If you were an animal what would you be and why?
This is one of the ice breaker questions that I often begin a relationship building/ introduction to Restorative Practice (RP) circle with. Circles are a structured process that can be used to build community, resolve conflict, and to share our personal script. They help us to understand and learn about ourselves and one other; to affirm the answer the the questions that I believe we, as human being, are seeking, ‘Do you see me?, ‘Do you hear me?’, ‘Does what I say matter?’.
This opening question usually offers some interesting responses and a few giggles. As a facilitator, I usually model the process by holding the talking piece and answering the questions. My response to this is always a giraffe, mainly because I’m six foot tall with quite a long neck but also because these gentle animals make me smile. My friend, Ciara, gave me a gift of a cuddly giraffe to accompany me on a trip to Ethiopia a number of years ago. I laughed when I gratefully received it, remembering the childhood jeers, and thinking that it was probably no coincidence that she saw this giraffe and thought of me!
The following year, when I began to champion RP in my school, I decided to use this toy as my talking piece. I called her Sophie after my beloved goddaughter. Four years on, this cuddly giraffe has now adopted her own personality and is known throughout the school. Most of the students smile when they see or hold her, they ‘lovingly’ twist and fidget with her appendages. I think they may unconsciously find it comforting to hold Sophie while sharing with the group. Although I would be less than truthful if I did not admit that there wasn’t a little eye rolling from a few students (one vocal colleague friend of mine also springs to mind, he’ll know who he is :-)! ) when they see her coming their way. Whether this is because they are being asked to share or that they are holding a cuddly toy I’m not too sure! But for the most part she is a welcomed and loved part of my classroom and our school’s restorative community. I feel Sophie the giraffe suits my personality, she reflects an insight into my life story and helps me to connect the energy that I like to bring to the restorative work that I do. But others may be more comfortable choosing a more neutral object that can be effective for them or the community that they are working with.
I was absolutely delighted last year when Margaret McGarrigle, a restorative practitioner and kind friend, brought her masters students from NUIM to see the restorative work that we do in our school; she informed me that the giraffe was known as the restorative animal. I had absolutely no idea about this. They are considered restorative beings as they have the largest heart of all the animals, weighing up to 24 pounds. This represents how RP’s restorative language and use of affective statements help us to live from our hearts. The restorative intention to separate the deed form the doer, the act from the actor allows us to live from our core. I believe that when we forget this we are, perhaps, being dominated by our ego. Similarly, the giraffe’s long neck enables this animal to see all around itself, to witness many levels of perspective. This elevates connection and serves us as the true compassionate loving beings that we are, rather than being dominated by the ego that seeks to be separate, to be other. It symbolises RP’s intention to see everyone’s viewpoint, to build empathy, to walk in ‘one another’s shoes’.
The use of restorative questions encourages us to understand, reflect and empathise. These thinking questions elicit feeling responses. They go form the past to the present and very importantly, a solution-focused future. Simply asking ‘What happened?’ instead of ‘Why?’ has an amazing power to adapt a charged situation, I urge you to just try it. It shifts us from accusation to understanding; Asking, “What were your thoughts at the time/ since?’ ushers in the promise of grace, peace, forgiveness. Reflecting about ‘Who has been affected and how?’creates empathy. Posing the question ‘What needs to happen now?’ empowers people to solve their own problems, it allows us to evolve beyond punishment to healing; to become more conscious (Tolle, 2005).
The fact that the giraffe with its big heart and long neck had naturally found a home in our restorative circles still makes me smile and feel that the universe supports this work. For me, perhaps this ‘coincidence’ is also a sign that the life that I am living is the same as the life that wants to live in me. I am grateful for this.
Why Use a Talking Piece?
- Helps to facilitate rather than control the circle.
- Shares the space for speaking, it offers balance and reinforces the principle of equality.
- Maximises potential for listening and reflection before responding.
- Shares responsibility for the discussion. It allows the dominant speaker an opportunity to listen to others and become aware of their viewpoints. It also offers a shy/quiet student a direct invitation to participate. Even passing the talking piece to another is a form of participating in the communication, a step in the right direction.
- Introduce the talking piece; share its story/personality/meaning if relevant.
- Ask students for guidance regarding why we might use this talking piece/how it meets RP’s FRESH guidelines. Give the students ownership over facilitating the circle.
- Remind participants that we will only share when holding the piece.
- Explain that there is no pressure to share and that they are free to pass the talking piece. It is only an invitation but that it would really help the success of the circles if they could share when possible.
- Model the responses.
- Try to offer 1-10 options with a choice of elaboration to scaffold sharing in a group for students who may find this difficult and need the practice.
- Think of the practicalities. Sophie is soft and can bounce around the room without inducing injuries. Although my dear friend and fellow RP trainer, Niamh, uses a delicate ceramic turtle. She found that when she explained how old, wise and special he was to her the primary students take extra care of him! You can make it work for you!
Tolle, E. (2005). A New Earth. England. Clays Ltd.
Separate the Deed from the Doer