Posts Tagged conflict resolution

Dominic Barter: Respect Means to Look Again

Published by — We live in a super-aggressive world.  Those who want peace must be able to walk towards the conflict.


I have hated the word “respect.”  What does it mean?  It grates constantly as it’s overused in political discourse, the media, discipline conversations and among co-workers.  Especially annoying are those posters in school hallways demanding “Respect,” either by itself or along with other abstract nouns like “responsibility.”  Is the mandate only directed at kids?  If so, who teaches what it means and how to do it?

So if the word came up, I would often stop to ask what it meant to the speaker.  Kids say they were “disrespected” to explain why they mouthed off at a teacher, walked out of class or otherwise disrupted.  They were triggered into misbehaving, to be sure, but by what, exactly?  Adults are little better, complaining about lack of respect from students, co-workers, bosses and underlings.  When I ask kids or adults what “respect” means, the first look I get says, “What a stupid question.”  Then the look morphs into mild confusion because they don’t have an answer.  What, I pursue, might respect look like or feel like?  The answer might get me closer to the true nature of the complaint, but not to a definition.

Recently, Dominic Barter solved my problem.  “Respect,” he says, means to look twice. “Re” means that something will happen again or will return.  “Spect” means to see.  “Spectator” and “spectacular” also come from the Latin spectare which means to see, view, watch or behold.

Respect means to look again.

For decades, Barter worked in the shanty towns or favellas of Brazil learning how to ease the violence.  In effect, he engaged many people in a protocol for his own Truth and Reconciliation effort, much like the South African Commission.  First he’d find safe ways to get everyone’s truth on the table, however hideous or enraged.  Then, with everyone having been heard, the group would work on how to live together in peace henceforth.

Barter’s story began with his inability to give up on helping those neighborhoods which were the murder capital of the world.  Others certainly had.  He asked officials and locals what he could do and was told by all that he could do nothing.  People living in the favellas themselves considered the situation hopeless.

So he listened, mainly to the kids hanging around the streets, but also to whomever wanted to talk.  And in this way he figured out his own version of Restorative Justice. The concepts of Truth and Reconciliation help explain the two-step process of looking.

The first look sees the obvious. 

“When we listen respectfully, we see everything that distinguishes us from the other person.  We see the gender, ethnicity, social class, where you live, how you behave.  We see the crimes, or I tell myself, perhaps, about the crimes you have committed.”

He goes on to say, “But when we listen respectfully, I listen again without denying anything I’ve seen the first time.  But I listen with a question.  Is there also shared humanity?  Is there something that we have in common?  Is there something that connects us?  I’m not defining who you are by what my thoughts tell me.”

So “respect” includes the ability to talk with people who may have done quite horrific things.  More commonly it’s the ability to walk towards the conflict with those who have offended, angered or shamed us, for whatever reason.  And in their presence and in full recognition of what they’ve done, or what we think they’ve done, to ask more questions.  To listen carefully.  To see if there isn’t some commonality that makes it possible to let the conflict be just a conflict, not a fight.  There’s no room in a fight to allow for either truth or reconciliation.

We live in a super-aggressive world, bullied by prejudice, social-media slander and viciousness resulting from easily-taken offense.  Anyone who wants peace needs to look again.  I no longer need to be annoyed by the word “respect” because I know now just to go back to the moment and look again.

Because, as Barter says, “We behave differently according to what we see.”


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Juvenile Justice Is Not Only Blind, But Deaf

Published by — Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people.

Sometimes achieving Justice is as simple as listening until the victim feels heard.

Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people.  The restorative justice movement is particularly critical of how the traditional justice system sidelines crime victims almost entirely.  As we all know from TV courtrooms, the crime is expressed as the State versus Julia.  But where are the victims?  They’re the occasion of the crime, to be sure, but at most they might write an impact statement to be read at sentencing or get some sort of Court-determined restitution.  Only the police are much interested in what victims have to say, and even their interest does not extend to what victims might want or need.  So lawyers and judges are by no means accustomed to asking how on earth such behavior – from obnoxious to heinous – came to pass, never mind how healing from this rift or crime might come about.

A professor of law, a former State’s Attorney and now the Governor’s liaison to the criminal justice program, Robert Sand has law-and-order cred.  Speaking at a recent Restorative Justice conference, he says as communities lose their tightly-knit character, they also lose their ability to handle their own conflicts.  So conflicts of all kinds are either ignored, which can lead to festering, or are handed over to the formal justice system, where victims are non-entities.  As a result, Sand says, fewer people get what they really want, which is to be heard.  Among his other stories, all far more grisly, he tells this trivial one to illustrate the efficiency and satisfaction of meeting a victim’s needs.

In one of Vermont’s many rural counties, an enterprising woman decided to set up a roadside farm stand to sell the excess of summer vegetables she’d been producing.  The display had an umbrella to shield the vegetables from the summer sun, a price list and a cigar box to collect the money on the honor system.

After some time she realized that a woman and her son were routinely stealing zucchini.  Infuriated, she installed a video camera to catch them in the act, and did.  With hard evidence in hand, she took her complaint to the local police station.  By all accounts it was theft, which is a crime.

Sand reminds his audience that at the end of the growing season, zucchini is so plentiful that you can’t give it away.  But rather than be dismissive and unresponsive, a Vermont Court Advocate took on the case.  Very civilized.

Just by having a conversation, the Court Advocate quickly found that the woman didn’t particularly want the thief to be punished or even to make restitution.  She certainly didn’t want that boy’s mother to go to jail.  What she did want was to tell that woman how sad and disappointed she was for her and her son.

The Advocate identified the perpetrator from the video, explained the situation and set up a meeting.  Together the vic, perp and Advocate had a structured and supervised conversation in a room at the Courthouse.  It didn’t take long.  The regional court system had no more dealings with the offending mom or her son, and for all we know hearing how much they’d betrayed the trust of that vegetable-vendor put them both on the straight and narrow.

But whatever the effect on the offenders, the conversation made the victim happy.  She was, after all, in the right – however trivially.  And she was only asking to be heard.

Now you may think that spending Court resources on such a crime is a waste of taxpayers’ money.  But I’m entirely with the vegetable lady wanting to hold that mom accountable for disrespecting a local honor system.  More importantly, modeling theft to the young is always a bad idea, no matter how petty.  I don’t think I could have confronted that mom without some authority standing by me.  Where else could she have turned?

Sand’s point is that we can no longer let Courts act as official non-listeners.  Very often, hearing the victims’ stories shows the case in a surprisingly different light.  And many times, as in this one, listening can just make a case go away, with a little learning and healing under the parties’ belts.

But what we’ve got right now is a judicial system that is not only blind, but stone deaf.  Where’s the justice in that?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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If Only Congress Could Get a Divorce.

Published by — If you want healthy harmony, model the behavior you want to see.

“Americans assume that good relationships are about harmony. They are not. On the contrary, good relations are those that handle strife well. Our task is to know and teach that every relationship involves conflict and resolving conflict.”

– Donald Shriver, President Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary

Statistically, children have the best health and welfare results when raised by their married, biological parents — with one huge caveat. Kids growing up in high-conflict households tend to have stats that look like those in single-parent families stressed by tight resources.

All kids have stress and adversity. But warring parents cause what’s called “toxic stress” in their kids, according to the CDC. Often, over time, such stress makes kids physically sick. When steeped in their parents’ yelling, broken dishes and ugly silences, kids suffer much higher rates of asthma, suicide, heart, liver and lung disease than their peers in peaceful homes. Domestic fighting wrecks kids’ social, emotional, and mental health with decreased graduation and college-going, increased drug and alcohol use, and early sex and teen parenting.

As Dr. Philip M. Stahl put it, “In many ways, it appears that the life of the child must stop while the arguments between the parents continue.” Kids aren’t doing their homework when Mom and Dad are duking it out in the kitchen. Normal development stops as kids pray that harmony resume and that the family please, please stay together. If the adult relationship stabilizes, the effects of the earlier toxic stress can actually be reversed. Kids thrive in stability, with regular family dinners where everyone talks things through, building faith that together the family can face adversity.

Life itself is rife with conflict.

All families fight. People disagree. But in healthy relationships, no matter how spitting mad the partners are at times, they develop ways of negotiating solutions.

Donald Shriver — quoted above — is an international hot-spot expert, participating in incendiary negotiations like the South African Peace Commission. A man dedicated to easing rage, vengeance and hate, Shriver wrote a book called An Ethic For Enemies. I’ll boil his thesis down to two rules:

One: Stay at the table. Don’t be running off for your baseball bat, Glock 9 or lawyer. A good resolution, suitable to all parties, is impossible unless everyone sticks it out with one another. Take cool-off breaks, but no matter what: stay at the table.

Two: Be able to state the other guy’s position without snarky editorial. You don’t have to agree, sympathize or concede a thing; just wrap your head around what the other guy wants or needs, well enough that your “enemy” feels heard and understood. Like all Restorative paths, this doesn’t always work. That’s okay, because the alternative, war and head-butting, never work. Restorative practices work most of the time, and the results — as in South Africa — are often marvels of the human spirit and mind.

Conflict is a marvelous if dangerous thing. Creative, even hot-headed, tension can lead to decisions that make things better for everyone. Or to people trying to destroy one another, taking down those around them as collateral damage. In families, the unintended casualties are the kids. In the case of the government, well, that would be the rest of us.

If you want harmony, model the behavior you want to see.

Family counselors routinely tell parents they’ll need to be good role models, or they’ll get back what they dish out. Yell, hit or withhold love and the kids will do that too. If such advice is good for families, why not Congress? How dare Congress scrap with one another like junk-yard dogs, for all the public to see? If a teacher yells at a kid in a hallway, she just gave the entire student body license to yell. Monkey see, monkey do. When Congress commits verbal violence, they give the nation license to do the same. Leaders should be modeling negotiation, listening, speaking from the heart. Parents need leaders to be their role models.

I need to understand and be able to express how my enemy imagines the ideal solution. So if ObamaCare ain’t it, what is? Be specific. Granted, I live next door to the highly-successful, ever-improving home of RomneyCare, so I acknowledge bias. Still, Congress, what does it look like when we have it right? For America, all of America and not just some chosen few? Really hard question, complicated and nuanced. So put on those Congressional thinking caps and get to the table. No going for baseball bats or media uzis.

I’m no expert on the federal government, but after parenting myself and working in many schools, I understand modeling. Congress is an image of bad parenting on steroids. Structurally, they can’t get a divorce. They can rip the country apart, but they can’t rent a separate apartment, get a mediator and start custody arrangements. They have no choice but to get their eye on something bigger than themselves, their own importance, their next election and in short, their narcissism. How does the other guy see it and how, pray, are you going to make a country, a household, that at least listens respectfully to all sides?

Model the behavior you want to see. If this slugfest is really about healthcare, the resulting toxic stress is making us all sick.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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