Julia Steiny: Maintaining Good Relationships is Inconvenient

relationship

In a convenience culture, busy people have little patience for the tedious, sometimes maddening work of sustaining good relationships.  Checking out perceived slights, apologizing, talking things through are hard.  Yucky feelings come up and it takes time to sort things out, sometimes a lot of time.  It’s far easier to fight in some way, to decide the winner as a way of making it done.  But that spreads the feelings like a contagion – until the larger community insists that it stop.

Consider the four families living next to each other in row houses, in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood, who’d been fighting for over a year.  The police had been out no less than 75 times for all manner of disturbances including two knife incidents, one with a gun, and many arrests.  All four families had kids witnessing fight after fight, including fights the police themselves got into when wrestling offenders into police cars or otherwise enforcing the law.  Beefing, beefing, beefing.

The situation had gotten flat-out expensive, much like the homeless drunk’s repeat trips to the ER.  So the police turned to the Community Conferencing Center for help.  This story comes from Lauren Abramson, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Center.

Conferencing is a restorative practice that works to resolve matters among angry or hurt parties — divorcing families, misbehaving students, victims and offenders.  Facilitators help the parties talk it through, aiming for a resolution they all can live with.  When all parties feel heard, agreements tend to stick.  Then police are free to attend to other matters.

Four families is a big conference. Before bringing them together for the culminating conference meeting, facilitators talk to the parties individually.  They need to make sure that everyone will be safe and that there are rules, like taking turns speaking, dialing back the aggression, and hearing each other out.  No matter how well the facilitator does the prep work, conference meetings are thick with tension.

The day of the row-house families’ conference meeting…

The four families badly wanted the fights to stop.  So they gathered with the facilitators to figure out what had gotten their relationships so messed up.  They aired feelings and grievances while the facilitators tried to get at the root of the problem.  The enraged neighbors were doing pretty well keeping it together.

But who should put up a fuss, but the police themselves.  They complained the work was taking too much time.  Huh?  These families’ issues have been roiling for at least a year, but they wanted a conference to fix it faster?  You can’t fix an organic, interpersonal conflict like it was a car or a toaster.

Using their restorative velvet voice to de-escalate the new tension, the facilitators reminded the police that they too had agreed to rules ahead of time.  We said we’d hear everyone out.  Often just getting the parties talking requires massive patience.  Silences fall.  People need to think.

But this conference got lucky.  One of the moms burst into tears.  Recently her cousin had been killed over something just as stupid as what they were fighting over.  Abramson quotes the mom as saying “If we don’t knock it off, someone’s going to get killed.”  Such moments can turn a Titanic of relationship conflict.  Information started to flow.

What was the “stupid” origin of the fight?  After sifting through the many blow-ups, they were fairly sure it started when the families’ daughters criticized each other’s clothes.  Oy.  Still, having found the triggering event, the humbled families seemed ready to let go and move on.

But rage bubbled over again.  This time one of the dads got into it with one of the cops.  Dad had called them for help, but the cop came to the house and arrested him, the dad.  Now seeing the benefits of talking things through, the policeman calmly reminded Dad that he’d punched his neighbor in the face right there in front of him.  That’s assault.  Dad thought for a long, tense moment and said, “Oh, yeah.”  Finally, the group could discuss the resolutions and restitution agreement.

There’s no quick fix. 

Maintaining or repairing human relationships has its own slow pace.  And it’s work.  Mentioning directly to your wife, mother, pal, or co-worker that you felt hurt, furious, humiliated when he or she said or did something is work.  It’s work most of us would like to avoid.  But then the issue festers.

We’re in relation to other people all the time.  Putting the energy and honesty into the front end saves time, hurt, and fights later on.

But in a convenience culture…

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny