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How do our words affect others and our practice?

Jul 14, 2010

By Lynette Parker

Late last year, I posted an article titled, “What are we looking for?” in which I asked how our expectations of process outcomes  influence our practice. Recently, I started thinking about this again but in relation to the language we use to describe restorative justice and restorative programmes. Specifically, I’m wondering if the descriptors that we use affect the way we communicate with clients and facilitate a process.

A few things happened recently that caused me to start thinking along these lines again. First, several weeks ago I participated in a training for new facilitators. One person asked what we as facilitators get from the process. My response was something like “helping people in a very difficult situation communicate with each other so that they can develop their own solutions.”  The reaction was, “Is that all?” This opened a discussion on the desire to see changed lives and remorseful offenders. 

The second event was a disagreement that I had with an individual about describing a restorative justice programme as successfully helping victims and offenders find healing and reconciliation. I have to be honest. I cringe at that description. It strikes me as prescribing outcomes for those we serve.

Thirdly, Jennifer Bishop Jenkins posted a comment about healing not being the right word on an RJOB entry. In her comment, Jenkins says, “Healing is a problematic term for many of us because it implies some sort of "disease" model where there is something wrong with US and we need to be made well." I think this solidified some of the dis-ease I was feeling with both the questions I was getting and descriptors I’ve heard. 

First, I think that the descriptors and the questions are actually connected. The words that we use could be an indication of what we’re expecting to see in a process. For example, when talking to clients, I often describe restorative justice as “a way of seeing crime as more than law breaking. While that is important, crime causes harm to people, to relationships, and to the community. For justice to be done, that harm needs to be dealt with. The best way of doing that is to bring together those who have caused harm with those who have been harmed to talk about what happened, how it affected everyone present and others, and decide how to move forward in the future.” When I facilitate a restorative conference that is exactly what I want to see.  My job is to create a space in which the participants can safely communicate with each other. The outcomes belong to the participants for it really is their process.

So, I’m concerned about the descriptors that we use. I never use the words “healing” or “reconciliation.” Now, I’ve facilitated conferences where these things have happened. I can remember the powerful emotional impact when a victim broke down in tears and told the offender that he would like to be a support for him. When the victim actually crossed the circle to embrace the offender, I could barely hold back the tears. It was an awesome moment. 

At the same time, I’ve also facilitated conferences where this didn’t happen. But, the participants all told me that they had gotten what they wanted out of the process. I remember talking to a woman who had lost her son in a car wreck. She met with the driver in a conference and was able to communicate her heartache from the loss of her son. The offender was able to talk about what happened on the day of the accident and express his own sorrow at the loss of his friend. It was a powerful conference, but in a different way. There wasn’t a renewal of relationships or the same type of forgiveness. Yet, when I talked to her six months later, the mother told me that she was glad that she had participated in the conference.  It was one step in her journey of learning to live with her new reality. 

As I see it, “healing,” “reconciliation,” and “forgiveness” are all very personal decisions. People need to choose their own paths for moving forward. I can’t prescribe this for anyone. I can help create a space for communication and understanding. In that space those affected by crime can make their own decisions about what they need to continue their journey to living in a new reality or with the new normal. That is why I cringe when we use “healing,” “reconciliation,” and “forgiveness” to describe a restorative process. 

But, it goes beyond what we are communicating. If I describe the restorative process as helping people come to things like “forgiveness,” I am looking for a specific outcome.  If I’m looking for such a response, will that affect the way that I interact with participants? Will I unconsciously push victims toward forgiveness? Can the expectation of “reconciliation” cause me to use words or actions to nudge the parties in that direction even if they don’t want it? 

When I do training, I talk about the importance of how we define success. Our definition of success will influence the way we do our work. That is why I define success as creating a safe place for communication and understanding for those affected by crime. It’s not totally unselfish for I really enjoy watching people come together in the conferencing process and genuinely communicate. The outcomes are up to them. If I do my job well, they will come up with what best suits them and their situation. If that happens, I’ve been successful (and there are times when I’m not).

So, I wonder about the words we use and what they communicate to others – whether they be participants or new facilitators. I also wonder what they mean for practice. Do the words we use to describe a restorative process indicate our definitions of success and influence our work? Or, am I simply over-thinking this? Are my own biases clouding I react to these words?

What do you think? I really would like feedback to gain a better perspective.

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John White
John White says:
Jul 15, 2010 02:12 PM

Lynette, I think you raise a vital point about our unwitting (or otherwise) prescribing and/or proscribing the outcomes of our well-intentioned work in RJ. I don't know that you're overthinking this issue. I acknowledge - and affirm you - for 'seriously' thinking about something as vital as being the best we can be. <br /> <br />One of the problems with using any words, is that they carry meanings which vary from person to person. I think we must certainly be careful to choose the best words possible to avoid unfortunately or inappropriately 'flavouring' what we are trying to communicate. <br /> <br />It may be that 'healing and reconciliation' are not the best words for some people. For others they may be just right. And, the only person who can say, is the one hearing them. So, maybe, after our most diligent efforts to carefully select words that are least likely to offend or mislead - or express our personal agendas, for that matter - we are left with the need to always employ that most valuable commuication skill of 'checking out' with the 'other' what they heard in our words, and what responses / reactions they are having to them. In that way, whatever words we use can be 'made accurate and acceptable through definition or reselection', and we can proceed from there with agendas exposed, intentions clarified, in reasonable comfort, and with the indispensible, liberating and guiding resource of the mutual agreement 'that we will always check out with each other what's actually going on'. Of course, this approach is far less helpful in written communications, but can still be alluded to. <br /> <br />Having said all that,I have found it useful to define any term that may be 'jargon' and either out of participants' experience or having been experienced by them in a less that positive way. For example, forgiveness could become 'working at letting go of grudges so you're no longer stirred up', restitution could become 'putting right as much as you're able to what you messed up' etc. <br /> <br />These are simplistic examples, of course. The important thing for me (in face to face interaction) is to work at choosing words that are most accurate for most people present, and getting enough feedback to ensure as much as we're able to, that we're all speaking the same language, and that language is doing justice to our life-giving intentions. <br /> <br />Again for me, the single most important skill to develop and constantly practise - and which is the greatest safeguard against offence, assumption or misunderstanding arising from any term we choose to use - is that of 'awareness of what's going on in and around me in this present moment'. Make a personal statement about 'what I'm wondering' or ask a question to achieve that awareness. Then, it seems to me, that beyond reasonable care, our selection of terms is, perhaps, less of an issue.

lparker says:
Jul 15, 2010 02:31 PM

John, <br /> <br />Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful response to my questions. I appreciate the wisdom that you bring to this discussion. I also appreciate the reminder that communication is more than the words that we use. It is also an awareness of others, listening to them -- both verbally and non-verbally -- and appreciating that they may be receiving a different message than we intend to send. <br /> <br />I also like your definitions of &quot;forgiveness&quot; and &quot;restitution.&quot; These will also be helpful for me. <br /> <br />Blessings, <br />Lynette

Christa Pierpont
Christa Pierpont says:
Jul 15, 2010 07:55 PM

Lynette, your points are well taken. <br /> <br />Words are deeply important. When there is harm or loss in a network of people the harm/loss sets off a series of reactions in and on behalf of others. We can do something and/or we can talk about it before we do something. Humans are meaning makers. We use language to clarify to others what we believe about cause of the incident. Commonly there is a range of responses which needs validation within the social network to have meaning. Those who can give meaning to an incident are powerful only when others agree. Humans often see themselves as unsafe until we have some kind of handle on why something happened, what we did to respond, will it happen again, etc. Verbal explanations need to work out in the direction they are pointing otherwise they lose their power. For example, I'm not sure how many people would agree that man's systems of justice are in fact just. The dissonance undermines respect. Lack of respect tends to breed aggressive behaviors to keep the aspiration of justice in place. <br /> <br />At the last Virginia General Assembly when we were trying to get a piece of legislation passed, we were told by one of RJ's strongest supporters that they agreed with what we are about but that we needed to come up with another name for it. Getting votes for the bill was difficult given the term 'restorative'. I thought to myself, 'there we go again'. I acknowledged their concern then stated that this term is the one used in most literature, had the support of tough-mined agencies, and would be needed for funding. Beside, I thought to myself, I've been a special education teacher long enough to know that the terms used for differently-abled persons are continually evolving. Those in the field for whom such things mattered a great deal changed them after the work was established. In other words the language is important but need not shut us down for another 10 years. <br /> <br />After I'd walked off from this legislator, I recalled a term that Roy Hange has suggested we start using in the context of talking about restorative justice. Roy suggested we consider using community justice. This works for me. <br /> <br />When we get to the other terms that we use in the field, I tend to roll my eyes with such terms as 'healing' and prefer 'closure' because 'healing' is an intimate term in my way of thinking. I really don't want someone who is a Class A bully to think they got close to me again on any level. I want them to know that we've had words, the group agrees that they will ‘have my back’ if happens again and so they better understand that I will call them out if it does. I am marking my personal boundary not being healed. <br /> <br />Perhaps our terminology becomes more a matter of the conditions in which it is found, much like the word snow. In colder climates snow has multiple different terms which are used to describe the variations of snow (moisture content, temperature, mass, etc.). We need to consider the context and the most pragmatic word to use given the social group’s vocabulary. These matters are ancient. They are understood on a soul level. They don’t have to be too dressed up or starry-eyed to get people to sit down listen to one another’s stories so a better plan can begin to be put in place. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;

Lawrie Parker
Lawrie Parker says:
Jul 16, 2010 05:04 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with Christa's and John's comments. Having trained with Lynette I know and appreciate how sensitive she is about words. I think there are no easy answers. Even referring to the people we serve as clients may influence our perceived relationship with them. Describing RJ as the best way, too, puts pressure on the faciliator and participants. Yet, when people come to RJ they need content and form explained to them so that they can decide if it's the right service for them or the right time for this service. Crime is serious. It does cause harm. There is a need for repair. We need to convey these precepts without compromising a victim's or offender's self-determination. Community justice is an apt term (although I don't think it will fly with the Virginia General Assembly). I don't mind humbly speaking for the community when I meet with victims and offenders, as the agency for which a work is a community-based organization. When I meet with offenders I say that as a community, we do not excuse or condone what he/she did. But he/she is a member of our community and important. We hope that participating in an RJ conference, they will in the future make life-giving decisions for themselves and the community. When I meet with victims, on behalf of the community I say, we are sorry for what happened to the. We hope that participating in RJ make help them feel good about living in our community. <br />Honestly, as I reflect on Lynette's, John's and Christ's comments, I am convinced that humility is the most critical attribute needed. If we are humble, then we will be compelled to keep our spiritual senses sharpened so that we can be attuned to the persons we are serving and meet them at their point of need. <br />Lawrie Parker

Margot Van Sluytman
Margot Van Sluytman says:
Jul 18, 2010 10:07 AM

Words are the essence of how we know ourselves and come to know each other. Our stories, ever evolving shape the relationship we have to what words and concepts mean. After reading about an award I received from The National Association for Poetry Therapy with my work with Expressive Writing, the man who murdered my Father contacted me. The murder was in 1978, the email came 2007. Since that time, I have deepened my personal and professional relationship to what words meant, mean, and can possibly mean within the paradigm of what I prefer to term Transformative Justice, though I use the term Restorative Justice, as it is much more known. The words healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation are stepping stones, and key to my vision with words, is the gift of what is occurring in this sharing: and that is sculpting dialogue to enter what can be terrifying terrain, though terrain steeped with endless possibility once trust in liminal landscapes is birthed. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;In his Foreword to my book, Sawbonna: I See You. A Real Life Restorative Justice Story, the wonderful Howard Zehr, speaks about respect, responsibility, and relationship. When Sr. Helen Prejean and I shared a two day talk in March, we chose to name our talk, Dialogue of Hope. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;The essence of opening up this process of sharing, starting from where we are, as each of us in this context has done, is what both victims (survivors) and offenders (survivors) yearn to know; is as well, what those who engage in this dialogue speak to and from. <br />&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;Powerful. Positive. Steeped in creative fire with a view to narrowing the gap between them vs. us. <br />Sawbonna, <br />Margot Van Sluytman <br /> <br />

Martine Cammeraat
Martine Cammeraat says:
Jul 20, 2010 12:28 PM

Great thinkers and thoughts on this site. What should I add? The only thing that crossed my mind was that words show up in a personal word field. <br />One person will place 'forgiveness' in the word field of redemption and might see it as a present, as mercy, as undeserved. Meanwhile another one will think on things like the law, the duty to love each other, (even your enemy), an unearthly measure. <br />As mentioned above the understanding of words and a word field depends on the person, his background, education, church, etc. <br /> <br />Using words is most of the time just a necessary way to communicate, but not the only and not always the best way. Communicating that relativization might ease the rest of the communication...

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