Strategic use of questions, when facilitating talking circles.

How many questions do you ask in a day?  How many times do you ask questions that you either a) ask to be polite or b.) already know the answer.  A type a) question might be “how was your weekend”, “how was your day”.  Conversation started, questions that get a little dialogue going.  Surface level dialogue.

A type b.) question might be “are you done with that assignment?”.  It is likely that if I ask that, I know it is not done, but I need to ask as a way to nudge that person I want it completed.  Maybe I am grouchy today, but as I think about questions I ask, I do the very little real inquiry compared to the planning and purposefulness of Circle questions.

When you are keeping a Circle, asking a questions is really important.  Setting the tone, role modeling, guiding the process vs facilitating is important.  Asking questions that you pass the talking piece around is a develop-worthy skill.  I’ve learned by asking double questions, run on questions and questions that didn’t make much sense.

The reason I’ve learned what types work and don’t work is because of trying.  There is the obvious and the not obvious reason for asking questions.  Obviously you want to get the conversation going.  Obviously you want to hear how a person was impacted.  What you keep under the radar the “not obvious” part is empowering people, connecting people to each other by getting them to share non-threatening information.  The “not-obvious” part is getting practice with the talking piece and practicing the lost art of one voice at a time.

I have some great coworkers, who are picking up quickly and I want to share a recent set of questions designed for a Circle to build community in a drug court program.

Phase One:
     – If you weren’t here right now, where would you be?
     – Who is your favorite super hero and why?
     – What is something you have always wanted to learn?
Phase Two:
     -What is something you are good at and how did you learn how to do it?
     – What is a valuable lesson you had to learn “the hard way”?
     – What is your most prized possession and why?
Phase Three:
     -How do you get support/ what fills your spirit?
     -What do you do when you are faced with an uncomfortable situation? (Triggers, cravings, etc.)
     -How do you think the community is affected by drug use?
Phase Four:
     – What do you plan to do each day to honor your committment to staying sober? (Honor any committment you have made)
     – How can you support others in Drug Court? (Others you are involved with)
     -What is one thing you will take away from tonight’s circle?

Starting Restorative Justice Circles by engaging values as guidelines.

The basic foundation of positive relationships is to live in your best sense of relationship values.  I use the word “sense” because I think this is a way to understand the spiritual sense of who we are as people.  I believe we are all spiritual, emotional, mental and physical.  By understanding our relationship to ourselves and others based on these four aspects of ourselves, we grow.

My way of setting up Circles includes engaging people with values immediately.  I get people arranged in Circle, and explain what Restorative Justice is, what constitutes a Circle (values, talking piece, open, close, confidentiality, taking turns, equality).  The first thing after the selected reading is to ask people to join in creating our Center.

I use a capital on Center, because the Center of a Circle, represents to me, being Centered in a good way.  To operate with our focus on the collective instead of the individual.  I say “this is a time to put WE ahead of ME”.

The first step is to ask people to think of someone they are close to.  This starts building our sense of community.  As our brains bring up a memory of a family member or spouse, good feelings tend to wash over us.  Flooding our brains with positive hormones (the physical aspects of you we are).  I ask people to then select an important aspect of that relationship. 

This usually has people confused.  We seldom express or talk about these aspects to our relationships.  Values are our inner beliefs and ways of relating to others.  We are often doing our values, but not expressly saying “this is me being _(value)_.  I tend to repeat the directions, I try to get people to focus on a specific relationship rather than just a vague expression of what is important. 

By focusing on a specific person, when we share the values we can share a specific example and demonstrate what our values look like in action.

The values are then placed in the Center, to create what the process will center around.

I explain that if these are good values for our relationships outside of Circle, that we could bring them into this Circle.

Depending on the sense I have of the emotional climate, or if I am waiting for people I might share a story or example.  I point out that from middle school to prison, people express the same types of things being important (respect, honesty, love).

The very next round is the first pass with the talking piece, and we share what we have put on the plates and place them in the Center.  The next round is to ask people for a committment to honor these.  Consensus is brought in, as we all agree or acknowledge that we will try to live by the values in the Center.

I like doing it this way, asking people to think of those close to them, identifying the most important aspect.  Acknowledging how our relationships contribute to us happens when people share what and why they put the value on the plate.  It also saves time, if that is a concern.  I have been in other Circles where the facilitator(s) had us identify other ‘guidelines’, and those are placed on the wall outside of the Circle.  My experience our values in the Center, help enough to be grounded and let people express themselves with honesty, respect and others in the Center.

If the Circle needs it, clarifying behaviors/guidelines could also happen.  The questions I specifically use:

1.) think of someone you are close to.

2.) now consider what is the most important aspect to that relationship.  What one thing makes it special?

3.) write that on the paper plate, not the person, but the word that is most important.

Being forced to know how to spell “leukemia” is hurting my heart.

I am a creative person, remembering how to spell words, or use grammer rules escapes me.  Maybe it has nothing to do with creativity and more to do with I don’t care much about concrete details, I care more about emotional climate.  Who knows.  I am feeling confused right now.

Confused over cancer.  Confused over how one day a person’s life is normal and the next day your brothers wife has leukemia.  Our family dealt with a Mom with cancer when my brother and I were 13 & 11.  It took a split second and we were re-grieving these wounds.  The first voicemail from my Dad, following the news: “I know exactly what he’s going through”.  My Mom has been gone for 22 years.

You do what you know.  My Aunt came and took care of my Mom.  She showed me that sibiling put it out there for each other in time of need.  My brother needs me.  His wife needs me.  Their beautiful kids need me.  I am going to stay with them for 19 days.  I am going to be the maid, the Mary Poppins and the super fun “Aunt Kris”.

In putting my life in order, in order to be gone, I have to use the word leukemia.  I have to spell check it every time.  Denial, I don’t want to have to memorize it.  Anger, I don’t want it in my life.  Yet emotional strength is what I need right now.  Right now, I need to tend to what is in front of me.  I believe that people evolve emotionally.  At some point we have to learn what to do with our feelings in order to not hurt others or ourselves.  We learn that anger doesn’t serve us, and it’s best to get to the point of learning.

I am left with lingering wisdom from many crime victims.  When people process through things, they get to a point of resolution or learning how to live with their circumstances.  No matter the type of harm, harm hurts.  Restorative Justice sees crime as harm to people and relationships.  From seeing so many people and helping them get to a restorative set point, which I believe means processing the hurt, I can get their quicker myself.  (Or so I would like to think).  The gifts of my professional work are again, helping me personally.

I have to live with the fact I now need to spell leukemia.  I am just going to have a deep sigh and move on.  None of us can change the past.  We can however, adjust ourselves for the future.

Circles are a strong containers allowing the release of trauma.

The boys 4 and 2 were in the back seat, I was passenger.  My friends son’s oldest was a little wound up, acting his age.  His brother started to cry and suspect was the older sibiling holding a pencil.  Mom addressed the situation as best she could driving.  I was keeping an eye on the action.  The pencil was tossed down and the little guy started talking about “goodbye roughhousing, welcome gentleness”.  At the same time he was motioning cupped hands out the window, and bringing his hands back to his face.

It was a sweet, sweet moment.

I have found myself so open and appreciative of children.  When I offered to hold a strangers baby, so he could fasten her seat, he politely declined.  I simply explain my empty nest.

The way my little friend tossed away his roughhousing reminded me of how stories told in Circle help us release trauma.

You never know what lies beneath the surface of a person’s life.  A simple question “what is an an experience that impacted you during middle school” was asked during my recent training in the Washington DC area.

Circles are safe, they are set up with values at the beginning.  As people share they sometimes are unaware themselves what lies beneath the surface.  When someone starts to cry, it shifts the energy in the room.  Our brains and hearts are engaged.  Crying is healing, and I believe that releasing trauma and telling stories is an avenue for that healing.

One person shared that in 8th grade, September 11th happened.  She started to choke up as she related being afraid of the sky.  I could feel our entire Circle was processing these moments.  September 11 is a collective tragedy, as a community, nation and world we experienced this event.  Hearing her story made it very personal and very real.  It occured to me how much differently this was for the people in the Circle, than for me, a midwesterner.  Janine Geske uses this as an example of how we are impacted by crime as community members.  I felt it so much deeper after this story.

We had another wonderful story, that was a lesson for us all.

When Eddie was in the 7th grade, he found his teacher “cute”, he always said “Good Morning Ms. Harris”.  Eddie shared she wasn’t the nice type.  She would respond with “we’ll see if it’s gonna be a ‘good’ day”.  Eddie would be there the next day, “Good Morning, Ms. Harris” and she would respond “I don’t see anything ‘good’ about it”.  We all chuckled as the story was told with inflection.  Then Eddie shared, years later when he was a teacher, he saw Ms. Harris in a grocery store.  He said it with a smile that she looked “exactly the same”.  He approached her, “are you Ms. Harris, you were my 7th grade teacher”.  Eddie told us she said:  “I remember you Eddie Davis, you said good morning every day. I’ve always wanted to apologize to you, because I wasn’t very nice then, I was going through a really tough time in my life”.

It seemed the whole circle smile through the heart and sighed.

Our strong container allowed Ms. Harris to release a bit of trauma.  It might have taken 30 years, but we all learned the power of an apology.  And Eddie, he learned not to let his mood impact how he relates to students.  Thank goodness for our lessons from 7th grade.

Restorative Justice Circles work with curiosity and judgement.

Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea have written a beautiful book, The Circle Way

The style and format is different than a Restorative Justice Circle, but the theory and philosophy of Circle made it a great read for me.  If you are a fan of Circle process you’ll also want to read Christina’s book Calling the Circle.

This post is about a few statements from page 68 of the book.  The authors share:

“Judgement is a form of self-defense, a way of guaranteeing that one’s opinion or worldview is not about to be changed. When curiosity is replaces judgement as a thought process, it invites consideration of another’s opinion and worldview.  Curiosity and judgement cannot function simultaneously in the mind.”

Imagine the person who has an “us” and “them” mentality.  A person that has a clear distinction between the “have’s” and the “have not’s”.  Anytime we think things like, “I would never do that”, “that would never happen to me” then we are starting to raise our “us vs them” mentality.  This is judgement.

What restorative justice bring to people is an answer to curiosities.  Typically a victim wants to know “why did you do this to me?”.  When people want to seek some answers or clarification, they must be curious.  If a person wants to answers to simply confim judgements, a provider or restorative justice should explore this further.  Exploring motivations for restorative justice is important in preparing people for restorative justice dialogue.

I have found a wonderful way to prepare people is to simply begin with listening.  Just as curiosity opens us up to hear another, curiosity as an approach is good for a facilitator.  Be mindful if you have judgements coming up in a pre-conferencing session.  Stay with the curiosity about the person’s experience.  Let them put their experience out in front.

You can use curiosity effectively, by asking the victim about where they developed their understanding of the crime.  Maybe even ask is they have thought about why a person would commit a crime.  I hesitate to give a specific list of questions, because each victim is unique and you need to ask questions as your pre-conference unfolds, and where people are at.

I use little leads when speaking about Restorative Justice.  I acknowledge to my college students, or others I am teaching about RJ, that they are probably going to think “no way would I ever want to meet the person who killed my loved one”.  I say “that’s okay, but if you ever wanted to, or for people that do want to, don’t you agree the process should be available for them?”.  I take the judgement that I have heard many times over, and use it up front.

The tool to get curious when you are feeling judgemental could help all of us be a bit more inclusive.  Inclusiveness is a core part of Circles and Restorative Justice.

You can’t change the past, but you can change what you learn from it.

Recently I was in a full day training with Mark Carey,  the local Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee sponsored the training for area professionals and community members.  I got to sit next to our Judge and interact with engaged community members and fellow professionals around the topic of improving our impact on juvenile delinquency.

The main focus of our training was to learn more about being effective by addressing criminogenic needs, (and risks) demonstrated by youth.  The link I provided, is slightly different than our training materials.  In the material the first identified criminogenic need/risk was “criminal history”.  Mark advised us he didn’t care much for this one, because you can’t change it.

It can be my nature, to do what you tell me I can’t.  I was listening, but also applying my ‘restorative justice’ lens to Mark’s presentation.  I thought how restorative justice helps replace the past in a certain way, by focusing the lesson within.

I would love to get more upfront, diversion type of cases.  Yet I see and appreciate the value when we get cases that are a year out since the crime.  These are usually the cases where RJ has been court-ordered, often the vicitms have moved beyond wanting to meet face to face.  This doesn’t stop our program from administering some RJ.  SCVRJP uses Victim Empathy Seminars (VES), which involved multiple offenders (and parents in the case of juvenile).  Community members are part of all SCVRJP Circles, VES’s included.

It is these ‘dated’ cases where the community gets to see what our court system is getting involved with.  These cases are often going well at the present moment and the community gets to reinforce the positive behavior change.  Harvesting the wisdom from the incident often occurs.  It is not uncommon for talk about the situation be that without it, significant life changes would not have occurred.  Often times the VES allows for a sense of closure, by describing what happened in the past, you write the last chapter, you describe how you are now.  The past is really “past tense”.

If youth that were being evaluated for ‘criminogenic risk’ didn’t have a history, perhaps we’ve jumped the gun and over responded.  That was another point in the training, that providers can make things worse by over-responding.

I am excited where the field is right now.  I am thankful we are looking at how to do this work better.  I believe in Evidence Based, but I balance that as learned in the book Deep Brain Learning.  Our profession is doing what restorative justice does with this criminogenic factor – you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it.

Restorative Justice Professionalism means caring about each and every relationship.

Restorative Justice is a philosophy, approach and even a life style of living in “right relationship“.  I have written several blog posts about what is REAL restorative justice. (post on rj relationships)

What does a Restorative Justice professional look like then?

  1. Relationship focused.  Connections you make and how you connect others is being a restorative justice professional

A professional is a person who operates with clear standards and practices.  Restorative Justice provides us clear values and processes.  Being a professional also means keeping a committment to continued learning about your profession.  That is why professional licenses require continuing educational credits.  I recently saw this in action, and believe that Russ Kelly is a restorative justice professional.

I sent a copy of his book, From Scoundrel To Scholar… The Russ Kelly Story to a young man in prison.  My prison pen pal credits a restorative justice circle to prompting his transformation of understanding the harm he caused his victims.  This person is mentioned in the article I wrote for the American Humane Association article in Protecting Children.

My “pen pal” noticed that the book was self published and he wrote a letter to Russ Kelly, and Russ wrote back.  I am hoping to get in contact with Russ myself!  The Restorative Justice professional, sees each relationship as important.  It is extending the common element and value of RJ, respect, to everyone.  It is seeing in everyone the potential for a bilateral relationship, being open to how you can leave the interaction better as well as helping the other person be better.

Being a “RJ professional” means being mindful of the relationships that the incident of harm had to the people involved.  In a case of perjury, I asked a judge from a different jurisdiction to be part of the Circle.  As it happened the Judge never spoke much from the perspective of a judge, she spoke from the perspective of a community member getting to hear a father tell his daughter how much she was loved.

Being professional and mindful of relationships means really thinking about who was impacted.  I’ve spoken to bus drivers when conflict happened on the bus.  I’ve asked people retired from a profession to sit in when the profession was harmed by the incident we were dealing with.  It’s engaging these “bystander” level victims and processing how they were impacted.

A restorative justice professional realizes that people have their own unique response to crime and that by understanding that person’s relationship to the harm you can help. 

It is important to also understand other professionals and their role to crime and or misbehavior.  A teachers view of discipline and misconduct is very relevant to teaching them about RJ.  A police officer that has gotten cynical about people in general can be a tougher sell about RJ.

Being a Restorative Justice Professional means carrying yourself and your interactions on a level that is mindful of others.  I wish I was always great with this, I have my moments of greatness and moments of weakness.  It’s how you handle your weakest parts that makes you strong.  A RJ professional will take actions to repair harm and carry forward without causing further harm.

Look deeply and find the gift given.

I am so blessed with a wonderful mentor.  He and I meet every few months, I share updates about SCVRJP and myself.

He recently gave me such an honest gift.  He told me that I am intelligent, beautiful on the inside and have enormous passion.  This was followed by the observation that I am not good at receiving what is or I perceive as criticism.  This was his observation, offered with my permission.  My mentor has known me for over 10 years, I value his perspective.

My mentor is skilled in using stories to give me wisdom.  He related the experience of sharing 99 Excellent ratings, and 1 Poor rating with a consultant.  The guidance was to really pay attention to the “poor” rating that is where the lesson in improving is.

So I did this recently.

Feedback on my performance review was that I should try not to get new grant money for new programs, that I should get grants for existing programs.  I thought of this, and know that you get grants for new projects.  I was thinking of stories to explain this.  A few examples were easy, demonstrating why a few other non-profits have taken on other projects.  I then thought about another non-profit that gets to stay very consistent with services and not seek out new projects.  It occurred to me that this non-profit receives state funding.  AH-HA .  .  . that is what I need to do!

I need to work on getting Restorative Justice government funding! H.R 4286,  is proposed to allow schools to use funds for Restorative Justice training.  As luck would have it I am going to Washington DC!  I’m going to DC to train a school on using RJ.  How perfect is this?  I emailed my WI legislators and plan to get a visit with staff and leave a message at each office.

Had I not spent time processing about the critique regarding my grant getting attempts, I would not have realized this crucial aspect of promoting Restorative Justice in a larger context.  I am nowhere near perfect now, at taking critique and not feeling offended.  What I have realized is that this gift of advice, which I suspect is a Buddhist practice, “to find the gift given” means I have to find a moment of pause and neutrality and instead of reacting to the feedback, I found my outlet to get to what the person providing feedback wanted – for me to find ways to get funds for existing programs.

Next time you feel insulted, try to find the gift given.  Next time you are helping prepare people for a restorative session, maybe you can relate a story about a gift you found.