“What would you like to see come out of today’s meeting?”
This is a question we ask as the last part of a restorative circle—a formal, structured conversation to address a conflict or when harm has occurred.
By the time we get to this point in the conversation, usually 1 to 2 hours have passed. Participants are usually tired and sometimes confused—when the way forward still isn’t clear, or sometimes relieved—when things have not been as bad as anticipated. A group will now spend up to another hour arriving at next steps.
The “what next” question is critical to move forward. Participants will have already discussed “What happened?” “Who has been affected by the situation and in what ways?” “What’s been the hardest thing for you?” “What needs to happen to move forward?” and “What are you willing to do to help things move forward?”
If the situation is one where someone has harmed someone else, the person who caused the harm will have also answered the questions “What were you thinking at the time?” and “What have you thought about since?”
We ask a lot of questions.
A restorative circle is highly structured by the protocols leading up to the circle, the questions asked before and during the circle, the seating arrangement, and the speaking order. We set up for success, meaning we do all we can to ensure the participants feel safe enough to speak freely and together find a way forward.
Our success rate is high. Participants usually do find a way to move forward. It might be a baby step; it might be a giant leap forward. But usually there’s movement.
Now and then things do not go well. Success is not achieved. The circle crumbles and no movement forward is achieved. People leave upset.
While it’s important to reflect on what happened when a circle goes off the rails, I find it much more interesting to try to figure out what’s happening when things go well, which is most of the time.
Recently a couple of circles have amazed me by their outcome. Participants have really listened to each other, opened up to each other’s perspectives and taken responsibility for their own behaviour.
A shift happens when “the other” who was seen as “the enemy” or as a threat is now seen as someone with good qualities and with value as a human being, as a person. Someone the other participants need and want to connect with.
This issue is no longer the terrible person. This does not mean that someone is suddenly off the hook but that the situation that has brought people together is seen through a different lens—the lens of connection rather than disconnection, the lens of wonder rather than judgment and accusation, the lens of empathy rather than disdain and punishment, the lens of community, of sticking together, rather than alienation.
What would you like to see come out of today’s meeting? Connection. Deepening relationships. Understanding. How are you going to achieve that? What’s that going to look like? Smell like? Taste like? The conversation continues until participants reach an agreement that might be a baby step forward, or maybe even a giant leap.
Whatever the size of step forward, congratulations and celebration are in order.