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 facilitative 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.

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.

Koru_artwork

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.