In the Circle: Trusting the Process, Part 2

Note:  This is Part 2 of a 3-part blogpost. The series describes a 4-day training session on restorative circles with a group of around 20 staff members from a school, some of whom had reservations about the training and the circle process. See Part 1 here.

On day three of the training session, we built on the social and emotional skills that we'd practiced and discussed in the circle so far. We had explored the power of listening.  Today we would turn to recognizing, naming, understanding and managing feelings—anger in particular, since anger is a feeling that people tend to struggle with.  

Aristotle's quote on anger can be a useful way to jumpstart a conversation on the topic:

Anybody can become angry
that is easy,
but to be angry with the right person,
to the right degree,
at the right time,
for the right purpose,
and in the right way,  
that is not easy.

I invited participants to read the quote, turn to a partner, and discuss it. Then I sent the talking piece around for reflections and comments. 

Most people agreed with the quote, acknowledging how difficult it is to express anger in a way that is constructive. I sent the talking piece around a second time as people slowly but surely started to talk about anger in their lives. Several staff members who had been resistant to the process during our first two days again raised concerns about opening up feelings in our students.  What if a student raised feelings and issues we couldn't handle? What if the student would not be able to return to class after a circle because they were too wound up - or even torn up? What then? 

I acknowledged that these were legitimate concerns. I noted that sometimes we may need to alert the social workers or counselors on staff that a circle may go deep, and get their help in keeping the circle. Or we may need to refer students to these professionals if they've opened up in ways that we feel require additional support.

We also need to be conscious, especially in emotional circles, about closing up the circle properly, giving students time to pull themselves together before heading back into the hallways and the regular day-to-day routines.  We often talk with students about putting our shields back on. 

I observed that if students are struggling, they struggle whether we keep circles or not.  Sometimes students' personal issues and feelings spill into their academic classes, because they are too close to the surface to hide or suppress.  A circle can provide a more supportive environment for such issues to come out, be listened to and/or discussed.  In any case, I've found that most of the students we work with are very aware of when to share and when not to share, when it is safe and when it is not.  I have never seen students share deeply of themselves in a circle where the keeper is uncomfortable with such sharing.  For circles to work, they have to be welcoming and inviting.  And it is the keeper, first and foremost, who sets the tone. 

As is so often the case in circles, the issue the participants had raised (in this case, about deep sharing) emerged in our own circle just moments later, as the talking piece continued its way around the circle.  The teacher who had told us in an earlier session that her mother was in the hospital now shared her story about anger. Tears poured down her face as she told us that the last time she'd had a chance to speak with her mother, they'd had a fight. She'd been very angry, and the issue had been unresolved. That same week, her mother had had the stroke that put her in the hospital. She'd been in the hospital ever since and communication had been difficult.  The woman was hurting deeply and as she shared, people in the circle were completely drawn in.  It was as if the air had been sucked out of the room.

The talking piece continued around.  People shared their compassion and asked if they could provide any support to the woman.  As the piece continued, people also shared their own stories about parents and grandparents they'd been in conflict with, stories of loss, challenging communication and other related experiences. I acknowledged the painful feelings in the room and invited people to keep breathing.  Several people encouraged the woman to do what she needed to do, right now in this moment. She should feel free to leave the circle if she felt she needed to go to the hospital. They would support her. We would support her. At some point, the woman did in fact get up and leave the room, clutching her phone. 

I stayed in the circle for the remainder of the go-round, wrapping things up as best I could with the people in the room, while part of me wanted to also check in with the woman who had just left. As the talking piece came back to me, I invited people to breath in, consider all the stories we'd heard, then on the out breath let go of any negative energy we were holding in our bodies; any of the heavy, stuck energy as a result of the stories we bore witness to.  I invited people to continue this breathing, making sure also they were grounded.  I encouraged them to get back into their physical bodies. 

I then invited them to turn to each other for any additional support, while I excused myself to go check in with the woman who'd left the room.  She was just outside the door, on the phone with the hospital. She was upset, and as soon as she got off the phone, she told me she needed to get going.  As she left the building, I let her know that our thoughts would be with her. 

Walking back into the room, I saw small groups of people talking with one another. The energy in the room had loosened up somewhat.  It felt lighter.  However, there was both confusion and concern about how circles would be used at the school.  Who was responsible for coordinating this?  Would time be made available?  What support systems would be in place?

I promised I would talk to the principal to see if she would be willing to address some of these questions on the next and last day of our circles training.

People were engrossed in conversation as they left the room. The circle had been painful, though it also seemed that people had connected in a new way. I was hoping everyone would come back the next day, especially the woman who had shared so deeply and painfully of herself.

See Part 3 here.