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How do our words affect others and our practice?

July 13, 2010

A few things happened recently that caused me to start thinking along these lines again. First, several weeks ago I participated in a training for new facilitators. One person asked what we as facilitators get from the process. My response was something like “helping people in a very difficult situation communicate with each other so that they can develop their own solutions.”  The reaction was, “Is that all?” This opened a discussion on the desire to see changed lives and remorseful offenders. 

The second event was a disagreement that I had with an individual about describing a restorative justice programme as successfully helping victims and offenders find healing and reconciliation. I have to be honest. I cringe at that description. It strikes me as prescribing outcomes for those we serve.

Thirdly, Jennifer Bishop Jenkins posted a comment about healing not being the right word on an RJOB entry. In her comment, Jenkins says, “Healing is a problematic term for many of us because it implies some sort of “disease” model where there is something wrong with US and we need to be made well.” I think this solidified some of the dis-ease I was feeling with both the questions I was getting and descriptors I’ve heard. 

First, I think that the descriptors and the questions are actually connected. The words that we use could be an indication of what we’re expecting to see in a process. For example, when talking to clients, I often describe restorative justice as “a way of seeing crime as more than law breaking. While that is important, crime causes harm to people, to relationships, and to the community. For justice to be done, that harm needs to be dealt with. The best way of doing that is to bring together those who have caused harm with those who have been harmed to talk about what happened, how it affected everyone present and others, and decide how to move forward in the future.” When I facilitate a restorative conference that is exactly what I want to see.  My job is to create a space in which the participants can safely communicate with each other. The outcomes belong to the participants for it really is their process.

So, I’m concerned about the descriptors that we use. I never use the words “healing” or “reconciliation.” Now, I’ve facilitated conferences where these things have happened. I can remember the powerful emotional impact when a victim broke down in tears and told the offender that he would like to be a support for him. When the victim actually crossed the circle to embrace the offender, I could barely hold back the tears. It was an awesome moment. 

At the same time, I’ve also facilitated conferences where this didn’t happen. But, the participants all told me that they had gotten what they wanted out of the process. I remember talking to a woman who had lost her son in a car wreck. She met with the driver in a conference and was able to communicate her heartache from the loss of her son. The offender was able to talk about what happened on the day of the accident and express his own sorrow at the loss of his friend. It was a powerful conference, but in a different way. There wasn’t a renewal of relationships or the same type of forgiveness. Yet, when I talked to her six months later, the mother told me that she was glad that she had participated in the conference.  It was one step in her journey of learning to live with her new reality. 

As I see it, “healing,” “reconciliation,” and “forgiveness” are all very personal decisions. People need to choose their own paths for moving forward. I can’t prescribe this for anyone. I can help create a space for communication and understanding. In that space those affected by crime can make their own decisions about what they need to continue their journey to living in a new reality or with the new normal. That is why I cringe when we use “healing,” “reconciliation,” and “forgiveness” to describe a restorative process. 

But, it goes beyond what we are communicating. If I describe the restorative process as helping people come to things like “forgiveness,” I am looking for a specific outcome.  If I’m looking for such a response, will that affect the way that I interact with participants? Will I unconsciously push victims toward forgiveness? Can the expectation of “reconciliation” cause me to use words or actions to nudge the parties in that direction even if they don’t want it? 

When I do training, I talk about the importance of how we define success. Our definition of success will influence the way we do our work. That is why I define success as creating a safe place for communication and understanding for those affected by crime. It’s not totally unselfish for I really enjoy watching people come together in the conferencing process and genuinely communicate. The outcomes are up to them. If I do my job well, they will come up with what best suits them and their situation. If that happens, I’ve been successful (and there are times when I’m not).

So, I wonder about the words we use and what they communicate to others – whether they be participants or new facilitators. I also wonder what they mean for practice. Do the words we use to describe a restorative process indicate our definitions of success and influence our work? Or, am I simply over-thinking this? Are my own biases clouding I react to these words?

What do you think? I really would like feedback to gain a better perspective.


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