strengthen their community and cement their repaired friendship. Both George and Jonathan felt like the issue was resolved following honest communication and they both hung around long after the process was complete laughing and chatting.

So often, conflicts between friends, colleagues and family members fester underneath the surface, preventing true reconciliation. Even when we attempt to talk things through one on one, it is often hard to really speak about how we were impacted and what can happen now to make things right without the help of a facilitator to hold a safe space for an open, honest conversation. Through the facilitated restorative justice conversation, impacts are voiced, plans for repair are formed, and relationships are strengthened.

The Te Whare Tapa Whā Framework for Understanding Wellbeing

In restorative practices, we talk a lot about needs. When harm is caused through a crime, wrongdoing, or conflict in a community, that harm generates needs. One of the central questions of restorative justice is “What is needed to repair the harms and make things right?”

We also see behavior as communicating unmet needs. So often, a harmful or illegal behavior is an attempt to get a need met. For example, while I was working in Longmont, we would occasionally receive a theft case of a homeless person who stole food, or someone stealing clothing for an upcoming job interview after realizing they didn’t have anything appropriate to wear or money to buy something. The needs were often more abstract. I remember a pregnant woman who stole lingerie because she was worried her husband wasn’t attracted to her while she was pregnant and they were struggling with money. Especially among teenagers, so often the drug use, vandalism, and fighting was rooted in a need for belonging and respect from their peers. More violent acts such as physical assaults were often rooted in a need for safety, respect, or even self-esteem. When you begin to view these behaviors through understanding the need the person was attempting to fulfill, you are better able to problem-solve. If you can help to identify a legal, pro-social way to fulfill that un-met need, then the behavior will not be repeated.

Having grown up in the United States and taken introductory level psychology throughout high school and university, I have often understood these common human needs through the framework of Maslow’s Hierarchy. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the most basic physiological needs are at the base of the pyramid and are the first things that motivate our behavior. Once those needs are met, the next level up is what motivates us. The framework has often helped me to understand and empathize with the lived experience and perspective of the offenders and victims that are referred to restorative justice.


Earlier this week, I took part in an introductory training day for a pilot project being launched in Wellington, New Zealand to use Restorative Circles as a response to Elder Harm issues. During the training, we talked about Te Whare Tapa Whā, a Maori framework for understanding health and wellbeing. This framework is widely used among Maori people and others in New Zealand.

Te Whare Tapa Whā portrays four dimensions of wellbeing as four walls or sides of a house. If one of the dimensions is missing or damaged, the entire structure (representing the person) will become unbalanced or unwell.

The four dimensions are:

  1. Taha wairua- Spiritual well-being
  2. Taha tinana- Physical well-being
  3. Taha whanau- Social well-being
  4. Taha hinengaro- Mental and emotional well-being

te whare tapa wha

This way of perceiving these dimensions of health and wellbeing, of understanding the basic human needs we all share, struck me as very true. These aspects of health are deeply interconnected. When my mental health is damaged or unbalanced, my physical, spiritual and social health also all suffer. When I am physically sick, the other areas of my life similarly feel like they aren’t thriving. The needs are essentially intertwined.

Rather than needs being a series of levels that are achieved one after another, needs often co-exist. I remember speaking with a homeless man who had accidentally caused a fire in an unused home he was squatting in and his need for food and shelter was equally matched by his need for community and for a greater sense of meaning and purpose. In our pre-conference discussion, we talked more about God than we did about his physiological needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs still helps me to understand the (sometimes reckless) motivation we all feel when our needs in different categories go unmet. However, Te Whare Tapa Whā has also helped me to see how those needs cannot really be broken into neat level and will always exist as an interconnected whole, deserving a holistic response.

For restorative justice practitioners, this framework serves as a reminder to strive to keep going, past the most obvious needs, to understand the whole picture of where a person is coming from and the impacts of an incident on physical, social, spiritual, and mental wellbeing.

For more information about Te Whare Tapa Whā, visit