Core capacities of restorative justice practitioners

February 10th, 2010 by Howard Zehr

In January a small group gathered in Seattle for several days of restorative justice dialogue and we’ve continued the discussion since then by email. (The participants are listed below.) One of the questions raised was what we considered to be the core capacities of effective restorative justice practitioners. Aaron Lyons, a practitioner in Vancouver and a CJP alumnus, took the lead on this discussion and I invited him to contribute a guest blog entry. The following is his contribution.

Hi fellow Howard’s blog enthusiasts –

Recently I’ve been asking, “What are the core capacities, in terms of values, analytical tools, and skills, of an effective restorative justice practitioner?” Below are a few thoughts, shaped by but not necessarily representative of, the discussion among my Seattle mentors. What would you challenge or add to this list?

Let me say first that there seems to be a fundamental paradoxical question here:
How does one maintain a profound respect for whoever and whatever people are – including their needs, priorities, values, directions, stagnations, resistance, armoring, lack of movement, etc. – while at the same time holding space for movement toward “healing,” even seeing opportunity within situations of harm. How does one accept what they are and at the same time make room for them to become something else?

How do we value “repair” or “wholeness” and not impose this agenda on others? If we didn’t value these things, I’d question whether any of us would engage in this work (or am I wrong?). But as soon as we become attached to these values as outcomes, they are likely to elude us. Imposing “healing” on people would only work against the possibility of healing. The notion that our work has to do with BOTH valuing “wholeness” or “repair” or “healing” AND not pushing it on others suggests to me that there is a basic trust inherent in our work – a trust that by just bearing witness, by “maintaining a profound respect for whoever/whatever people are,” there can be a shift towards this wholeness of which we speak, even if it is called differently by different people.

So, what’s at the core of effective practice? Some thoughts.. and know that these ideas stem in large part from consultations with the mentors listed below.

*The ability to maintain a profound respect and empathy for whoever/whatever people are, while at the same time holding space for movement. (And the ability to be continually self-reflective with regard to this paradox.)

*The ability to take responsibility for our own actions and emotions (and model this to others).

*The ability to listen with empathy, regardless of agreement, including:
-asking probing questions
-quiet of the mind and presence
-attentive body language and verbal tone

*The skill of eliciting any unexpressed needs underlying negative statements, naming them and honoring them.

*Taking relationships seriously. For some, this means envisioning themselves within an interconnected web of mutual responsibility.

*The ability to maintain a grounded, non-anxious presence while experiencing the physiological sensation of strong emotion.

*A sense of personal boundaries: not internalizing the experiences of others, and similarly refraining from unconsciously asking others to identify with your own emotional experience.

*An ability to dwell in ambiguity and paradox, to think beyond either/or polarities.

Your turn to weigh in!

(Participants included Susan Sharpe, Aaron Lyons, Catherine Bargen, Matthew Hartman, Jennifer Haslett, Alan Edwards, Cristina Dann Arvidson, Ruth Yeo and Howard Zehr.)