Helping with letters of apology, thoughts and tips.

When was the last time you opened a handwritten note?  Just a letter from someone. 

A few years ago in a waiting area, I was paging thru a magazine, Goodhousekeeping or Woman’s Day.  I ran across an article on writing a letter of apology.  It struck me that we expect our young people to do these letters and here was an article giving advice to grown women.

The article pointed out how we use email and handwriting in school has been replaced by keyboarding.  The article also advised that face to face is better than a letter, and you can even follow up a face to face apology with a letter.

Apology letters are still used as a ‘sanction’ (a court ordered condition).  Even in Restorative Justice Conferences, apology letters are often steps needed to ‘repair’ harm. 

Did your Dad every make your brother say “I’m sorry”.  You could tell your brother didn’t mean it.  It was Dad’s authority he was dealing with not, a heartfelt authentic expression.  Has a boyfriend/girlfriend, ever said “sorry” and you could tell they didn’t mean it they just wanted the argument to be over.

How do we help people write letters of apology, restoratively?

1.) connect to the letter writer.  Ask the person you are working with about their day.  Ask if they have anything to talk about that would be in the way of writing a good letter.  Ask them what they think about having to write the letter.  Let the person express, “I think this is crap”, if indeed they think it is crap.  You have to meet people where they are.  You need them to be honest with you.  Once you know where a person is at you ask “how do we make this less crappy?”.  Its really something known as “Motivational Interviewing”.  I am SO thankful for that class in 1993.

2.) Plan the meeting. Once on the same page, get commitment/agreement on what you will accomplish in this meeting with the letter writer.  Put a clear suggestion out there “lets focus for 15 minutes, we’ll brainstorm thoughts, then for 5 minutes you just write, then for 5 I’ll give you feedback”.  Get clear, and make sure the person agrees to the agenda before you start in.

3.) Dig in to the process.  I think a good letter is like a good speech, therefore – Intro, Body, Conclusion.  Explain the basic letter format, a few sentences at the beginning to cover who you are and why you are writing.  Second & third  paragraphs support a few key thoughts.  Work on just talking with the letter writer about what they want to convey in each of the paragraphs.  Remind the letter writer is that most victims want to know they were not targeted and that the harmful behavior won’t happen again.  Remember RJ is not about saying sorry – it’s about what are you going to do different.  Check in with letter writer, ask them if this is from their heart, or what they ‘think’ the other person wants to hear.  Use reflective questioning, ask how they would feel hearing this.  Read the letter back to the writer.

Recently I gave some young men sheets that have space for brainstorming how the victim might have been harmed, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  They were given three minutes to brainstorm all the phrases, words, ideas that came to mind.  My goal was to get them to write something down as a start.  Then we played a game, the boys each took turns saying one of the words they wrote down, and the letter helpers had to guess what category (physically, mentally, etc).  You can keep the process about learning and still make it fun.  You can have a little fun, play a game, what is really important – is to end with a reflective question!  “What did you learn from that”.  “Did you think of something new?”

4.) Provide Feedback Everyone wants to do a good job.  I believe that, I treat people like that.  I prefer to be treated and judged from the perspective I am trying to do a good job.  Yet . . . you don’t know what you don’t know.  If no one has taught you empathy, by being empathic towards you, you just don’t know what you don’t know.  Make suggestions on improvements, not judgements.  Give options for improvements.  Start statements with, “I wonder . . “, “here’s a thought . . .”  Keep the letter writer encouraged.  At the end of the meeting, ask the letter writer to explain what they thought of the meeting.  Even just a 1-10 rating, 1 being terrible and 10 being super, make up your 1-10 scale based on the person you are working with.   Ask them how they feel about getting the letter done.  Thank them for all the positives they showed you – (staying on task, being respectful, being honest).  Be genuine about your experience – use affective statements.  For example “it made me happy and relieved that you committed to do this”.  “I felt sad and frustrated when you kept saying you didn’t know what to write”. 

Have you been in a Restorative Justice Circle?  If you have been in one with me, you know the 4 stages.  Look at my list above – it’s the 4 stages of the Circle!  1.) getting acquainted 2.)building relationships 3.) addressing issues and 4.) taking action!

Good luck – letter writer helpers!  You’re volunteer work here is very valuable – I appreciate you helping SCVRJP!

– Kris