How many languages do you speak? I speak a little bit of Irish, a very few "cupla focal", from my school days. I also speak a reasonable amount of German and Japanese, having lived in both countries for a time, many, many years ago when I worked as an engineer (a story for another day). I wouldn't be anywhere near fluency, but I could get by in all three if I had to. I also speak one other language, one you mightn't necessarily consider. It's possible you speak it too but hadn't realised it. I'm talking about restorative practice as a language. I don't claim to be fully fluent in this yet, nor do I speak it all the time. But, if the moment requires it, I can switch to it and get by pretty well. I sometimes even offer a translation service for people in the midst of conflict with each other. One particular occasion was with two teenagers, who could barely say two words to each other without a bust up, arguing over everyone's favourite topic - the TV. I'll come to that in a minute but firstly, how does someone translate the "slings and arrows" of a roaring argument into something resembling digestible English? And why do it? Keep reading.
Last week I spoke about affective statements, the simplest and most commonly used intervention in RP. The typical format for this is the 'When - Then'. It goes something like this: "when you took my book without asking permission first, (then) I felt really annoyed". The use of the word 'then' is actually optional but 'When - Then' is a useful way of remembering the format. The purpose is to express your feelings with an 'I' statement. So, instead of saying "You made me annoyed/angry", you say "I feel annoyed/angry". This sounds a lot less confrontational to whoever you're speaking to and also represents the fact that you are taking responsibility for your feelings, something we all have to do at the end of the day. So far, so good I hope. You've probably seen examples like this before in books you've read and/or training you've done. You're probably wondering though how this helps in 'translating' an ongoing shouting match. Keep reading some more.
Something the RP books don't usually emphasise is the fact that you can reverse an affective statement. (For a more detailed explanation of what follows I would urge you to read Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg). Sticking with the previous example, instead of saying "when you took my book without asking permission first, I felt really annoyed", you focus on the other person's feelings. So the same example might look something like "when you took my book without asking permission first, I'm guessing you were really impatient/stressed out/etc". Hopefully this is what the person was feeling and you are one step towards understanding their actions. If you guessed incorrectly, though, they will probably tell you that you were wrong. In that case you can guess again, or just ask what were they thinking/feeling. Eventually, after you've got their story, then you can say "You know, when you took my book without asking permission first, I felt really annoyed". (Were you thinking I'd lost it and was advocating that you ignore your own feelings and only focus on the other person? Don't worry.) The purpose here is to avoid escalating a situation and sometimes you have to take a step backwards before you take two forward. Yes, in an ideal world we would just tell someone how we feel, but we know it's not an ideal world. We know that when our blood is up, we don't think straight and talking in the heat of the moment is only likely to make the situation worse. We also know that the young people we work with have not yet developed the sophisticated thinking and stress management skills they need as a result of childhood turmoil, adverse events and trauma of one form or another. So it is incumbent on us to guide the conversation and coach them in navigating conflict until such time as they can do it for themselves. And this can sometimes mean empathising with the other person first. Now, to get back to our two teenagers on the cusp of another bust up over the TV.
When you are on the receiving end of a barrage of verbal abuse, what I am about to describe is possible, but just more difficult. The big advantage I had inmy situation in the TV room was I was effectively a non-combatant, a neutral, and the words were just flying over my head like missiles (I tend to think in military analogies sometimes). My first and primary goal was to stay neutral if I was to be of any use to them. My second goal was to start diffusing the missiles as they flew past me and disarm them into something the other young person could hear. This is what I meant at the start by offering a translation service. So this is what the conversation sounded like. "It's my ****ing turn to watch TV", and this got translated by me into "I think Johnny is anxious that he watch his favourite program later". And, "you're just having another hissy-fit like you always do" gets translated into "When you say words like hissy-fit to Jimmy, I'm guessing he's pretty irritated. Can you not use name-calling in this conversation?" (notice I take the heat out it for Jimmy, show him I'm aware of how a loaded statement would feel to him, and let Johnny know in a respectful manner that it's not ok to talk like this). And so I stood there between the two teens, neutral in every aspect, and translated back and forth their barbed lines for maybe five minutes, which is about four and half minutes longer than the conversation might otherwise have lasted. And the two boys got to have a conversation they otherwise couldn't have had. I wish I could say it ended in a civil agreement but, as mentioned above, it's not an ideal world. It did end though in a civil parting and no major acrimony, which was a big improvement for them and probably the best that could have been hoped for in the situation. Neither was aware of what I was doing but both took their cues from me, as I translated verbal abuse into RP-infused language, and also encouraged small measures of respect along the way.
Finally, I want to assure you that this is something that anyone can do and, what's more, it's worth doing. It takes time, plenty of mistakes (trust me I've made them all and still do) and practice. It really helps also if you look up Marshall Rosenberg (try YouTube if you can't get the book). We owe it to the young people we work with to be the best helpers we can be. I know the two teenagers that day benefited. As ever, I look forward to hearing what you think.
My name is Joe Power and I am the restorative practice development officer in Limerick since May 2018. I first came to RP in 2016 when it was introduced to the residential centre where I also work. I thought I would start to write a little about my experiences in developing both my own understanding of RP, as well as my experiences in trying to spread RP across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my 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. Also please e-mail any thoughts/comments/stories you might have to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.