A striking feature of the political climate in the United States at this moment is the degree of polarization, its adversarial nature. It seems to be embedded in an “us versus them” construct with winners and losers and rampant dehumanization of the opposing side. In many ways, it resembles the mainstream criminal justice system in the way that it reinforces opposing sides, leans heavily on labels, and often causes further harm in its attempts to respond to issues.

During a recent conversation with some friends in New Zealand, we began talking about whether a more “restorative” approach to the political system would be possible in the same way it has been possible in the criminal justice sphere. Could there be a way to move away from entrenched sides towards understanding the individual human stories and needs that drive our behaviors? Could we find creative policy solutions that meet the needs of all involved parties rather than leaving behind winners and losers? Is there a way to bring more open honest communication, empathy and compassion into the political process? Are there structures that could help us to find consensus?

What I know is that in restorative justice processes, when everyone has a chance to tell their story and express their needs and to hear each other in a respectful and safe space, phenomenally creative and collaborative outcomes almost always emerge. I have seen understanding and consensus come out of the most polarized and emotional situations, heavy with hurt and fear. This peace arises because through storytelling, participants understand each other as fellow human beings and are able to work together to identify solutions. Could a restorative process be the answer to the disharmony in the political sphere? What would a “policy circle” look like?

Following this discussion, my friends and I of course wanted to test the idea on an issue. After a bit of discussion, we decided that one issue we may have sufficient difference in opinion on is the issue of vegetarianism. In a group of six, there was one vegetarian, one vegan, and two previous vegetarians who had gone back to eating meat. We assigned ourselves the mission of coming to consensus around a policy that we would like to implement.

We used the restorative circle format to have the conversation. I used my camping cooking pot as a talking piece and spoke about how food is an integral part of our personal histories and cultures and also represents a unifying human experience through eating together. For the first round, I asked each person to share his or her hopes for the conversation. For the second round, I asked each person to share his or her personal history in relation to meat eating or vegetarianism. It was interesting to notice myself relaxing during this round. Hearing where each person came from helped me to understand his or her position on the issue. After that, we transitioned into talking about needs moving forward and then into concrete ideas for policy that would address those needs. At this point, we suspended the structure of the circle and the use of the talking piece to have a more free-flowing conversation, but I noticed that the respect and equal voice remained as we worked toward consensus.

The first policy solution that was suggested involved placing restrictions on meat production that would ultimately increase the price of meat and improve the treatment of animals. Others in the circle however felt that this would anger consumers and would also put people in the position of being expected to eat more plant-based food without knowing how to make vegetarian food that tastes good and is nutritious. We decided what was needed was an initiative that would familiarize people with plant-based eating in a positive way. The solution we arrived at involved providing free vegetarian lunches at all schools in order to introduce children to delicious vegetarian food, promote public health, combat child hunger and as a result, improve learning and behavior at school. It is a solution that certainly reflects the liberal leaning of those present in the circle, but I do think that a circle with a wider range of voices would be able to come up with an even more creative solution that would address the needs brought to that circle. We closed with a final circle round offering an opportunity for any last comments or thoughts.

I recognize that there are certainly limitations to this political method. It is time consuming for one and it would never be possible to incorporate the voices of all people. Conversations would take place in smaller circles and then there would still need to be a way to transfer that learning about each other and the positive outcomes to the wider society. However, I think what we are desperately needing in this moment is a structure, a way to create a safe space that encourages respectful communication and listening that seeks to cultivate empathy and recognize the human across the divide. Restorative approaches such as the circle could be a helpful tool towards this end.

For more information about the Restorative Circle process, see Kay Pranis’ Little Book of Circle Processes or the Circle Keeper’s Handbook .

Are you considering holding a circle process to work through an issue or difference in opinion? Remember a few key things:

  1. Know that it will take time. It is difficult to predict how long a circle will take and you do not want to rush the conversation, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time in a space where you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Focus on a listening deeply with an open mind and seeking to understand others and develop empathy for their position. The facilitator is in an especially powerful role to be able to model that.
  3. Ensure equal voice and equal valuing of contributions at all time. The talking piece is a great tool to help you do that!
  4. Use open-ended questions and be strategic about the order in which you ask circle questions. Restorative processes move from storytelling to impacts to ideas for the future.
  5. Recognize and appreciate the benefits of different opinions in making for better and more creative solutions.
  6. Allow yourself to be fully present in the process and appreciate the gift of connecting deeply and seeking to understand others.

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