During the recent government shut down, a bipartisan group of roughly two-dozen senators helped craft the funding deal to re-open the government. The group used a “talking stick” as a tool to facilitate their meeting, only allowing the senator with the stick to speak in an effort to cut down on interruptions.

The use of the “talking stick” originated in Indigenous North American customs and is today also commonly used in restorative practices such as the circle, a process used to build connections and resolve disputes in community. Sometimes the “talking stick” is replaced by another sort of “talking piece,” an object that has special significance to the group or facilitator using it. For example, I have heard a story of a group of construction workers having a difficult conversation about workplace safety using the hard hat of a deceased workmate as a talking piece to pass around in the circle.

Regardless of the specific object used, the talking piece fulfills the important function of ensuring the equal voice and respectful communication necessary for cooperation to occur.

The story about the use of the talking stick by the group of senators got me thinking about other restorative principles and practices used by groups to increase cooperation. The restorative justice organizations I have worked with have all sought to be restorative organizations, operating internally in accordance with the same principles and values that they shared with the wider community. I have learned a few key strategies from working with these restorative organization that all help to foster an environment conducive to cooperation.

Lesson one:

Always make time for relationships.

The work always gets done and is done well, but plenty of time is made to laugh together, to check in about our lives, and offer support. Every meeting with our (?) whole staff begins with a connection circle in which each staff member answers a relationship-building question. Our staff takes turns facilitating those circles and picking the question and talking piece.

Above all else, restorative practices prioritize the building and maintaining of healthy relationships for us. We all have a want and a need to feel belonging and the only way to accomplish that is through opportunities for genuine connection. Furthermore, positive interpersonal relationships are a major influence on behavior. Research has shown that when we feel connected, heard, and appreciated at work, productivity increases. Having positive relationships with the people you work with also makes it easier to collaborate and compromise.

Lesson two

Establish a productive way to deal with conflict and remain open to feedback.

Within the toolbox of restorative practices is a conversation model called the restorative conversation. This is a way of addressing one-on-one conflict that focuses on the impacts and what can be done to make things right and moving forward. As an organization, Longmont Community Justice Partnership trains volunteers in this method so that they have a restorative way to resolves disputes among themselves over unreturned phone calls or differences in facilitation styles. The restorative conversation is also encouraged as a way for staff to deal with conflict and all members of the staff are training in the model. Because staff members have a tool for dealing with conflict, it doesn’t fester or come up again later passive aggressively inhibiting cooperation. Instead, staff members are able to hear each other and form and commit to a plan to make things better.

Lesson three

Listen and show you are listening.

Active listening is a pillar of restorative practices. Facilitators are taught to show that they are listening in the moment through eye contact, body language, questions, and reflective statements. Showing someone that you are really listening goes a long way in cooperation.

Bringing the values, the principles, and the tools of restorative practices into our daily lives, families, and work communities allows us to facilitate a social environment that is conducive to cooperation. Like the simple but powerful talking stick, these simple but powerful restorative practices foster healthy community interactions.

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