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

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, 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

Be Real, Love, Empathize: Insights for Facilitators from Carl Rogers

While restorative justice is not therapy, it often has therapeutic outcomes for participants. Particularly at the pre-conference stage, the facilitator’s role can feel akin to that of a therapist, helping to guide and support clients on their own journey towards healing, learning and growth.

This week, I have been reading some of Carl Rogers’ work in which he seeks to identify what elements or conditions are necessary in order for the client to experience positive therapeutic movement. Some of Rogers’ assertion deal with the necessary conditions of a therapist in order to facilitate positive change in a client. I find these necessary conditions highly applicable to the role of facilitators throughout the restorative justice process.

Specifically, Rogers identifies three conditions which when they occur in a therapist and are to some degree perceived by the client, will lead to progress and growth for the client. Each of these conditions is similarly an essential condition for restorative justice facilitators.

1. Congruence (“Be Real”)

“The therapist should be, within the confines of that relationship, a congruent, genuine, integrated person. It means that within the relationship he is freely and deeply himself, with his actual experience accurately represented by his awareness of himself. It is the opposite of presenting a façade, either knowingly or unknowingly. It is not necessary (nor is it possible) that the therapist be a paragon who exhibits this degree of integration, of wholeness, in every aspect of his life. It is sufficient that he is accurately himself in this hour of this relationship, that in this basic sense he is what he actually is, in this moment of time.” [1]

A facilitator, like a therapist, must “Be Real.” We all know from experience that there is nothing more off-putting than interacting with someone who you can sense is putting on a show, or is acting in a way that doesn’t align with their inner self. Maybe it is a false-sounding tone of voice or statements and gestures that feel more like a performance, those moments of un-realness can be unsettling and discourage the development of trust. Naturally, as a facilitator, there will be moment where something comes up and you have to keep calm on the outside while inside your wheels are turning to figure out what to do next, but I think there is still a way to manage that necessity while being real. A lot of this comes down to taking time before a pre-conference or conference to center yourself, to focus inward and notice your feeling and thoughts as they come up. Breathe deeply and connect with that inner most version of self where your wisdom and intuition reside. Then go into the process with that most genuine self in full expression rather than trying to act in a way you think you should or have seen others act. Come to the process with your real, true self shinning!

This also points to the importance of an ongoing practice of personal growth and discovery for all people, but especially for those in helping professions. As many wise teachers throughout the ages have explained, the cultivation of inner peace is an essential part of building peace in the world around us. For a beautiful account of the importance of this inner work in the peace builder’s journey, I recommend my friend Kathleen McGoey’s book. 

I appreciate that Rogers notes that it is impossible to be in this state of congruence at all times or in every aspect of our lives. It is a life-long journey to learn how to live more and more in authenticity. However, when you have the honor of facilitating a deeply transformative and healing process for clients, it is so important to take the time to bring yourself to that place. When facilitating conferences, I generally schedule myself at least 45 minutes prior to the beginning of the conference in which I have nothing else to do. This allows me time to arrive early, set up the space, and also take some time in meditation, focusing on my breath and checking in with my thoughts and energy, centering myself for the process ahead.

2. Unconditional Positive Regard (“Love”)

“When the therapist is experiencing a warm, positive and acceptant attitude toward what is in the client, this facilitates change. It involves the therapist’s genuine willingness for the client to be whatever feeling is going on in him at that moment, – fear, confusion, pain, pride, anger, hatred, love, courage, or awe. It means that the therapist cares for the client, in a non-possessive way. It means that he prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way.  By this I mean that he does not simply accept the client when he is behaving in certain ways, and disapprove of him when he behaves in other ways. It means an outgoing positive feeling without reservation, without evaluations.” [2]

At a restorative justice conference a few years ago, I saw Dr. Cornel West speak and at the center of his speech was this wonderful explanation: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” In order to help people, we must love them. People are more likely to change for the better when they sense that they are loved and accepted no matter what. The behavior may be seen as bad, but the person is still innately good and accepted.

This point relates closely to the dynamic of shame in the restorative justice process. As we know, offenders are often vilified and face what legal scholar John Braithwaite termed “stigmatizing shame.”[3] When an offender is degraded through shame, it poses a threat to his or her identity. The offender is likely to respond by rejecting the rejector (mainstream society) and the rules valued by the rejector (the law). A solution to this isolation is to turn to criminal subcultures, which provide a culture of pride in delinquency, as well as personal connections and resources. In this way, stigmatization of offenders perpetuates criminal behavior and ultimately makes communities less safe.

The only way to stop this destructive cycle of shame, is to learn to love the person who caused harm unconditionally, separating the person from the behavior. Learning to love those who have caused harm I feel is one of the greatest human lessons, and it is certainly not easy. It is a lesson put into practice by many of the most powerful leaders throughout human history including Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus. It is a difficult practice to learn to meet clients and hear their stories while holding this unconditional positive regard, and to learn how to not try to use your approval or disapproval to shape their behavior, but it is so necessary for effective facilitation. It is also in alignment with a restorative worldview, which sees all people as innately good and unconditionally worthy of love.

3. Empathetic Understanding (“Empathize”)

“When the therapist is sensing the feelings and personal meanings which the client is experiencing in each moment, when he can perceive these from ‘inside,’ as they seem to the client, and when he can successfully communicate something of that understanding to his client, then this third condition is fulfilled.” [4]

The final condition that Rogers emphasizes is empathy. This also relates to the dynamics of shame within the restorative justice process. Another of my favorite thinkers, Dr. Brené Brown, has said, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” When we are able to genuinely feel and express empathy to victim, offender, and communities of care, it helps to transform that shame into healing and a motivation to work towards making things right.

In my experience, the more you facilitate and the more you have the opportunity to practice putting yourself in the shoes of each participant in a restorative justice process and really feeling what they feel, the easier this becomes. It is something that must be practiced, and a skill that I hope that schools will emphasize to a greater degree in the future, because I see it as one of the most essential skills to being human.

There are, of course, other important skills, understandings, and abilities that contribute to good restorative justice facilitation. However, the three conditions outlined by Rogers seem like a powerful starting point. If we can learn to be real, to love, and to empathize with the people we work with, we are at a powerful starting point for facilitating positive transformation.


[1] Carl Rogers, “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 60, no. 6 (1992): 828.

[2] On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (London: Constable & Company Ltd. , 1961), 62.

[3] John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame and Reintegration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] Rogers, 62.