Tips and Tricks for Maintaining Facilitator Neutrality in Pre-Conferences

The pre-conference is, in many ways, the most important part of the restorative justice process. A bad conference, more often than not, is the fault of poor pre-conferencing.

Pre-conferencing refers to the individual meetings that the facilitators hold with the responsible party and harmed party and their respective support people prior to bringing the parties together for the restorative justice conference. During the pre-conference, the facilitators hear the story of what happened from each participant, seek to understand the impacts or harms that have been experienced, and support each party in identifying their current needs and what would begin to repair the harm. It is also an important time for the facilitators to build relationship and trust with participants. These feelings of trust will ensure that each party feels comfortable engaging fully in the process, knowing that they are safe and that the ground rules that ensure respectful conversation will be upheld. The pre-conference is also a chance for the facilitators to explain the restorative justice process in greater detail and answer any questions and discuss any concerns the participants may have.

It is important to the success of the process for restorative justice facilitators to be neutral. All participants must feel equally supported and heard. If one party feels that a facilitator is “taking the side” of another participant, it won’t be possible to build the trust and sense of safety necessary for the process to be successful.

Maintaining this neutrality can be difficult during the pre-conference phase. During the pre-conferences, the facilitators are having individual conversations with each participant, hearing and empathizing with their account of what happened.

Many of the things that you would say to a friend when hearing their account of a painful experience in order to support them are not appropriate in the role of facilitator.

For example, as a friend hearing the story, you might say:

“Wow. I can’t believe he did that.”

“What was she thinking?”

“Oh my god! That is horrible!”

“You’re right. It totally sounds like an overreaction.”

These affirmations can feel like a good way to build relationship and trust with each party, but ultimately will compromise your neutrality in the process.

On the other side of the coin, sometimes facilitator feel a desire to correct what they are hearing from one party in an effort to open up the possibility of the parties seeing each other’s views and moving towards reconciliation.

For example, a facilitator trying to correct might say:

“Have you considered what he might have been going through at the time that led him to commit this crime?”

“Well yes, but this was especially hard for her because of her divorce and the custody battle.”

“Keep an open mind. He is a really good guy.”

Often, as a facilitator, you will have information about what one party was going through, what led to the crime, or what their experience was like that you know will ultimately be helpful for the other participants to hear. However, it is not your responsibility to share that information or to attempt to humanize the parties to each other during the pre-conference. That healing and transformation will take place during the conference so long as you build the necessary trust and understanding of the process during the pre-conference and gain a good understanding of the open-ended questions you will need to ask during the conference in order to help each party hear the story and perspective of the others.

So, what can you say instead?

The underlying need here is to show the responsible party, harmed party, or support person you are talking with that you are listening deeply and that you care. Feeling heard is a great way to build trust and facilitate further open communication.

Here are a few ways to help participants feel heard during the pre-conference without compromising your neutrality as facilitator.

Use Reflective Statements

A reflective statement is a statement that reflects the content, emotion, and/or meaning of what the speaker has shared. It is a great way to show you are listening and to give the other person a chance to clarify if there is a misunderstanding.

Here is an example:

Speaker says: “Ever since then, things with my mom really aren’t good. Like, she doesn’t trust me to hang out with my friend or do anything, so we fight a lot.”

Reflective Statement: “It sounds like the damaged trust with your mom is really impacting your relationship with her.”

Using a reflective statement allows you to build trust and relationship through demonstrating that you are listening and care about their experience and emotions without sharing a personal opinion or judgement of the situation. Reflective statements also often prompt the other party to share more about their story or experience, so can often be used instead of another follow-up question.

Would you like to practice making reflective statements? Check out the activities Mirror Mirror and Shovel Face on www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com.

Ask Open-Ended Follow-Up Questions

The best way to show you care and to build relationship is to show that you want to listen to someone and care to learn more about their experience. They best way to do this is through asking questions! The best questions are open-ended (can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”).

Try using:

  • What…?
  • How…?
  • Why…?
  • Tell me more about…

On www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com, there are several great games and activities that will help you practice forming good open-ended questions on the spot. Check out Curiosity Did Not Harm the Cat and Shovel Face.

Seek to Understand their Needs and Reflect those Needs

A central goal of the restorative justice process is identifying needs. What unmet needs led to the harmful behavior and how could those need be met in a way that does not cause harm? What needs have arisen from the offense? As you ask open-ended questions and make reflective statements, listen for the speaker’s needs and reflect them back. It will help participants to feel heard and to identify their own needs moving forward.

For a great conceptual model for understanding needs, check out the Māori framework for health and wellbeing, Te Whare Tapa Whā. Build the House is a great activity for exploring this framework and can be found at www.RestorativeTeachingTools.com.

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