Not Winning–A Circle Case Study

 I recently made a presentation on the Theory of Trouble to a group of school superintendents and principals. Some of them were quite enthusiastic. One fellow reflected on how, when confronted with student misbehavior, there sometimes arises an emotional need to win. This need to win, which he described as a kind of machismo, can dominate interactions with misbehaving students. It can encourage well-trained and well-intentioned staff to unconsciously shift into the old default mode of intimidation, threats, and punishment.

I was glad to hear him acknowledge this, and hoped that others in the room were benefitting from his insight. Then, two days later, while co-facilitating a circle, I encountered within myself the same need to win.

Three girls had played a prank on a boy that was quite socially embarrassing to the boy. As part of the pre-circle work my co-facilitator and I met with the boy and his father. Over the course of the hour-long interview it became apparent that, yes, the boy was victimized, but… it was more complicated than that. The boy himself had a long history of antagonizing his peers and school staff. He was frequently “ill” or absent for other reasons. His father was very vocal about what he saw as systemic injustice embedded in the school district and, in fact, the entire community. They were, together, deep within a “victim story.” I’m reading between the lines here, but it seemed to me that, because he saw himself as a victim, the boy felt entitled to act out and justified in blaming others whenever something went wrong. Not that this excuses the behavior of the girls, but it’s a part of the overall picture.

So I found myself co-facilitating a circle with the girls who had authored the prank (the boy who was their “victim” declined an invitation to participate). We went through the restorative questions. When we asked them who they thought was affected, and how, they readily identified the impacts on the boy, his father, their principal, the school community, and so on. We moved on to the next question: “What do you think you need to do to make it right?”

This is where it got interesting…because of how it challenged me personally. Two of the girls immediately said that they would like to apologize to the boy. One suggested apologizing to his father as well. But the third girl said she felt like she could not apologize. She said that not only would she not feel particularly sincere, but also that based on her past experience with the boy she felt it highly likely that her apology would be used against her.

We had an interesting group discussion about it. I found her position convincing. And yet…

…and yet I felt anxious about it. Shouldn’t she “ought to” apologize? Was I somehow letting her slide if I didn’t extract an agreement from her to do so? What would the principal of the school think? The other girls in the circle who had already agreed to apologize?

Noticing my own anxiety and confusion, I realized that I was in the same bind described by the principal on the prevoius day. I was feeling a need to win. And a part of this was the sense that if I accepted the students’ perspective on the possible negative social consequences of apologizing, I might be seen by my co-facilitator and the school principal (who was also present) as a victim of manipulation by the students, and therefore weak.

An interesting moment. And, I’m guessing, a not uncommon one for facilitators.

I think it is perfectly normal that when we are under the emotional load of the moment a kind of confusion can descend upon us, and this confusion makes us vulnerable to acting unskillfully. But if we can find our way through the confusion, we discover that unravelling the situation is not so complicated. In this instance it consisted of two parts: checking in, and remembering.

Checking in meant looking into my intuition. Apart from the concerns I had about winning and how others might see it, what seemed to be true to me?

The answer was: the girl was sincere. Her ability to stand up for her point of view was a display of integrity. She was not gaming me, the other girls, or the process. She was, in fact, behaving restoratively simply by being honest. Maybe I was wrong about this, but it seemed to me that the better risk was to trust my intuition, rather than “play it safe” by playing to my fear of being “had.”

Remembering meant going back to the fundamental principles. I realized how easy it can be to sit in the proper shape (a circle) but still forget the basics. And the relevant principles here were: 1) the process is about making things right. If an apology risks making things worse, then it’s probably out of place in the agreement. 2) The plan, if it is to be fundamentally restorative, must come from the person who is taking responsiblity. It’s not my role to prescribe, either overtly or subtly through manipulation or coercion.

So, was the plan adequate even though it did not include an apology? I can’t say for sure. But I can say that the process had integrity. And I believe that given integrity, a restorative process may well have beneficial ripple effects far beyond what we can see.

What did the girls learn? I hope they learned that even when they stir up trouble they are worthy of being treated fairly and respect. I hope the discussion in the circle about making things right will have a lasting impact–beyond this particular circle, beyond this particular incident. And beyond my control.

Memo to self: when confused, Check In. Remember.


One Response

  1. I think it’s great you are sharing your experience! Thanks! I’ve been in similiar situations, and taken that same path to ‘checking in’.

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