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How to Have a Restorative Conversation

Written by Shannon Sliva

In my recent TEDxMileHigh talk, I argued that our national efforts to reform the criminal legal system are undermined by our inability or unwillingness to engage in non-adversarial conflict in our everyday lives. In short, the personal is political. Learn about the impact of unresolved conflict and how to have a restorative conversation.

The Impact of Unresolved Conflicts

I’d be surprised if, in reading this, you are unable to think of a relationship in your life which is suffering from avoidance of conflict—big or small. On the seemingly trivial end, you might be angry, frustrated, or hurt by someone, but haven’t said anything. For instance, perhaps you are hurt that a friend regularly blows off your plans or frustrated with how a colleague’s work patterns are affecting you. Sometimes, the injury is more severe, like a lie or betrayal. As a result, you either simmer silently or eventually drift (or run) away from the relationship which is paining you. In the extreme, you may have discarded a relationship that used to be meaningful to you with little resolution or closure. 

It is my belief that these unresolved conflicts—even minor ones—negatively impact our lives. 

At best, they cause anxiety and steal our joy. At worst, unaddressed conflicts cause prolonged pain and contribute to the breakdown of the community. 

The Impulse to Restore and Connect

While running or hiding from conflict is a somewhat natural impulse, I believe there is an equally fundamental impulse toward restoration, connection, wholeness, and reconciliation, which restorative justice practitioner and scholar Kay Pranis calls “the restorative impulse.” The restorative impulse is the feeling that drives us toward connection. It’s why we love stories about repair, reconciliation, and redemption. We want to be in community with one another because it is our natural state.

So how do you act on the restorative impulse, when the impulse for fight or flight feels stronger? Like any other skill, engaging in hard conversations takes practice. Further, having the right tools can help. Next time you have something to address with a person in your household, workplace, or community, try initiating a restorative conversation. Below is a simple outline of a restorative conversation using an example that comes up often for my college students: a group project gone wrong. 

Six Steps for a Restorative Conversation

1. Get Permission for Time and Place

Restorative conversations should always be voluntary for everyone involved. If you spring an important conversation on someone at a bad time or in an uncomfortable place, you decrease the likelihood that they will be ready to listen and connect. 

“I’d like to talk with you about something. Is now a good time?”

2. Appreciate the Relationship 

Before you dive into what is bothering you, offer genuine appreciation for the person or relationship. Don’t do this if it isn’t authentic. If you aren’t sure what to say, consider why this relationship is important to you. The restorative philosophy suggests that every relationship has value to the community. For instance, a relationship with a neighbor or colleague impacts your everyday life and the lives of those around you. Finding value in the relationship doesn’t mean you want to be best friends. 

If you truly can’t find any value in maintaining the relationship, then a restorative conversation may not be right.

Try: “This project is really important to me, and I think the perspective that you bring is unique and valuable. I’m nervous to bring this up, but I care about us having a good relationship and completing this project together.”

3. What Happened? 

It’s time to bring up what’s gone wrong. In very clear and direct terms, describe what you believe has happened or is happening that is causing harm to you or to the community. Avoid assigning motivations or blame at this point. Stick to the facts, and to how you are perceiving the facts. Keep it brief, so that it doesn’t turn into a lecture before the other person gets to speak. Then, offer your partner a chance to share their perception of what happened. Be open to the fact that they may be having a different experience.

Try: “It feels like I’ve been doing more than my share of the work. For instance, I always initiate our group meetings, and you have missed two out of four. In addition, I have already completed the first section, but you haven’t made much progress on what you said you would do.”

4. Who is Impacted and How? 

A restorative conversation always focuses on the harm which needs to be restored—not an abstract conversation about right and wrong. Openly and honestly describe how you and any others have been impacted by the situation you are bringing forward. Avoid any temptation to exaggerate the impacts, or to diminish them (e.g. saying “it’s okay” when it’s not).

Try: “I feel fearful that because you haven’t met our deadlines so far, you won’t meet them in the future. This makes me feel really stressed and anxious about whether we will be successful with this project and whether I’ll have to do a lot of work at the last minute to get it done. I am on a scholarship, and getting a good grade is important to me.”

5. What Can be Done to Repair the Harm? 

Restorative conversations are solution-focused. They usually culminate in a formal or informal restorative agreement. If the agreement is formal, it will be written down so that you have documentation of the agreement. If it is informal, it may be a verbal agreement. In either case, you should discuss with your partner what can be done to repair the harm (if anything) or to make things right going forward. Agree on specific tasks or deadlines if relevant, and how you will communicate about those tasks and deadlines. Discuss how you can support each other or seek outside support. 

If you are both expressing willingness to work on the relationship but feel like a more skillful discussion is needed, you might agree to ask for the help of a third party facilitator.

Try: “Can we create an outline of the remaining tasks and deadlines for the project, and set check-in points that we’ll stick to? What else would be helpful, from your perspective?”

6. Offer Gratitude

It can be difficult to be on either end of a restorative conversation. Thank your partner for listening and for having a conversation with you. Express gratitude for a relationship that can survive the ups and downs in a kind and honest way.

What If I’m the One who Caused the Harm?

The example here has focused on how to initiate a restorative conversation when you feel that you’ve been harmed. You can use a similar framework to reach out to—or be responsive to—someone that you’ve let down or caused harm to. Try these restorative phrases:

“I apologize for doing [name specifically what you understand that you’ve done].”

“I realize that my actions have impacted you/others negatively, including [name the impacts you are aware of], and possibly in other ways I am not aware of.”

“I would like to do whatever I can to repair the harm as much as possible. I will [describe what you will do to repair the harm based on what you are aware of]. What else can I do to make things right?”

Make a Commitment to Restoration

Making a commitment to restoration means that sometimes you’ll face situations where a restorative conversation isn’t possible. 

If the other party isn’t interested in maintaining the relationship or is unwilling to have a restorative conversation, there is nothing you can do but wait and wish them well. 

Restoring a relationship requires participation from everyone involved. If genuine, express your willingness to sit and talk with them if they ever feel ready. Doing your part is important, even if it isn’t rewarded right away.

By caring for your relationships, you care for your community and for the world. Engaging in conflict through connection rather than separation is a very personal way to express your commitment to living in a more peaceful world—a world with fewer prisons.

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