Using a Circle to Manage Conflict in an Apartment Building

Note:  This story is from one of the regular participants in the Sonoma County Circle Keeper’s Group.

CHRISTMAS AT PARK STREET
(An account of a Restorative Circle)

by W.E. Rampujan

My wife Lorene and I were fresh from a successful restorative circle within our own family. A year-long feud between our daughter and her uncle had ended. They had altered and renewed  their relationship as a result of sitting in circle and hearing each other–but not only each other; they heard other family members the conflict had affected. There were a dozen of us that circle had contained.

In present time another part of our community is in crisis. Sally and Mitch, wo tenants at the apartment complex we own and manage,  approach me, saying their housemate Tom’s living habits had become intolerable. We see this as an opportunity to practice circle keeping again. We invite these tenants to meet with us in their own living room together with others who have been impacted by this conflict.

They agree to try this process with us. After all, they weren’t just housemates. Some of them had been friends for a decade.

It is a crowded living room. It includes a neighboring couple from another apartment, plus a visiting brother of Tom’s. Also Mitch’s wife who speaks not a word of English and can only help by serving tea.

Since circle keeping implies equality, Lorene and I rid outselves of the roles of owner/managers and enter this circle as community members.  For clarity and mutual convenience, I declare a single clearly defined event as the focus of attention in our circle. Each person has a brief check-in to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

Lorene, as a more-or-less experienced facilitator finds herself frequently slowing down the dialog to be sure there is mutual understanding and self-responsibility among the circle members. Blaming, scape-goating and judging others has no place here.

Before reaching an impasse, the circle begins a closing round where each person states what they are willing to do, an action to facilitate change The question is “What will you do personally and specifically toward resolving this crisis?”

Sally declares that if Tom doesn’t move out, she will.  Tom declares that he is willing to limit his number of visitors, which he has seen is part of his housemates’ problem with him. The neighbor couple offers to help Tom move out, partly because of his large number of possessions. Tom’s brother Tim says he will help Tom clean up his living space. I offer to work with Tom on fire safety precautions in our hundred-year-old apartment building. Sally says she will stay at her mom’s to keep out of the way until everything settles down.  Mitch will undertake to patch up a difficulty between him and Tom’s girlfriend, (a lady who is not present at the circle meeting*–see note below)

I can’t evaluate any of this. It seems as if the community is healing and breaking up, both at the same time. Finally Lorene offers to come back a week later for what she calls a post-circle, the purpose being for us to find out if the actions we have declared have rebuilt trust in the community. The circle ends in confusion.

The post circle takes place the following Sunday night.  In the intervening week Tom and Sally are so inflamed with each other, they both refuse to attend this completion meeting.  Also Tom, during the interim, has managed to injure himself and can get around only on crutches. As if all this is not enough, it just happens to be five days away from Christmas.

None of this stops Lorene. When it becomes clear these two main protagonists aren’t going to appear, Lorene asks for stand-ins to play their roles.

Again, it’s a crowded meeting. It turns out that each person has actually done what they said they would do, even Tom, who makes a dramatic appearance after the meeting on crutches to tell all of us he is moving out.

By this time the group is coordinated to the point where the move is accomplished before Christmas, not without strong feelings, but with dignity and mutual satisfaction in the way this has been achieved. Lorene and I are completely confident in the value of restorative circles, in spite to the fact that the results are often unexpected. A landlord solution to this community crisis would have been to kick everybody out. This was averted, and we retain a level of excitement at whatever is next.

*even an unintentional exclusion from a circle can cause enormous trouble.

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