In 2019 I was attending a conference in Kortrijk, Belgium, co-hosted by the organization that I founded in 2000 — the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a master’s degree-granting graduate school and training organization based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
I was especially excited because this event was organized in collaboration with our longtime friends at Oranjehuis and Ligand, two restorative practices agencies that have been serving young people with treatment and educational services in the Flanders region of Belgium since 1974.
This was also my first time to hear Brett Hennig in person, although I’d seen his excellent TED talks.
He was educated as an astrophysicist, but he is co-founder of the Sortition Foundation which advocates for a randomly selected House of Citizens to replace the undemocratically appointed House of Lords in the U.K.
His comments reminded me of the commonalities between restorative practices and the deliberative democracy movements — although this was the first time they had been brought together at a conference like this.
Both movements have an abundance of practices with different names but all with a common purpose — to provide reliable processes where people can talk, respect each other’s differences and make thoughtful decisions together.
These organizations have experience with bringing together people in conflict — victims and offenders, misbehaving students, families in crisis, feuding co-workers or citizens with clashing beliefs—all of whom benefit from having an authentic conversation.
Many onlookers are skeptical because they doubt that ordinary people can keep their cool, accept new knowledge or make effective decisions.
But we have learned through years of practical experience that given the right conditions we ordinary people are capable of achieving remarkable outcomes.
Both restorative practices and deliberative democracy dramatically improve the way human beings interact and communicate.
They both represent a revolution by conversation.
On a restorative practices continuum the informal practices include affective statements that communicate people’s feelings, as well as affective questions that cause people to reflect on their own feelings.
Impromptu conferences, groups and circles are more structured but do not require the elaborate preparation needed for formal restorative and family group conferences.
Moving from left to right on the continuum, as restorative practices become more formal, they tend to involve more people, require more planning and time, and are more structured and complete.
I have expanded the right side of the original continuum that I defined many years ago.
It now extends beyond the formal conference to include two more examples of restorative practices.
Community processing and citizens’ assemblies address conflicts and make decisions affecting large numbers of people on a municipal, regional or even national level.
As in all restorative practices, we replace the angry language of conflict with information exchange and purposeful conversation.
Restorative practices bring the caring of the lifeworld into the system.
They foster mutual understanding through participatory learning and decision-making.
Restorative practices, by many names, are finding their way into our families and schools and workplaces and courts.
Well, what about governance?
Governance is about power.
In the popular story of The Lord of the Rings, power is the one ring to rule them all.
Tolkien’s epic tale highlights the fierce grip that the ring of power has on all of us.
Many leaders throughout our world are so addicted to power that they cling to authority by any means — including violence.
When I see such power-crazy people in charge of whole nations I find myself asking, where are all the grown-ups?
I’d love to see groups of grown-ups sit down together and decide what we can do differently.
Yes. We ordinary people.
We’re as good a set of grownups as you can find.
But we would need settings that exclude partisan politics.
Where we can have open and honest conversations.
Where, instead of always trying to convince the other guys — that we try to understand their point of view and what makes them feel that way.
Where we can agree to disagree on some things and we can compromise on others.
And even change our minds.
Convening conversations not only helps to resolve issues but it simultaneously builds relationships.
Doing things with people, not to them nor for them.
Restorative practices provide cooperative settings for group decision-making and conflict resolution in schools and workplaces and courts and governments.
Adversarial settings for decision-making such as elections and courtrooms alienate and tear us apart.
So, what would we do differently if we really wanted to stop fighting with each other and collaborate instead?
Well, we would put aside ideology for pragmatism.
We would engage everyone in deciding what works, what doesn’t, how and why.
We would pause to evaluate what we have done so far and make modifications as needed.
We would admit mistakes and learn from them.
We would talk about difficult issues like climate change and social justice and abortion — but rely on evidence and good will, not slogans and nastiness.
But…..don’t expect a white knight on horseback to lead the charge.
We need to be our own heroes.
We need to bring democracy to everyday life.
The revolution is upon us.
Come on, join the conversation.