You have likely heard the statistics before. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, US prisons house about 22% of the world’s incarcerated adult population (Roy 2013). 95% of prisoners are eventually released and two out of three ex-inmates re-offend (Prison Fellowship). With the Prison Industrial Complex fuelling a push for ever greater rates of incarceration, it is clear that the US is facing a crisis in the criminal justice system.

Restorative Justice offers a promising solution to mass incarceration and high rates or recidivism. Restorative Justice is a process that brings the victim, offender, and community together after a crime has occurred to talk about what happened, who was affected, and what can be done to make things right. Rather than being punished for an offense, the offender has the opportunity to repair the harms caused to the victim, family and friends, and the community. The process is highly successful. Re-offense rates following a Restorative Justice process are decreased to 10% and the participant satisfaction rate (for victims, offenders, and community members) is consistently above 95% (RJ Colorado). Through the process, damaged relationships are healed and the community is strengthened.

If you are interested in learning more about Restorative Justice, check out a local organization and consider volunteering.

Fort Collins Restorative Justice Program

Longmont Community Justice Program

Stay tuned for more information about Restorative Justice in upcoming newsletters including case studies that demonstrate the transformational impact of the process for both victims and offenders.


We are all guilty of not listening to what others say. Sometimes we tune out because we are trying to do something else like watch TV, but other times we don’t listen because something about what is being said results in rejection of the message, or sometimes it is because we are lousy listeners. To be a good listener, one needs to focus, practice, and become an active listener.

So, what are ten quick reasons we don’t listen closely?

  1. You have already decided the person or message is wrong; hence, you are less interested in understanding the point of view being expressed.
  2. If there is a problem, you believe the problem is the other person or group’s fault. You are already invested in the “blame-game.”
  3. You have decided your point of view is being unheard, and that the speaker is insensitive and selfish; hence, you are predisposed to reject anything said.
  4. You are unaware of how your own behavior may be rude, insensitive, superior, or dogmatic, so your stance triggers a similar response in the speaker.
  5. You are so defensive about your own beliefs that you immediately need to defend your own position rather than listen to another.
  6. You resent being given what looks like instructions, directives, or supervision. Hence, you reject information that appears to be controlling and domineering to you, so you jump to defend yourself or your views.
  7. You feel “entitled” to better treatment (perhaps due to past poor experiences), so you assume any alternative view is prejudiced, and it negates your ability to understand another person’s behavior.
  8. You believe what you have to say is “more important”; thus, you lack interest in what others are saying or thinking. This produces a major barrier to listening.
  9. You are afraid that others are trying to “manipulate” you if you listen to them.
  10. You tend to think any sharing of information about a problem is a request for you to solve the problem; hence, you jump to trying to solve the problem before you really understand it. Sometimes people just want to vent.

What might one do to become a better listener?

  1. Shut up and listen.
  2. Stop worrying about what you want to say and how to say it. Try rephrasing what is being told to you, so you indicate you are actively trying to listen?
  3. Be open and honest, even if it makes you vulnerable.
  4. Be aware of nonverbal communication ticks that show a listening attitude to the speaker. Give eye contact, stand closer enough to show interest but not so close as to intrude on the person speaking to you, avoid folding your arms into a defensive posture, and use moderate and not loud tones in response.
  5. Avoid extraneous statements that veer the subject away from what the speaker is trying to discuss. Not everything is an invitation to an argument.

As a member of a test group I was once asked to participate in a series of lectures given by volunteers. We were told to listen attentively with lots of eye contact and body posture involvement. Then on a signal we were told to stop doing so. After a very short time the speaker became less animated, returned to a passive stance behind their podium, and generally reacted badly when the audience was not “involved.” Later many of us testified it was difficult to turn off active listening when we had previously established a rapport with the lecturer.

Now that you have heard a message, how do you respond?   Many people tend to value intuitive or “gut” decision responses. One decides immediately the message received is right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, wise or stupid, or perhaps insulting and threatening.   Such a decision making method may be indeed appropriate, but there are other circumstances where it may reflect triggers due to unfortunate prejudices, social conditioning, or emotions. Before one routinely uses the “gut feeling” method approach, it is worthwhile to understand what produces it.

  • Some responses are associated with evolved instincts such as fear of loud noises, fear of fire, and fear of predators. A quick response may indeed be appropriate.
  • Intuition generated emotional responses to information delivered with a smile, anger, sadness, or fear may be distorted, inappropriate, and even counterproductive.   Fear generated responses may be particularly dangerous, since one may have completely misinterpreted a message and over react.
  • Sometimes instincts are actually learned responses based on experience. The effectiveness of the response may depend on the quality of the learning experience. A person who has been previously scammed or phished on the internet, would be very wise to react cautiously in similar future situations.
  • Societal conditioning can be either good or bad. Telling a child to beware of strangers may be good protection for the child, but rude and unnecessary as an adult. On the other hand racial biases which produce automatic distrust and suggests that “all xxxxx are inherently dishonest” can frequently lead to very bad decisions.
  • Some instinctual responses are associated with prior life experiences involving odors, tastes, and even sounds. When such associations are triggered by childhood experiences it is very difficult to decide whether a “gut reaction” is rational or irrational.

Thus, “gut” decision making may be a hodgepodge of various brain activities. It is not at all obvious that such systems will result in optimal decision making. “Fight or flight” instincts are not good ways to make investment or political decisions, and a person with an emotional disorder cannot be expected to have an accurate understanding of reality. Finally, trusting “intuition” may be the result of selective memory where you remember when a hunch paid off but discount the other cases, (say when you bet on horses at the race track.)

Finally, it is worth mentioning Richard H. Thaler who was granted the 2017 Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics in October. Using economics as a platform he determined that most people do not act entirely rationally. Despite the obvious advantage to thoughtful investments over time, most people tend to make individual decisions which given them short-term satisfaction.   This is true whether one considers population choices in politics, health care, education, family planning, or recreation.   Or as Professor Richard Altemeyer, University of Manitoba, put it….most people are information adverse if new data do not agree with their prior preferences.

NOTE: Ideas extracted from suggestions found by John M. Grohol at the PsychCentral internet site about listening and responding.


The following material is adapted from William M. Timpson’s (2002) Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood), a text that is being used for the infusion of sustainable peace studies into the curriculum at the University of Ngozi and other campuses in Burundi. These ideas are equally relevant for schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as in our churches, organizations and businesses. Everyone can benefit when conflicts are resolved through improved communication.

“Teacher Effectiveness Training” and the skills of “Highly Effective People”

We all know that good communication can be pivotal in defusing a volatile confrontation, helping everyone lower their emotions and defenses in order to get a deeper understanding of what happened, how people feel about it and what peaceful alternatives are possible.

Deep listening: There are many different forms of listening. There is the “light” listening you do in passing with friends or colleagues, or in response to “What’s up?” or “How about those Rams!” (Insert your team’s name or mascot.) You’ll usually engage in more “professional” listening in class when questions arise or a discussion unfolds. You might experience some “anxious” listening when you sit down for your annual performance review. Then there is the “ceremonial” listening amidst the pomp of a graduation exercise, or the “haphazard” listening when you’re watching TV. Then there is “deep” listening, the kind you do when a friend has a problem and needs your support and assistance, when a loved one has died, the kind of listening you need when a rejection letter arrives.

Some guidelines for this deeper form of listening can help you and others when you are trying to resolve a problem. It’s helpful to know that this option is available when needed. The benefits can last a lifetime. Steven Covey’s (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster) describes some of these skills within a context of business. Tom Gordon’s (1974) Teacher Effectiveness Training describes the benefits of deep listening in classrooms.

Seek first to understand: Too often, our own agendas and our need to be heard make it difficult to listen deeply to someone else, to give our undivided attention. Disciplining yourself to put your own needs on hold and attend to someone else can help that person—and you—get to a better understanding about a particular problem, to see more clearly from that person’s perspective.

In a small group section of a first year seminar dedicated to helping students make a successful transition from high school to college, we took quite a bit of time to discuss the experience of one of the students—let’s call her Andrea—and her experience proved to be a wonderful case study that had meaning for everyone in the class.

Andrea was really frustrated by the duplication she saw in her chemistry class, between what was in the text and what was covered in lecture. “I can read,” she told us. “I don’t need to be read to, word for word.” Moreover, her entire chemistry class seemed to be in revolt, with far too many students coming in late, leaving early, talking during lecture, reading the newspaper, etc. Chaos ruled and it was ugly. In Andrea’s mind, students were being really rude, very disrespectful! When she went to her instructor to complain, she first tried to understand why all this was happening.

What she learned was that the instructor, just out of her own graduate program, was anxious about doing well and eager to follow the advice of a senior faculty mentor who told her to stay “close to the text.” Once Andrea heard that, she understood. Instead of writing this instructor off as incompetent, uncaring or just plain dull, Andrea could see that she was trapped by poor advice and a desire to do well.

What Andrea needed in class were examples that would illustrate the text and that would provide concrete and accessible references for various chemical theories and concepts. After hearing Andrea’s concerns and recommendations, the instructor thanked her for coming in to talk (and listen), promised that she would rethink her future lectures and hoped that Andrea would come back with more feedback in the future.

Help clarify thoughts and feelings: Once you understand a situation better, you then want to focus on the other person’s thoughts and feelings. You become a kind of sounding board, reflecting back what you hear and what you sense, how the other might feel. Typically, the other person will either confirm that you got it right or correct you. Either way, each of you is sharpening your understanding of the issues and underlying causes.

By mirroring back in this manner, you are also conveying your desire to understand. Intentions matter! One of the greatest gifts you can give anyone is your support, assistance and undivided attention. You do care what that person thinks and feels. With this kind of interactive focus, you’re building trust, as you move toward a deeper understanding. The barriers drop away. Many of us regularly think out loud. Having someone listen carefully, in the way I am describing here, can help any of us clarify our own thoughts and feelings, move past our frustrations and toward some constructive resolution.

On the emotional side, be alert to nonverbal messages and your own intuition about how the other person is feeling, how volatile or charged a particular problem is for that person. Check out your hunches. Andrea might have offered to her instructor, “You seem really trapped between what you were told and what we are saying that we need.” Or “If I were in your situation, I would be really frustrated.” The chemistry instructor could have confirmed or corrected Andrea’s guesses and their mutual trust might have deepened.

Minimize questioning: The problem with questioning is that it comes from you, the listener, and can take the ownership of the process away from the other person. Your questions might help you clarify something, but they may also distract the other person from going deeper, from following his or her self-reflections and insights. The primary goal should always be to help the other person clarify his or her thoughts and feelings. This is a subtle but useful distinction. It’s not an iron-clad principle but a dynamic that we can be alert to as instructors.

For example, you can use reflective statements instead of questions: “You seem really upset about this.” This may seem like a small point, but when you put it in question form—“Are you upset about this?”—you’ve taken over the direction of the conversation. You’re demanding a response. In contrast, reflections keep the responsibility on the other person to control the process, to clarify and decide how to move on. You want to be a supportive sounding board, not an interrogator.

Keep your own opinions on hold: Finally, be cautious about “hitchhiking,” jumping into the conversation with your own experiences, opinions, etc. In casual conversations there is this natural dynamic of back and forth, give and take, often rapid and overlapping. But when you want to listen deeply or help someone embroiled in a conflict, disciplining yourself to keep the focus on the other may be the best approach.

In the model we are describing here, you begin with two assumptions: first, that the other person knows best the particulars of his or her situation; and second, that it’s best to let that other person decide when to ask for advice or to hear about your experiences. Offering too much too soon can undermine that person’s self-confidence and ability to see through a problem.

In the short run, your advice might be very helpful, but it is still your advice. In the long run, you may be a better friend, instructor or leader by holding back your own ideas until a time when the other person has wrestled with all the issues and now is asking for your help. In the daily scheme of things, few of us function like this, so it may take some real self-discipline and feedback to get there. And time! Give it a try when you get the chance.

Local applications where you live: Again, we pose the challenge: What and where can you imagine these ideas working effectively in your community? How can we work together to infuse these kinds of basic peacebuilding ideas and skills in your schools, on your campuses, and in your organizations?