One of the most common challenges that organizations face when implementing Restorative Practices is what is perceived as resistance to the restorative approach. They ask questions such as “How do we increase staff buy-in?” and “What do we do with ‘negative’ people who are not following the new protocols?”. My response may seem counterintuitive, but I offer it nonetheless: “Allow people the space to say no”. But please note that this is not where we leave them.
In his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes of the importance of dissent as one of the six necessary conversations for creating an accountable and hospitable community. The other five include invitation, possibility, ownership, commitment, and gifts. Block states, “Inviting dissent into the conversation is how we show respect for a wide range of beliefs” and “There is no way to be awake and to care about a purpose/place/project without having serious doubts and reservations.” The book goes on to discuss that it is critical for leadership to protect space for people to express their doubts, while not having to respond to each person’s doubts. The simple expression of doubt is what enables authentic dissent. So, let us learn to take interest in the doubt that is expressed by others. There is no need to take them on or allow them to resonate with our own, and certainly not to decide whether they really belong in our community. Just get interested, then follow up with other conversations. Explore what is beneath the dissent, recognizing that people will only let go of doubts that they have given voice to. According to Block, “When someone authentically says no, then the room becomes real and trustworthy.” This is foundational for a restorative community and can open the door for the very important conversation of commitment.
I would like to share a personal experience that truly drove this concept home for me. I recently visited a school that was newly beginning their restorative journey, and I facilitated a PD session in which we explored their vision for a restorative community. The room was set up in a circle of chairs, which everyone was invited to join. One staff member took a chair from the circle, moved it several feet away, and took a seat. I gently approached her, introduced myself, and invited her to join us in the circle. She outright refused, to which I responded by saying she was welcome to join us at any time if she changed her mind, and I hoped that she would still participate in the discussions and activities. She was very engaged throughout the session, and freely shared her doubts and reservations about nearly everything. We were able to meet privately on a follow-up visit, and she told me that she did not, and would not, do circles in her classroom, or join any staff circles that are held. I became very curious and asked her to share her thoughts and concerns with me. She spoke of feeling disrespected by school leadership in being told she had to do circles, even though she was uncomfortable with the process. She shared about a lack of trust with her colleagues, and not feeling safe in a circle with them. She shared some of her fears and doubts, as well as her passion for and commitment to her students, and their success and wellbeing. I asked if there was anything I could to support her as we moved forward in this partnership. She suggested that when I am facilitating a session, to invite people to join the circle, but to explicitly give permission not to join if they so choose. She said this would remove the pressure, and she would feel more respected because the choice was hers. She went on to share that as we continue this work, and more trust is built in the community, that she may begin to feel safer, and move her way into the circle, when she is ready. I was so grateful for her honesty, her willingness to speak her truth, and I shared my heartfelt thanks. I trust that over time she will indeed join, and even lead circles, and I will celebrate when that day comes.
Now when speaking of dissent, it is important that we differentiate between authentic versus inauthentic. There are three types of inauthentic dissent: denial, rebellion and resignation. Denial is when we act as if the way things are is good enough and reject any possibility for real improvement. Denial often acknowledges that there is a problem but minimizes its existence or impact. Rebellion lives in reaction to the world, claiming to be against the “powers that be”. But it is less of a call for transformation, and more of a complaint that others control the system and not us. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the issue are often more committed to their own positions than to actually creating change. Resignation is an act of powerlessness and a stance against possibility. Block states that “it is a passive form of control” and “ultimately alienates us and destroys community”. So, when dissent shows up as a form of refusal, it becomes authentic if it is a choice for its own sake and an act of accountability. We can recognize it where there is no blame, denial, rebellion or resignation, as there is no power to create within any of those. I agree with Block in saying, “A simple no begins a larger conversation, or at least creates the space for one.” It is within this space that understanding can exist, safety and trust can develop, and new possibility for creating a restorative community can be born.
Block, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2018