From Harm to Healing: How Restorative Conversations can Enhance Your Relationship
By Amanda Polster, LMSW
Raise your hand if you have ever been in conflict with someone. Now raise your hand other hand if you have ever been in conflict with a loved one - a partner, a sibling, a parent, a child, etc.
Conflict is normal, and a healthy part of relationships. However, the ways we respond in conflict can have 3 differing outcomes:
Higher: the relationship is enhanced in some way and growth occurs;
Neutral: the relationship remains the same and no additional harm was caused, but no new methods of communication were learned;
Lower: additional harm was caused and the relationship is impaired in some way.
We’d love to hope and assume that in conflict, we are able to resolve issues and leave feeling more connected and centered in our relationship, resulting in a higher outcome. Unfortunately this is often not the case, and we are lucky if neutrality is achieved where no additional harm is caused.
In many of my individual sessions, clients come into therapy to seek support with relationship concerns and challenges with communication with loved ones. Feelings of injustice, disrespect, isolation, neglect/abandonment, resentment, and anxieties about the trajectory of the relationship are at the forefront of the conversations around relationship patterns and goals. Although I am in a room where I only hear one side of what often are very complex and deep relational issues, I am still able to assess and provide tools for one partner to incorporate healthier communication strategies in the relationship.
While I never use words like victim and perpetrator in my sessions, I often use these words to inform the direction of where the therapeutic conversation goes after clients share challenges in their familial or intimate relationships. We often associate the word victim with powerlessness, weakness, and hopelessly wounded, and the word perpetrator as dominating, manipulative, and even criminal. In an enlightening experiential training by Elizabeth Clemants, a Shaman and Restorative Practices Facilitator and Mediator, I learned to completely turn these definitions upside down and look at victim and perpetrator as verbs instead of nouns, in which we are all constantly walking the path of either victim or perpetrator based on how we are impacted and/or impacting the relationships we encounter. In other words, we are either feeling harmed or causing harm in relationships that influence the patterns of conflict we may experience.
Restorative practices can help us reflect on the root causes of conflict, and allows us to look deeper into its relational impact by holding ourselves and others involved accountable for actions that occur. Restorative philosophy originated from indigenous culture, in which practices of bringing people together to share narratives for the purpose of healing is foundational for building community and relationships. Restorative conversations follow these same principles and are relational by asking questions related to impact and accountability to repair and heal when conflict has occurred.
Let’s take a look at restorative conversations, and the ways these types of discussions can influence the outcome of conflict in a way that moves towards higher outcomes of personal and relational growth. In times of conflict, when emotions have settled, we can reflect on, and choose to ask the other person involved, these questions:
Who was impacted by this conflict?
Often times we get caught up answering this by saying “obviously I was hurt by the conflict.” With a little more reflection, we can acknowledge that the other person directly involved in the conflict was also impacted in some way. We can even take this a step further to acknowledge that people indirectly involved (those people who may have heard or seen the conflict) might also be impacted or harmed.
What were you thinking/feeling at the time?
Reflecting on our thoughts and feelings at the time of the conflict can help us identify possible triggers that appear as patterned conflict in the relationship. It is important to acknowledge that holding ourselves accountable for how our thoughts and feelings impact our actions in conflict is in no way minimizing or invalidating our narratives or experiences. On the contrary, having greater self awareness can allow us to respond differently and with more control in an effort to shift our narrative to feeling more empowered during and after a conflict has occurred.
How do you think the other person involved was thinking/feeling at the time?
This question is huge, and is just as important as tapping into our own thoughts and feelings. During conflict, we often get wrapped up in our own narrative of feelings of injustice, that we lose sight of how the other person might think or feel as a result of the conflict. This reflective question not only elicits empathy within us, but also increases our self-awareness by seeking to explore and critically reflect on how our actions might be impacting the other person.
How did I contribute to the impact?
Yes, I know, I did just ask you to take responsibility. This is probably one of the hardest questions we can ask ourselves, especially after a conflict occurs. As I mentioned above, we must allow time for our emotions to settle before we have the capacity and space to think about how we may have caused or perpetuated a conflict. We typically get stuck in the narrative that the other person caused the conflict and if they would change or act differently, or better yet, if they would listen to us, we wouldn’t continue to have these issues. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately this mentality does not resolve conflict, and only acts as a defense mechanism for taking accountability for our own actions when harm has occurred. When reflecting on our own actions in a conflict, it is important to possibly walk the path of the perpetrator, and reflect on the ways we possibly caused harm to someone else. Again, this does not diminish any harm that we personally experienced, but holds us accountable for the harm we may have caused through our behaviors during conflict.
What needs to be done to repair the relationship and move towards healing?
This question is purposely vague and does not direct any particular person to take responsibility because the responsibility to repair the relationship and move towards healing is mutual. When conflict arises, all people involved are accountable for repairing the relationship, regardless of the role they play in the conflict. More often than not, both people involved end up causing harm and feeling hurt simultaneously as a result of conflict. In this event, restorative conversations from the 5 questions above can be utilized for both people to listen openly to each other for the purpose of understanding and allowing space for remorse and genuine apologies to transpire.
Restorative conversations are not easy, and are purposefully self-reflective and challenging. If taken seriously and with the intention of improving the relationship, these conversations can result in a higher outcome after conflict, where relationships can move past harm towards healing and development. With restorative conversations, the stigma of conflict can move from conflict being a problem in relationships to conflict being opportunities for relationship building, connectivity, and growth.
*This blog is not meant for people who are currently experiencing an abusive relationship (i.e. domestic violence, bullying, sexual abuse, etc.) If you or someone you love is currently in an abusive relationship, seeking safety is the priority and the tools in this blog should not be utilized until safety has been established.
For additional resources for seeking safety during abusive relationships, please use the hotlines below:
Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673)
Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-212-227-3000
In the event of an emergency, please call 911
We are here to help. If you are interested in starting your journey in individual counseling and/or couples therapy to improve communication in your relationships with others, please call us at 347-630-2180 for a free 15 minute consultation.
1 TCI For Schools_Workbook: Residential Child Care Project, Cornell University.
3. In this blog I describe restorative conversations amongst 2 people involved in conflict. In the event that there are more than 2 people involved, these conversations can occur as a group in a circle format where each person has an opportunity to share their side of the story. In either event, a talking piece is advised to help control equality of space and ability for each person to share without interruption.