Regular readers of this blog will know that, in my free time, I dabble in a little bit of tai chi (or "the waving your hands in the air in the park thing" as some people refer to it). Now, like most other martial arts (e.g. karate, taekwondo, etc), there are two very distinct sides to this. One is known as form practice. In the case of tai chi that's the bit you see when people are in the park "waving their hands in the air" (it's actually much harder than it looks, seriously, and it's a genuine workout, which is why I do it). Basically you follow a series of set moves as a way to gain understanding of the fundamental movements. This can obviously take years and years to master to a significant level. Completely separate to the form practice, most martial arts offer a sparing element also. In this case, you engage in sparing with your opponent in whatever way you see fit to defeat them. You will, of course, incorporate certain techniques you have learned from the form practice but, chances are, there are vast swathes of the form that you will never utilise in your sparing.
By now you should know where this is going and, yes, I am about to compare the lovely and cuddly relationship building/conflict resolution philosophy of restorative practice to a potentially lethal martial art (this is how my mind works now and I can't help it). Let's look then at the similarities. When you do restorative practice training, you learn how to phrase an affective statement (ideally along the lines of Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication - can't recommend him enough). Correct affective statements follow quite a set process, i.e. observations, feelings, needs, requests. You also then learn the six questions for restorative inquiries and conversations - again a very clear, set sequence of questions. Moving further into the range of processes you have something similar at the formal conference, where you have a script and sequence of questioning to follow. All this is done to impart the ethos and language of RP to learners and to help them to introduce it into their lives.
Real life, as we all know though, can be very different and challenging at times. If a student or a young person in your care is "acting up" or struggling with an issue, it's very unlikely you're going to be able to call on the textbook answer. I get this a lot in working with staff teams. "Yeah, that's all well and good in theory, but what if......" Many people also comment they find the language unnatural or alien to them. "I'd never say it like that". And both of these statements are right. You won't say it like that (you'll find your own way/style in time) and you won't say it perfectly (if that's even possible) in the middle of a crisis. So does that somehow negate the training then you ask? Not at all I say.
If we look again at tai chi, or any of the other martial arts, there can be no progress or sparing without first having gone through the form practice (or, put another way, how can you play music without first having learned the chords/notes of your chosen instrument). When you have understood these foundation steps, then you can make it your own, i.e. you can play with it. In the case of tai chi or the other martial arts, you can spar with confidence knowing you have a range of moves and tactics. The same is true with how you use RP in your work or life. In my own residential care work, my first port of call is rarely to use a fully founded affective statement. More often than not, it's actually to say nothing. I first use a look or a gesture to try and get my point across, or just show I am interested and available. Have I dismissed all my RP training? No, I've chosen to use one element out of many. If the look/gesture fails, I'll adapt and try something else - maybe ask the first question of the six (i.e. "what happened?"). If that doesn't work, something else. But, the key point I want to make here is that, if I haven't taken the time to learn the various core elements of RP, my range of options for intervening is going to be very limited. Looked at from the opposite side, if I know the ethos of RP and its processes, and know them well, then I can choose from a range of possible responses. Over time, and with increasing experience, I can do this when I'm even under all sorts of pressure, which is when we most need them.
So take the time to learn the basics first. Most of what we do in life is actually the "basics" anyway, so it's really worthwhile knowing them really well. After you know the basics, explore them further, play with them and then make loads of mistakes (seriously, there's no progress without mistakes). Then, and only then, can you really get to make it your own. And, finally, if you see a group of people "waving their hands in the air in the park" you'll know that what they are actually doing is a whole lot more than what it just looks like.
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.