One of my all-time favourite films is The Matrix. It's firstly one of the coolest films I've ever scene, but it's also a film with a great moral outlook (or so I believe). It's about keeping an open mind on things, on realising that things not always what they seem and, most importantly, on fulfilling your potential. Sci-Fi fan or not, this is a film that will open, even blow, your mind and make you think. One of the most famous scenes is the one where he first learns to dodge bullets. You can watch a small piece of it by clicking on this link:
Here the main character, Neo, is just beginning to realise his potential and that he can literally move out of the way of speeding bullets. Don't worry about the finer details, it's science fiction afterall, but the moral behind it all is as quoted above. It's about responding to events rather than being directly impacted by them and, sometimes even, being able to let things slide by. For me, this calls to mind one of the key skills of restorative practice or, to be more precise, Non-Violent Communication (there's that book again). Perhaps I'll begin with a story first though to illustrate.
I worked once with a young person who, to put it mildly, was a master at winding people up. I mean this guy had the Masters, PhD, post-docturate qualification, you name it. (It goes without saying that he also had the full reportoire of trauma, neglect and exposure to violence growing up). Like a lot of young people who feel bad, his main tactic was to make someone else feel worse, as a way of elevating his mood temporarily. I'm sure a lot of you can relate to this already. Even with many years of experience by the time I met this young man, I still struggled to prevent him getting to me. Every word of mine could be repackaged and sent back at me as a weapon. He wouldn't always get at me but, on the days he did, I felt worse than useless as a worker. What's worse, he knew he had gotten to me too, and this made it even more humiliating. You know that feeling when you don't know what to say or do, you start getting flushed in the face and then you start stumbling over your words? That was me on the bad days. This kid had the ability to bring the best people to this level. And, to cap it all off, he also had a tendency to invert his day and night routine, so he could sometimes spend a whole night trying to draw night staff into distractions and/or arguments. He was hard work but he became a great teacher to me also. Here's how.
Around this time I got to reading, understanding and putting into practice the ideas of non-violent communication (NVR), which are 100% compatible with RP and are used in some RP trainings. Obviously I can't fully go through everything but one of the central choices in the book is, when something or someone impacts you, you can either empathise with yourself or empathise with the other person (you can also attack back, but we'll take that off the table I think). What does all this mean? It means, rather than getting into the argument further, you either focus on your feelings and tell the other person how you feel or, get like Neo from the Matrix and focus on the other person's feelings. This may seem crazy (and unfair) at first but getting into the argument is doomed anyway, so what have you to lose? What's more, when you begin to master this, you realise that you can move to a point where another person's words no longer hurt you as before (like Neo doging the bullets). Now, rather, you can see those words for what they really are, i.e. expressions of pain that are only about them and not about you, and words that will guide you (if you follow them) to actually helping them. Still think this is crazy? It's not, it's entirely achievable.
My "breakthrough" moment came one night with our teenage agitator. I started work at 8pm and around 11pm he "came to life" (he'd been asleep all day and it was now his "daytime"). For the next 6 or 7 hours, on and off, he tried to engage me in conversation and/or arguments. I had no way of avoiding him, as our office had big glass windows and I needed to be able to supervise the upstairs corridor as there was one other young person in another room. Furthermore it was my job to try and understand and help this boy as best I could. He was not one, however, to allow people help him easily. "Make me food, there's nothing to eat". "What if I start playing my music really loudly now, what will you do?" "I want to change my bedclothes now". He could come out with anything. If you talked to him you could be seen to be "rewarding" his sleep routine (or lack of one). If you ignored him you could be seen to be "punishing" him and, thereby, starting an argument at 3am in the morning. If you challenged him, you would definitely have an argument at 3pm. At the end of the day though, he was crying out for help of some sort.
What did I do? I used the skills of NVR. "You are getting out of bed at 11pm, when everyone else is going to bed. I'm guessing you are worried or anxious about life in general or some part of it. Do you need support or reassurance? What can I do for you to help get things back on track?" This way I ignore the presenting behaviour and, instead, try to get to the root of his feelings and needs. Of course, he was not going to let me do this easily would come back with another roadblock of either distraction or argument. To which I replied something like "you are raising your voice at me right now, you seem agitated, I'm guessing you need some peace or calm instead, how can we achieve that right now in some way". And so on, and so on (by the way you also need the right tone of voice and body language when doing this). I would let the "attacks" go by me (like Neo) and try to guess at a feeling. I must have said a hundred versions of the same thing during those hours (you might see the pattern here - observe the behaviour, name or guess at a feelling, then a need and, finally offer to help or request he do something to help). As the night wore on the edge to his behaviour lessened. He was no longer agressive or disruptive. And the conversation became far more civil. I still replied using my NVR method (I couldn't ignore the reality of his life at that moment and I tried my best to get through to him). I can't say he turned his life around that night, but I can certainly say I turned my approach to "challenging" behaviour around that night. I learned to "dodge" the irrelevant words that are said in anger (or shame, or sadness) and try to see beyond.
It's important you don't take this as a full lesson in NVR (that's why I recommend reading the book) but, the feeling I had that night was exactly like Neo dodging those bullets. No longer was I being hurt by that young person's words. It was like they were coming at me in slow motion and I could see (or try to see) what was behind them, i.e. a scared, worried, lost soul. Nothing he said that night hurt me. Eleanor Roosevelt once said "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent". NVR teaches this and more, it teaches how to reach the other person.
Now for the good news and the bad news. The bad news is this is not easy. It takes time, patience and persevence to get these ideas and make them your own. You will not adapt easily, having spent a lifetime thinking and talking the way you think and talk (I mean try stirring your tea with the other hand for a day and you'll see how we are truly creatures of habit). What's the good news I hear you ask? The good news is that this is possible (it is so crucially important that you BELIEVE IT IS POSSIBLE first, or you will never even try in the first place). The good news is that, if you "get" it, you will no longer feel as hurt or threatened by another person's words again. Even better, the good news is you will start connecting with people, even people with whom you might not be seeing eye to eye with. The really good news is this will reduce stress and conflict in your life. And the best news of all is you will reduce stress and conflict in everyone else's life too. Dodge the hurt and pain in the world like Neo dodged those bullets, and move towards what's behind it. Marshall Rosenberg says everyone is only ever trying to say two things, "please" or "thank you". Now that's a helpful thought.
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.