Peace in the Soil

I recently heard Siddhartha Mukherjee speak on an episode of Ted Radio Hour titled Rethinking Medicine. In his talk, Mukherjee notes that the prevailing medical approach (in the western medicine tradition) to this point has been to “have disease, take pill, kill something.” Mukherjee traces the prevalence of this approach to the antibiotic revolution, which fueled a perception of medical treatment as being primarily about administering pills that would seek out and destroy an illness.

In this “search and destroy” approach, the question being asked is, “What can I take to kill my illness?” This approach has led to advancements, but it is also a very limiting question that does not consider the body as a holistic system. The question Mukherjee says we should be asking is, “What is the environment that is allowing the illness to grow? What is it about the body and the environment as a holistic system that needs to be healed?” He uses the metaphor of soil; healthy soil grows seeds of health, unhealthy soil grows seeds of illness. In the next phase of medicine, we must shift our thinking from killing the illness, to treating the soil so that health, and not illness, thrives.

What Mukherjee is talking about is perceptual shift, a new metaphor. Instead of talking about “killing” something, we should be talking about “growing” something.

There are clear parallels in this proposed perceptual shift in the medical field to the peacemaking field. One must only consider the approach the US has taken to terrorism to see our fixation on finding and destroying the sprouting seeds of violence, while ignoring the soil that is allowing them to take root and flourish. In our violent attempts to uproot the manifestations of terrorism we see, we do nothing to heal the soil, to improve relations, goodwill or understanding, so that seeds of peace will grow. Instead, we often only harm more people, and further fuel the growth of terrorism.

Even beyond the use of the military or other violent attempts to get rid of violent people or ideas, other approaches to peace building also often fall into the perceptual framework of looking for the one “magic pill” that will fix the problem. We look for the new policy or compromise or formal apology that will lead to the cessation of violence. But peace isn’t just the absence of violence (like health isn’t just the absence of illness). Violence cannot just be cut out or destroyed. Peace is about the cultivation of spaces that generate peace. Peace is about the soil.

We can employ a similar metaphor when thinking about crime and the people who commit crimes. How can we change the soil that gives rise to criminal behavior?

There are a few obvious unmet needs that lead people to commit crimes such as food, shelter, safety, health, education and opportunity. In a holistic approach to addressing criminality, we have to find ways as a society to first meet these needs. The first ingredient to peace soil is ensuring a good livelihood for all.

Beyond meeting those basic needs though, there is also something deeper at work in peace soil. When we proactively support the growth of peace, it involves generating experiences of connection and belonging that fuel empathy and kindness.

In my research, one of my central questions is “How does the restorative justice process create a transformational experience for participants?” In the restorative justice field, a lot of research has been done to show that restorative justice works, that it shifts emotions and relationships from enmity towards reconciliation and reduces recidivism. Less work has been done to understand how the process functions to make those positive outcomes possible.

I am drawing on Victor Turner’s theory of ritual in order to understand the transformative capacity of restorative justice. Turner describes a ritual phase called liminality. Liminality is an in-between state, where normal social roles and rules are suspended and participant experience absolute equality. Out of liminality, communitas, or a revelation of our inherent connection, arises. This realization that we are all connected leads to an impulse towards human kindness and greater empathy. These phases and feature of a transformative ritual are all present in a successful restorative justice process. The experience of liminality and communitas are the soil for the growth of peace between participants.

Often, following an experience of restorative justice, participants or facilitators are left with a craving to be in that sort of space again, a space where there is equality, open communication, and a deep feeling of connection. Circles, which are a restorative practices often used to build and strengthen community, can provide an experience of being in that liminal space again. The proactive use of circles can increase feelings of belonging, empathy, quality of communication, and ability to handle conflict in a community.

Returning now to the big question: what are the essential ingredients to peace soil? What is the fertilizer that helps peace seeds grow? I think that experiences of liminality have a large role to play. When we have an opportunity to enter an intentional space together, to put aside our differences and our social roles and rules of interaction, to speak honestly and openly, to share vulnerability and listen with compassion, and to reconnect with our deep state of connection to one another, that experience is the crucial nutrient in the soil that grows peace. Restorative practices create spaces for that experience to unfold.


The koru is a spiral shape based on the shape of a new unfurling silver fern. It is a Māori symbol for new life, growth, strength and peace.

The Power of the Talking Piece

During the recent government shut down, a bipartisan group of roughly two-dozen senators helped craft the funding deal to re-open the government. The group used a “talking stick” as a tool to facilitate their meeting, only allowing the senator with the stick to speak in an effort to cut down on interruptions.

The use of the “talking stick” originated in Indigenous North American customs and is today also commonly used in restorative practices such as the circle, a process used to build connections and resolve disputes in community. Sometimes the “talking stick” is replaced by another sort of “talking piece,” an object that has special significance to the group or facilitator using it. For example, I have heard a story of a group of construction workers having a difficult conversation about workplace safety using the hard hat of a deceased workmate as a talking piece to pass around in the circle.

Regardless of the specific object used, the talking piece fulfills the important function of ensuring equal voice and respectful communication. However, in order for the talking piece to function effectively, it must hold meaning for the group or be imbued with meaning by a skilled facilitator.

One of the criticisms I often hear about the talking stick is that it feels like kindergarten and that adults shouldn’t need a physical object to remind them to listen and not interrupt each other. However, that just isn’t the reality of most adult interactions, with women especially being interrupted constantly, particularly in the workplace. There are a few things that facilitators can do to make the talking piece feel less like a kindergarten throw-back and more like a meaningful and unifying symbol of the group and what is being discussed.

One strategy is to choose an object that is meaningful to the group you are facilitating for. One facilitator I spoke with for my research described his strategy for making a talking piece relevant.

I have used it [a talking piece] in quite macho environments. If you take something that is of significance to them, people get it. I’m imaging sitting down with the All Blacks and actually saying this is the cap that one of the great All Black wore, it is part of our legacy and we are going to use that. If we get to the heart of what a talking piece is about and make it significant and right for them, I don’t think we have a problem. (Facilitator 4)

In the case of the Senate, perhaps there is an object with a tie specifically to American history of the history or procedures of the Senate that could be used. If the object feels sacred or treasured to the people in the room, it is more likely to be respected and honored.

If as a facilitator you are using a talking piece that does not have a special meaning to the group, it is best to use an object that does have special meaning to you that you are able to explain to the group, thus imbuing the object with significance in the minds of participants. One talking piece I have used before is a small stick from a cotton wood tree with a star on the inside that my dad found and gave me. At first glance, it just looks like a small twig with no real significance, but in introducing it, I talk about how we used to search for the star sticks when I was a child and about the connections to nature and traditions that make a place feel like home. Because I have expressed how important the talking piece is to me and have tied it to a greater universal theme, it is respected by the others in the group. The stick has been imbued with meaning.

In reading the account of the Senate’s use of the talking stick, I was struck[1] by the description of a senator throwing the stick after being interrupted. It would be interesting to know how the talking stick was introduced by Senator Susan Collins. Did she explain the ties to Native American customs or that it was a personal gift she received, or was it introduced more casually or perhaps in a self-deprecating way? Regardless, I commend her for her bravery in introducing something so “out there” for the Senate that could be a real tool in equalizing the voices heard in groups of leaders (most especially, I hope, the voices of women and other marginalized groups). Still, I wonder if a more intentional introduction of the talking piece could lead to an even better outcome.

I would also like to know if the ball the group later switched to using as a talking piece now holds some special meaning for the group. If it is used again in the future, will it be more easily and automatically respected in its function of ensuring equal voice and respectful communication? I hope that there are more government experiments in respectful communication strategies to come!

[1] No pun intended! 🙂