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Dealing with conflict in Restorative Circles

Auroville Today  ○  Mon, August 1, 2011

On July 13th at the Town Hall a presentation on the principles and practice of Restorative Circles was offered by L’aura and Jason, followed by a question and answer session.

Published in “Auroville Today.”

"... (We start) from the premise that conflict is natural, normal, and recurrent in community life. When conflict occurs, it doesn’t mean anyone has failed. In fact, we need both community and conflict to reach our full potential as human beings. Much as we value individual choice, we are formed in community and work out the ramifications of our individuality in relation to others. And though we may resent it when our preferences, practices, or beliefs are challenged, we would never grow without conflict." – Ron Kraybill & Evelyn Wright

On July 13th at the Town Hall a presentation on the principles and practice of Restorative Circles was offered by L’aura and Jason, followed by a question and answer session. Over the years they have been excited about living nonviolence and learning about processes that help communities create cooperation and harmony. So last November they attended a Restorative Circles workshop in the US, and spending time with Dominic Barter, the founder of the process, was rich and rewarding. They returned both moved and impressed, and are now motivated to share the practice with Auroville and interested people in India. A group of Aurovilians is meeting weekly to practice the skills with the possible intention of one day creating a restorative justice system in Auroville.

When Dominic moved to Rio de Janeiro 17 years ago after falling in love with a Brazilian, he had no background in handling conflict. He found himself moved by the imbalance of power between those who lived in the slums and those who didn’t, and he began to talk to people. He noticed they frequently wanted to discuss the conflicts in their lives, and expressed that they felt disempowered and unable to handle them. So for the past 15 years, Dominic has been working with Brazilians to develop this process, so that they could trust their communities to handle their conflicts without needing outside authorities to intervene. At first he thought of himself in the field of ‘conflict resolution,’ but he has come to realize that conflict is part of coexistence and that, rather than trying to fix conflicts, he wants to encourage them to fully blossom. For this, Dominic refers to creating dedicated ‘fight rooms’ so that everybody involved can take responsibility for finding the roots of the conflict and empower themselves to create solutions.

Also, the way most people perceive conflict is overly simplistic: one victim and one offender. Many people may be affected by a conflict and many of them may be experiencing themselves in a state of ‘victimhood’ – that is, the power to affect their wellbeing is out of their reach. In a Restorative Circle, all the parties participating in the process get a chance to express themselves and be heard not just for the words they speak but for the meaning they want registered. It’s not about who’s right or wrong – it’s about understanding how people feel now about what happened and what their motivations were when they chose to act. Ultimately, it’s the recognition of a shared humanity. From that foundation, the Circle can try to find a way forward which serves everybody.

So, how does it work?

A Restorative Circle brings together the three parties in a conflict – those who have acted, those directly impacted, and the wider community – within a specific context to dialogue as equals. The first step is for a person experiencing conflict to contact a facilitator. The facilitator then holds a Pre-Circle with that person to identify the act in question and to understand how the person feels about it now. The facilitator then makes sure that the person understands the Circle process and asks if he or she wants to go ahead. If yes, the facilitator asks who else needs to be present in the Circle. He or she then proceeds to have Pre-Circles with all of the other parties, and invites them to describe the conflict and how it impacted them, and asks them who they think should participate in the Circle. Finally, the facilitator invites everybody to the Restorative Circle, where they get the chance to share how they feel about the conflict. From here, the focus of the dialogue shifts to understanding the underlying causes of people’s actions. The Circle ends when the participants reach a practical, time-framed action plan which they believe will start to restore trust and meet the needs of everybody involved.

A Post-Circle is scheduled after the action plan’s completion date, and the parties get a chance to discuss how these actions impacted their wellbeing. If needs have been met they can be celebrated and if there are still unmet needs, new actions can be agreed upon. Dominic describes the intended outcome of the Circle as each participant being more willing to co-exist with the others than before they entered the Circle.

During the question and answer session, one of the participants was inspired to share a story of hope about handling conflict. While walking in Australia, he and his wife were witness to a scene of violence involving an Aboriginal man who ran after them enraged, threatening violence. His wife turned and walking directly to the man, took his arms and said: “When you bleed, it’s red. When I bleed it’s red. Do we have to hurt each other?” The man replied, shocked: “Do you really mean that?” And she said: “Yes, I really mean that.” He ended his story sharing: “Arms went down, and he went away, and we went away.”

We don’t have to be afraid of conflict – it can be a way of uniting us and helping us to enjoy each others’ differences.

At the end another person asked, “Due to all the diversity, pain and history in Auroville, do you believe it will work here?” L’aura responded, “It would be foolish of me to promise yes – but, I trust this process and I’m willing to try.”

For more information on Restorative Circles visit www.RestorativeCircles.org. For more information on initiating a Restorative Circle in Auroville contact RestorativeAuroville@gmail.com.

Elaine and Alan