One of my favourite animated films ever is Shrek. In it they take all your favourite Disney characters and reinvent them completely. The ogre is actually a decent skin, the prince a villain (too late for a spoiler alert now I guess) and the princess is a kick-ass modern woman. It's also a great film to teach you about not judging people by their appearances. There's a significant scene near the end where Fiona asks Donkey "who could ever love something so hideous". She's talking about herself of course but, Shrek, who is out of sight and can overhear her but doesn't know the full story, assumes she is talking about him. As a result he completely changes his behaviour towards her and she goes on to accept Lord Farquaad's proposal. Such misunderstandings and misinterpretations happen between us and the people around us many times every day. Now, admittedly, these don't normally result in losing the love of your life to an evil prince (thankfully) but they can cause damage nonetheless. How many parents end up shouting at a child when we didn't know that something else, unseen and unknown, was affecting their behaviour? (Maybe they're being bullied?) How many students have been suspended when it was just that their teacher's choice of word reminded them of someone else from their past? How many young people in care have been arrested when they only went along in the messing with their "friend" because they never had a friend before? We can never see all the picture. Hence we need to become like a detective when something out of the ordinary happens. This is why, rather than reacting, we need to first develop an attitude of curiosity and become like a detective. What is really going on here? Imagine yourself with the Sherlock Holmes cap and pipe if it helps? What is behind what's happening here? What is the evidence before me? What is that person feeling? What is it they might need right now? Shrek failed to do it and it almost cost him.
One of the first young people I worked with when I started in residential care was an eleven year old who, it seemed, was quite the boxer. The reason I say this is that I remember distinctly one evening we were out walking when he started telling me about his "career". Apparently he had won the local boxing championships a few years back. I recalled at the time not having come across that in his files but considered that not every detail of his life could possibly be recorded. He described the semi-finals and finals in such detail, almost blow by blow, become highly animated in the process of telling. Having won the local competition he then described going onto the regional championships and, again, winning. The more he went on, the more I started to become suspicious in my mind. Here was a slightly built 11 year old, who didn't appear the most athletic kid, describing winning regional boxing championships at what must have been 9 or 10 (did such competitions even exist?). I knew for a fact he was now not boxing. For the most part I think I replied with a series of "wow's" and "that must have been amazing", etc. For some reason he hadn't competed at the Nationals (I think he said he was injured). Afterwards, of course, my suspicions were confirmed that it had all been made up but I never went back to him on it (intuition told me it would serve no purpose and I know now it would only have invoked shame in a kid who probably had enough of that to serve a lifetime already). Let us put on our "detective" hats on now. Pull out the magnifying lens. What was it he was feeling and needing at the time? What was he trying to communicate? My best guess now is he felt powerless and needed someone to recognise he had some ability and potential. If I had my time again, regardless of the "story" he was telling me, I think I would say something like "you seem really proud of your achievements. I'm guessing you need to achieve something like that again? I wonder what else you could turn your attention to?" This way his feelings could have been validated without getting into what did or didn't happen. His need for achievement or purpose could also have been acknowledged and we could then (if he chose) go on to look at what he might try. Maybe he was actually afraid of boxing but really wanted to try it? We'd have been moving forward to explore all these options at that stage and could have worked something out.
What I am describing above is based on a restorative mindset and the use of restorative language. The exact words you use are less important than what your intention is here. Can I suspend immediate judgement (difficult when our buttons may be being pressed)? Can I exercise some degree of curiosity and/or empathy? I've said it before but Marshall Rosenberg believed everyone was only ever trying to say "please" or "thank you" (something I've found useful to keep in my mind). In the words of Damien Dempsey, the singer, "Stevie smashed the delf, cause he can't express himself". People are only ever trying to communicate feelings and needs. They just come out skew-ways at times, especially with children who have experienced trauma and difficulties growing up. Us adults sometimes fare no better. It's a difficult road to correct old ways. Restorative Practice and Non-Violent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg's approach that is almost identical to RP) can show us the way. These ways work. Evidence (and my experience) back them up. To use last week's analogy, eat the elephant one bite at a time and savour the journey.
That's Restorative Practice
My name is Joe Power and I am the RP development officer for Limerick. I thought I would write about my experiences in developing my own understanding of RP, as well as in trying to spread it across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my own and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for other's to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it.