Core capacities of restorative justice practitioners

In January a small group gathered in Seattle for several days of restorative justice dialogue and we’ve continued the discussion since then by email. (The participants are listed below.) One of the questions raised was what we considered to be the core capacities of effective restorative justice practitioners. Aaron Lyons, a practitioner in Vancouver and a CJP alumnus, took the lead on this discussion and I invited him to contribute a guest blog entry. The following is his contribution.

Hi fellow Howard’s blog enthusiasts –

Recently I’ve been asking, “What are the core capacities, in terms of values, analytical tools, and skills, of an effective restorative justice practitioner?” Below are a few thoughts, shaped by but not necessarily representative of, the discussion among my Seattle mentors. What would you challenge or add to this list?

Let me say first that there seems to be a fundamental paradoxical question here:
How does one maintain a profound respect for whoever and whatever people are – including their needs, priorities, values, directions, stagnations, resistance, armoring, lack of movement, etc. – while at the same time holding space for movement toward “healing,” even seeing opportunity within situations of harm. How does one accept what they are and at the same time make room for them to become something else?

How do we value “repair” or “wholeness” and not impose this agenda on others? If we didn’t value these things, I’d question whether any of us would engage in this work (or am I wrong?). But as soon as we become attached to these values as outcomes, they are likely to elude us. Imposing “healing” on people would only work against the possibility of healing. The notion that our work has to do with BOTH valuing “wholeness” or “repair” or “healing” AND not pushing it on others suggests to me that there is a basic trust inherent in our work – a trust that by just bearing witness, by “maintaining a profound respect for whoever/whatever people are,” there can be a shift towards this wholeness of which we speak, even if it is called differently by different people.

So, what’s at the core of effective practice? Some thoughts.. and know that these ideas stem in large part from consultations with the mentors listed below.

*The ability to maintain a profound respect and empathy for whoever/whatever people are, while at the same time holding space for movement. (And the ability to be continually self-reflective with regard to this paradox.)

*The ability to take responsibility for our own actions and emotions (and model this to others).

*The ability to listen with empathy, regardless of agreement, including:
-asking probing questions
-quiet of the mind and presence
-attentive body language and verbal tone

*The skill of eliciting any unexpressed needs underlying negative statements, naming them and honoring them.

*Taking relationships seriously. For some, this means envisioning themselves within an interconnected web of mutual responsibility.

*The ability to maintain a grounded, non-anxious presence while experiencing the physiological sensation of strong emotion.

*A sense of personal boundaries: not internalizing the experiences of others, and similarly refraining from unconsciously asking others to identify with your own emotional experience.

*An ability to dwell in ambiguity and paradox, to think beyond either/or polarities.

Your turn to weigh in!

(Participants included Susan Sharpe, Aaron Lyons, Catherine Bargen, Matthew Hartman, Jennifer Haslett, Alan Edwards, Cristina Dann Arvidson, Ruth Yeo and Howard Zehr.)

5 comments on “Core capacities of restorative justice practitioners”

  1. jeff from says:

    Aaron et al, Thanks for doing this. I know that I face many struggles in the practice of RJ professionally and in my personal life. Just trying to know what the correct situational balance is between humility and evaluation is a constant question.

    Humility- making sure that I am leaving my stuff behind (judgment, evaluation, solutions, insecurities, expectations, etc.) and letting the healing swell to the surface. The pain created by harm is a vacuum and naturally wants something to fill that space. Healing is the ideal thing to fill that vacuum (transforming that pain), but sometimes it is transferred onto one self and/or others. For me, bringing people together in a restorative way and creating action or “not action” from a humble place allows the healing to bubble to the surface and fill the void. I’m not saying anything that you all don’t know, just reflecting here.

    Evaluation- trying to diagnose what is being said to find out what is not being said. To find out about those unexpressed needs; how do I know feelings/needs are there if there is no evaluation. I have to step out of humility to assess and access the feelings/needs that I think the person/people I am serving need to express.

    More often than not I error on the side of humility. Usually when I reflect on a situation in my RJ practice that has gone wrong, it was my expectation (created by my evaluation) going into the situation that lead me awry. Maybe I have poor evaluations skills.

    Many more questions and no answers on my end.

    Thank you all for this reflection. I know that it will stir in my mind for a long while. I do want to express sorrow for any hard feelings with regard to any hockey games played lately;). Thanks and shalom/salaam, jef

  2. Walter says:

    Thanks for your insight and the wisdom inherent in your thoughts.

    I would find it uncomfortable to be judged by the persons I am assisting, or to be marginalized when I am sincere, in whatever state that may be. I am often reminded that my job is to care, not to be careless or judgmental.

    I appreciated the comment that self-evaluation is an ongoing practice and of the importance of simultaneous compassion, empathy and reflective thinking. In my experience, I have found that I am best able to encourage growth, when I am gentle with the process, knowing that growth comes through the exercise of one’s strengths of whatever measure that may be.


  3. Alan Edwards says:

    Hi Aaron,

    Lovely to see your thoughts posted on Howard’s blog! I admire the depth and complexity of your efforts, as well as your drive to invite a similar deepening of practice on the part of RJ colleagues.

    You and I have been around the block a bit about some of the ideas you’ve expressed, and I would like to reflect on a couple of ideas that we haven’t covered yet, ones that you generously touch upon in your outline above.

    With respect to your first point, I do not see the paradox that you are referring to. If we are true to our ethic of meeting people where they’re at (not where we wish they were at or think they should be at), then movement in any direction by a participant would not be paradoxical; the specifics of the movement may be surprising to us, but movement itself simply represents part of the participant’s ongoing processing of their situation and also possible shifts in the nature of the relationship between participants. One theoretical pre-supposition in my work as a RJ facilitator is drawn in part from Sara Cobb’s work, that “stories change through interaction with others” and, from a narrative perspective, when the stories a person tells change, the person also changes. This means, to me anyway, that there is no paradox here. Or perhaps I’m missing your point entirely.

    Your third point concerns me a bit. Your emphasis on “acknowledgement”, “probing questions” (and in your point #4 reference to reframing) suggests to me that you are making the case for practitioner facility with active listening skills. While I strongly agree with you that RJ facilitators need to be highly skilled and comfortable with active listening skills, the skills themselves, in my view, are the least of what we bring to our interactions with participants. I would argue that active listening skills have become a bit of an albatross around our necks in RJ, and are keeping us from a more complex, responsive, and nuanced approach to our interaction with participants.

    Your fifth point has to do with the idea that relationships matter and that, for some, this conviction is wrapped up in a relational worldview. What does it mean to say that relationships matter? What happens when relationships matter more to us (the facilitators) than to the participants themselves? What risks do we run, in that situation, of pushing/pulling/prodding/coercing participants into areas and/or agreements that are not genuinely in their self-defined interest? I think RJ in general has not done a great job, to date, in honouring participant self-determination; that’s why there seems to be so much coercing of participants and lecturing them (especially young offenders) going on in the name of RJ. Whose values carry the day when values between practitioner and participant are at odds? I wonder if your convictions about the importance of relationships may rub uncomfortably against your respect for participant self-determination. This is not at all to suggest, when RJ values are in conflict with each other, that there is something necessarily wrong. Rather, I’m suggesting that your priority on relationships is potentially problematic. And what of those practitioners who do not subscribe to the relational worldview? Is RJ practiced by an individualist less grounded or authentic than when it is practiced by a relationalist;?

    Your ideas seem to point in the direction of making meaningful links between practitioner worldview (some would define it as ideology) and the quality and nature of their RJ practice. If that is what you’re observing, I completely agree. “Practitioner worldview” is a topic that seems generally completely ignored in favour of discussions and training about “RJ values”; yet it is the practitioner’s worldview through which s/he will interpret those values – adhere to some, enhance some, ignore others, and replace some with their own convictions; many of the nightmare scenarios of punitive, degrading RJ processes that we hear about may be attributable to this. Your efforts to link worldview to practice are important, and I would love to hear more from you about this.

    Thanks for putting your ‘stuff’ out there for comments! And good luck with where you go from here.

    All the best,

  4. Aaron Lyons says:

    Great reading these thoughts and reflections from all.

    Alan, I’m especially glad you pushed back on the paradox I attempted to set up. This might be a tough one to tackle without another evening at an east coast pub, but for what it’s worth:

    What is it that you value about RJ practice Alan? You are such a clear and eloquent spokesman for participant self-determination, but what is the belief that underlies that advocacy? What do you hope will be achieved through self-determination? What draws you to work and fight to allow this kind of self-determination to happen within systems of justice that actively discourage it?

    I believe self-determination is itself subject to the paradox I am trying to describe. If we believe self-determination is ‘good,’ what happens when someone is not self-determining? As I understand self-determination, it’s opposite would be being controlled by external forces or people, or not having a meaningful voice of one’s own. So what does someone who values self-determination in others do when confronting it’s opposite? Would we not help a person find their voice? And if this is our response, it is subject to the same type of criticism that a disposition toward ‘healing’ is subject to – i.e., that we are giving preference of one state over another, thus risking the imposition of our personal agenda on another. To me the paradox is that at the very moment of taking action in the world – in any way, be it building a house or intervening after harm – we are expressing a preference of one state over another. Yet this work demands equally that we allow the people that we encounter to be just who and what they are. Not sure if this clarifies at all, or if it just sounds like brain swill – but I suppose that beyond this it’s back to the pub!

    Regarding relationships – I’m not sure I can see RJ in an individualistic frame. I don’t see why RJ would matter if relationships don’t matter. Perhaps this is because I was conditioned early on by youth justice processes which sought to re-weave the ‘web’ of care around both youth and victim. That objective seemed based on an assumption that certain relationships a) help people in recovery from harmful events, and b) tend to prevent harm from happening in the first place. Building relationships was an agenda of ours as intervenors – and an agenda which is still rooted in what I believe to be sound science telling us that humans have evolved to be social/relational animals (e.g. Mary Clark \In Search of Human Nature\).

    I see that particularly in cases involving severe violence and long periods of incarceration, RJ often appears to be very solitary journey. Still, I would argue that relationships – whether with you as the facilitator, with those friends or family members willing to weather the storm with the victim/survivor or inmate, with therapists or institutional staff, or with the person at the other end of the harm – have seemed in my limited experience in this arena to play pivotal roles in a person’s ability make sense of things. I’d be curious to know if this aligns with your experience as well.

    I recognize that just because I see a pattern wherein people involved in an affected by harms tend to benefit from having relationships, doesn’t mean that we as facilitators need to become crusaders for the value of relationship. But to provide a gentle invitation toward relationship (whether with us or someone else) to people who are suffering seems…helpful somehow.

    I know – I’m swamped in my biases with little chance of escape! Throw me another rope if you have the patience!

    Thanks again for the dialogue,

  5. Roberta Babinet says:

    As an RJ facilitator my experience is that the most important quality to hold is unconditional loving for everyone present including myself. This brings clarity. With a great trust in the process and a willingness to go where the process will allow it always seems to work.

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