The Power of Asking “What Happened?”

I recently had a pre-conference with man in his mid-forties who had been described to me as “prickly and difficult.” He had accosted two university staff members after not getting the outcome he wanted and was still very much so dwelling in the anger of the encounter, unable to take responsibility for his own negative behavior.

When we teach people about restorative justice, one of the biggest push-backs we get is about the issue of responsibility taking. A restorative justice process can only go forward if the person who caused harm is taking responsibility for their actions. Across the board, whether in the criminal justice system, the workplace, schools, or community groups, people being introduced to restorative justice often explain that a very high percentage of the people they work with do not take responsibility for the behavior, and therefore they worry that the potential of the restorative justice process is severely limited.

The answer to this concern, in my opinion, is to look carefully at the first interaction with people who are being approached on account of some negative behavior. Whether this is in the criminal justice system, a workplace or a school, often the first step is for the person who caused the harm to receive an (often written) declaration of exactly what they have done wrong. In criminal justice, this may be a police report or the criminal charges. In the workplace, it is often a letter from HR, letting them know there has been a complaint. In schools, it may be a summoning to the principal’s office, a letter home, or the documentation of disciplinary proceedings.

Rarely does the whole process begin by asking the person one simple question: “What happened?”

When we receive an outside account of our behavior, there is a natural urge to want to explain what happened, to push back against the partial-understanding of the incident. It isn’t the full truth, so it is easy to reject in the frustration of not being heard.

When we instead open the response to a negative incident by asking in a non-judgmental and authentically curious way, “What happened?” there is an opportunity to hear the whole story. In my experience, the person who caused the harm is far more likely to take responsibility for the negative behavior when it is understood in the context of the entire story.

After taking some time to build up relationship and trust with the client described above, I asked him to tell me what happened. What followed was a heart-wrenching account of a series of devastating occurrences in his own life that led up to the incident with the university staff. While not excusing the behavior, the history did help to contextualize it, and made the client feel seen as a full person outside of the one incident we were there to discuss. After sharing the contributing factors in his life, he was ultimately able to take responsibility and express remorse for the way he had harmed the staff members. We were then able to shift into talking about the impacts and brainstorming ideas for what he could do to make things right. However, none of that exploration would be possible without first giving him the chance to explain to caring and empathizing facilitators what happened.

 

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