2013-02-05

Conflict is a Good Thing

Restoration begins with the simplicity, elegance, and wholeness of a circle. One person speaks from the heart and everyone else listens – listens attentively. The wonderful gift of attention signals caring. A context of caring begins to transform people. Participants speak of what they felt, what they were looking for at the time they chose to act, and what they're ready to commit to doing.

Dominic Barter points out that the very term “conflict resolution” often functions to encourage us in wishing the conflict would just go away: “resolve it, get it over with, get it out of my consciousness.” Conflict is a good thing. It's true that sometimes conflicts get started by actions we wouldn't judge "good." Even so, the actions are always products of a system of relationships. Relationships inflict wounds, and they also are ultimately our only chance of healing. Having conflicts, engaging conflicts, is the way that we attend to building and maintaining relationships and community. Show me a community without conflict and I will show you a group of people so detached and disengaged as to not be worthy of the name community.

One of the points that Dominic Barter stresses about Restorative Circles is that the community must understand and approve – buy in to the process for how to have conflicts. That understanding needs to be in place. It doesn’t work so well if a conflict is already erupting and then someone says, “I’ve heard about this thing called Restorative Circles; let’s try it,” yet no one else knows what it is. In that case, the learning of the process, how to engage it, gets distorted by the emotions that are already swirling around the particular conflict.

If the whole community understands and has accepted Restorative Circles, then the reverse happens: the way people initially process the conflict in their own hearts and minds is shaped by knowing in advance how that conflict will be engaged.

The restorative justice movement has its roots in clearly illegal harms that one person may inflict on another – murder, battery, property damage. Yet we need restoration, too, in cases where, evidently, no law has been broken. We need restorative processes whenever there is conflict. So some schools, churches, workplaces are beginning to adopt restorative circle practice. A number of Unitarian Universalist Fellowships have used Dominic Barter's Restorative Circle process, and others have begun to explore that possibility.

If it’s going to work for any community, its members will need to know the details and be trained in a method for engaging conflicts before they arise – a method that encourages rather than suppresses conflict, and thereby allows for healing together. Absent such a method, the only choice is between nursing ones wounds silently to onself, or lashing out in a way that only wounds others in turn.
“Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other” (Ojibway prayer).
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This is part 5 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Previous: Part 4: "Making Healing Part of Justice"
Beginning: Part 1: "Crime and Punishment"