Restorative Circles: Community Empowered to Walk Toward Their Conflicts
At 6 A.M. Anton awakens with a start, hearing his six-year-old son crying out in fear. Looking into the street, Anton sees twelve tanks rumbling past their apartment building. The unpredictable appearance of tanks is just one of the challenges living 15 kilometers from a war zone. Unidentified, heavily armed masked gunmen patrol the streets, their vicious-looking dogs snarling at their feet. The regional water system has been destroyed, leaving only one open-pit well to supply the entire town. This is life for civilians along the war-front in eastern Ukraine as the conflict drags on.
Most of the men from this town have fled to fight for the rebels at the war front. But Anton has chosen not to flee, nor to fight. Instead he has stayed to try to bring peace to his culturally Russian community. At the very least, he hopes to lower the explosive tension between the community and the Ukrainian army battalion stationed in the heart of his town. The two groups have lived in close quarters for a year now, interacting only when they have no choice. The atmosphere has been fraught with tension, including episodes of violence, and none of Anton’s efforts have borne fruit. But then he discovered Restorative Circles and he was hopeful for the first time.
Recent studies on community well-being show that a strong web of relationships is the most important factor in community strength and resilience—especially during conflict. This web of connections serves the community in three powerful ways: by providing the means to satisfy everyone’s needs, by protect everyone’s rights, and by supporting everyone in taking responsibility for the whole community. A community with these attributes is said to possess strong social capital.1 And social capital is vital in unifying a nation. Putting all this together, we clearly see that relationships are the foundation for sustainable peace. As peacebuilders and mediators, we know this.2 Yet how do we support people like Anton and his community to repair the torn fabric of their relationships? The leaders of Anton’s community had not spoken with the army battalion; there was no relationship. We talk about multitrack approaches to peace, but how do we empower communities to create linkages with middle and top leadership that establish a mutual understanding of challenges and needs, create a flow of support, and empower inclusive decision-making? Pragmatic answers to these questions are the core of effective peacebuilding.
In this paper I will show how a restorative practice called Restorative Circles (RC) gives participants in complex, multi-level conflicts specific, practical tools to build and sustain peace. The innovative dialogue process used in an RC is uniquely powerful in repairing the damage to relationships caused by conflict. Restorative Circles’ community-centered approach builds skills and systems that sustain those peaceful relationships. And the RC model’s strong ability to hold many levels of complexity enables robust relationships to be built within a community, horizontally between communities, and vertically with mid-range and top national leadership.
Dominic Barter developed Restorative Circles in co-creation with the residents of poverty-stricken favela communities in Brazil. The communities were ruled by drug gangs and struggled daily with violent conflict. But they had no access to the formal justice system. So they developed a conflict transformation system that they could run by themselves. A Restorative Circle consists of three phases: a Pre-Circle, a Circle, and a Post-Circle. In the Pre-Circle a community facilitator meets separately with each of the parties in the conflict, listening to them empathically to prepare them for the circle. In the Circle all parties meet to dialogue in a unique way using three specific questions and ending with the formation of an action plan. The Post-Circle is held some weeks later so all the conflict parties can evaluate their satisfaction with what has unfolded since the circle.
I. Transforming Conflict With a Unique Dialogue Process
Dialogue should serve to build relationships. When it works, dialogue is essential in transforming conflict. Yet not all dialogue formats optimally support transformation. Here’s why. Dialogue, has two parts or skills: expression and the reception of that expression, which we call “listening.” Most mediations and dialogues highlight expression. The speaker expresses her thoughts, and we assume that the listener is accurately hearing the speaker–whether directly or through a mediator. We assume silence equals comprehension. Yet as every human being in conflict has experienced, listening is not so easy. Our own internal counter-arguments and our desire to express them prevent us from taking in our enemy’s words, let alone their deeper meaning. This kind of “listening” will not support transformation.3
In a Restorative Circle, each time a person speaks, they choose a participant to listen to them. Every minute or two, this listener is invited to reflect back what the speaker has said, focusing not on their words but on the main message or most important point the speaker has made. With support from the facilitator as needed, the listener begins to connect to the heart of the speaker’s experience, the meaning beneath their words. In other words, they learn how to listen with empathy.
Empathy is the ability to hear the nature or essential qualities of experience that the speaker is expressing. It goes much deeper than the specifics of who, what, when, where, and how. Empathy enables us to take in what the speaker is saying deeply enough for us to be touched, changed, and possibly even transformed. We begin to get a deep sense of what life is like for the speaker in the context of this conflict. In effect, we walk a mile in the speaker’s shoes. This creates a depth of understanding that transforms our enemy images, rehumanizes those we fear and hate, and builds a strong bond of connection, leading to trust.4
Here we come to a core power of Restorative Circles. By empathizing deeply with each other in this way, we create a powerful container of safety and trust in which even our strongest emotions can be safely held. When we are in conflict, intense emotions like anger, hatred, fear, and loss rages through our bodies. Our emotional hard drive is overloaded. Until this pressure is released, our ability to take in and register new information is severely limited. It is in these moments of overwhelm that we experience most clearly the power of empathic listening. When we are heard with empathy, we can fully experience all our emotions—but in way that enables them to be transformed and released.5 With the release of our painful emotions, we recover the ability to deeply take in each other’s painful stories. 6
When communities in conflict come together and dialogue in this way they build mutual understanding and trust, re-weaving the torn web of relationships between them. I witnessed this transformation in a RC in Peru last year. A woman in the circle had lost several family members, her land, and her home in the 20-year civil war. In addition, members of the Shining Path rebel group had sexually assaulted her. In the circle, she chose a former Shining Path rebel to be her listener. He empathized with her as she described the horror of her experience. Having been heard this way, she was then able to empathize with him, hearing why he had done what he did. He expressed profound sorrow. She forgave him. Their relationship was transformed, creating a palpable shift in the whole group.
The unfolding exchange of empathy in the Restorative Circles dialogue process leads participants to new ways of seeing and understanding each other. They see each other’s actions in a new light, and their beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes soften. This shift lays the groundwork for participants to change their behavior toward each other. We see this happening in a Circle as participants begin to speak with a degree of truth that they are unaccustomed to experiencing even within their own families or groups.7
II. Leveraging the Power of Community
One of RC’s greatest strengths lies in giving decision-making power to the community itself. This has a powerful democratizing effect on the peacebuilding process. The RC process is grounded in community. It is the community, not a mediator or facilitator, that determines the dialogue structure and process. The community decides who will participate, what actions will be taken to transform the conflict, and how those actions will be evaluated. In fact, the community is encouraged to formalize these decisions by creating a Restorative System – a set of agreements that outlines in detail the process of how they’ve agreed to work with conflicts from now into the future.
In a Restorative Circle, individuals participate not in their capacity as authority figures or professionals but in their personal capacity as community members and peers. This further devolves power and ownership of the peace process to the whole community. When power is shared in this way, the entire community is empowered to take responsibility for making choices and taking actions that will serve everyone. In fact, after a surprisingly brief learning phase, the community typically takes over facilitating the dialogue. Through this direct participation, each person builds skills of listening and expression, skills they take with them into all their relationships. As a Circle participant in Rwanda put it, “This way of listening doesn’t have to stay here. I can take it home with me, or for my work.”
A Nepali Restorative Circles group demonstrated this kind of self-empowerment when they realized their first action plan had not worked because they were all waiting for an NGO to act. They took matters into their own hands, and within a short time they had secured funding, organized projects, and formed monitoring teams to ensure the completion of their projects. Notably, this group represented a cross section of Nepali society ranging from low-caste villagers to state-level politicians—an unusual collaboration in an hierarchical society – and one that produced actions that addressed both community level and state-level concerns.
III. Holding Complexity
In today’s fast-paced, globally interdependent world, conflict generates a range of interconnected complexities. Through its open, direct dialogue process and inclusion of multiple stakeholders from different levels of society, the Restorative Circles structure reveals and addresses many layers of complexity. A Circle may focus on a single issue, but equally often it will open to a complex range of interwoven issues that creates a fuller understanding of the conflict. For example, as nomadic herders and local farmers met in a three-day dialogue in northeast Nigeria to explore their conflict, they uncovered a complex web of factors contributing to the violence between them. These diverse factors included a decrease in the availability of usable land due to population growth and climate change; government policies and police practices that contributed directly to the violence; and a drug use problem that was ravaging youth in both their communities. As they lay out all these pieces of the conflict puzzle, they began to see the picture as a whole. Identifying the systemic causes of the conflict, empowered the community to develop concrete and doable actions to better serve the complex, interconnected needs of the community. It also helped them to recognize the need for state and national level input to fully transform the conflict.
Conflicts like this one in Nigeria ultimately involve a wide range a stakeholders, from the local to the international. By giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak, to be heard, and to create responsive actions, the RC process supports shared power and equal status regardless of rank or position. Imagine a male, high-caste, highly-educated federal Nepali official listening attentively to a poor, uneducated, lower-caste woman, reflecting the meaning under her words, then incorporating her concerns into an action plan. I witnessed such an exchange in a Circle last year. These individuals, so disparate in social rank, became human beings, each able to contribute special knowledge and abilities to transform the conflict. Despite coming from different levels of society8 – in this case grassroots and top leadership – the participants were able to form strong connections. They understood and acknowledged each other’s needs and concerns as legitimate. And they formed a plan of action to address those needs and concerns. These two dialogues demonstrate the power of Restorative Circles to effectively integrate participants from all three levels of society.
How did RC support Anton in bringing peace to his community? Anton, the community leaders, and a group of soldiers from the battalion met in a RC. The dialogue was intense but it resulted in a radical transformation in relationships. Tanks no longer rumble through the town; they go around it. Soldiers, now lightly armed and well-identified, no longer wear masks. The battalion brought their dogs to the high school to meet the children. And soldiers are now invited to community celebrations, where they mix freely with the townsfolk.
Subsequent RCs with a new battalion led to the soldiers giving first-aid training to the villagers as well as training on how to protect themselves during a bomb attack. And the next year, community leaders had a constructive RC with leaders of what many people (including many Ukrainians themselves), considered an ultra-national, right-wing Ukrainian paramilitary force camped outside the town. Anton was elected a town counselor and became the first in his town to bring together the different political parties to address important issues. He is now applying his dialogue skills to yet another wartime challenge: the peaceful integration of hundreds of IDPs who have relocated to his community. This is a powerful example of what communities can do when they are given the means to dialogue effectively.
Restorative Circles provides communities and nations with the skills and structures to walk toward their conflicts—and to transform them. More exploration is needed to demonstrate the full potential of RC to integrate peacebuilding efforts at all levels of society. Lack of familiarity with the model and access to conflict stakeholders are the principal—and surmountable—barriers to getting the model in place on the international level. But these challenges are small compared to the benefits.
1. Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging, (San Francisco, Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009), 5.
2. John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, (Washington, D.C., USIP Press, 2002), IX.
3. Raymond Helmick and Rodney Petersen, editors, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (London, Templeton Foundation Press, 2001), 138.
4. Ibid, 290.
5. Marshall Rosenberg, Speaking Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change the World, (Encinitas, USA. Puddledancer Press, 2005), 124.
6. Helmick, Forgiveness, 297-298.
7. Mikhail Lyubansky and Dominic Barter, “A Restorative Approach to Interpersonal Racial Conflict” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 23, (2011):37–44.
8. Lederach, Building Peace, 39