To Spit or Not to Spit
Relationships are difficult. Even good ones. I want to tell you a story about a young person I worked with, had a great working relationship with in fact, but which went horribly wrong one wet afternoon in August..
I'd been working with this kid for nearly two years. He was a great kid, but had a lot of difficult trauma in his background. He arrived at the office for a meeting and it was as clear as the nose on your face that he was under the influence of something. He was disorientated, paranoid and angry, but couldn't quite explain what he was angry about. Now bearing in mind I was a seasoned Social Worker of nearly 15 years at this point, I did the one thing you should never do when a person is in a state of anger. I told him to "calm down." I know. Let's all do the eye roll and accept we are not perfect. His explosion was immediate. A torrent of abuse let rip at me in front of colleagues, members of the public and other young people, and as he left the office he spat on me. A great, big, wet, gob that landed right in the middle of my face.
I was stunned. It was public and I felt so humiliated. To put you in the picture, my ego and pride had a big part to play in how I experienced this damning display of rejection by a young person I was fond of, I had built a good working relationship with and whom I had worked hard to support. My humiliation came from three places.
Sometimes these are the hardest humiliations to recover from. The one's where people you have connected with suddenly and confusingly disconnect from you. In the interests of radical responsibility let's break down what my part was in this.
Trying to tell someone what you want them to feel instead of connecting, empathising with them and reflecting what they are presently feeling is a sure fire way to disconnect from someone - it is a sure fire way for them to unconsciously realise that you aren't hearing their communication and it is a sure fire way for them to up the ante and communicate in an escalated way what they are feeling again in an attempt to get you to hear them - in this case with a great big gob in the face. Nil points to me.
Failure to receive communication is one of the most common reasons for misunderstanding, one of the most common reasons for escalating behaviour and one of the most important reasons to learn restorative listening skills in working with, well anyone. The ability to put aside the "story in your head" and really slow it down to listen to what a person is feeling is a lot harder than we think.
So now that I had played a part in rupturing this relationship, I had a choice. I could attempt to repair it or I could bin it. Well obviously I wasn't binning it. I had worked too hard to cultivate a relationship of respect with this young person, and I was adult enough to see that I had played a part in the rupture. This is in no way to absolve the responsibility of the young person in spitting on me, or to give him a free pass on this behaviour - it is a horrible behaviour, has a huge impact on someone's self-esteem and whilst this was before Covid, in the current climate it is dangerous.
So let's pause for a second and look at this from the shared story, the non judgement and the restorative angle. This wasn't a relationship that was ruptured just for me. This was a relationship that was ruptured for him. And while I was humiliated and impacted, so was he. We both had a part to play, we both were in the relationship together and we both had to solve it together.
I was surprised by the amount of people who were in support of "charging him with assault," Surprised, not because it wasn't assault - it was by any interpretation, but because it wasn't the most effective way forward for him or me and I thought in the field I worked in, people would get this. I needed him to hear how hurt I was, I needed to say it and have him validate it so I could move on with getting back to the business of working with him. But I suspected he also needed to explain why he had hurt me too, and have the opportunity to learn that his poor choice of behaviour does not equate to the destruction of relationships when it is framed with courageous understanding and real talk. I also knew I needed to apologise to him for missing the opportunity to connect with him and his distress, and I was pretty sure he needed to apologise to me too.
I found my support in a colleague, who also worked closely with this young person, who also had a relationship with him and knew him for better things, and who also respected the importance of restorative practice in talking about actions, harm and needs, not broken rules and laws which in no way dealt with the human beings behind the rupture. She agreed to facilitate the restorative meeting between me and the young person. She prepared him to meet me, reassuring him that this was to "sort things out" not to punish him. Reassuring him that I and she believed that he had made a mistake that he could put right, but that he needed to hear how he had affected me.
I don't mind admitting to you that I was nervous walking into the room that day. I had thought a lot about what I would say, how much I would share, how vulnerable I would make myself by telling him the truth about the feelings that I had when he spat on me and the impact it had on my family. I also knew that I owed him an apology and that put me in a vulnerable position too. It was not lost on me, just how much we both had in common walking into that room to talk to each other.
When I opened the door that afternoon, he looked up at me and the shame and regret was palpable. I put my hand on his shoulder as I passed around the back of his chair to get to mine and gave it a squeeze, trying my hardest to say "we are in this together." He put his head down.
My colleague opened the meeting, thanked us all for coming and reminded us all why we were there - not that I think any of us were in any confusion about it. He looked like he was about to bolt out of the room, so I said "I don't know about you, but I'm really nervous." His shoulders sagged, he let out a breath of air and said in a rush, "I'm so sorry." I nodded, but waited, I knew we needed to go through the process. I knew I needed to go though the process, and I knew he needed it too.
He told his story first. How a breakdown in a family relationship sent him into a tailspin, he went on a bender, took a cocktail of drugs and came into the office that day on the downward spiral of coming off them. He said he had a bleary recollection of feeling angry and that I was out to get him just like everyone else and he remembered spitting on me. "I'm so sorry" he said again. I nodded. "So am I," I replied. "I let you down, I didn't really listen to how distressed you were, I just wanted to get you out of the office before you kicked off, it's partly my fault that you lost it and I'm really sorry that you didn't feel supported by me." A range of emotions flickered over his face, surprise, embarrassment, and then reassurance. We were connected again, by the very nature that we both had a part to play in what had happened and a realisation we both needed to apologise and repair this.
I then told my story. I explained I knew he was under the influence of something because his personality was not recognisable as the young person I knew and respected. I then told him how humiliated I felt being spat on in front of my colleagues, members of the public and other young people. I explained it was because I believed I was good at my job, and nothing communicated I was a failure quite like a young person spitting in your face. I told him that the most difficult thing however, was not being able to kiss my son goodnight until after I got the all clear from the Doctor that his spit which had landed on my face and in my eye hadn't communicated any infections to me. He looked shocked and quietly said again, "I am so sorry."
My colleague, gently and quietly asked him what exactly it was that he felt sorry about it. "For you not being able to kiss your wee boy night night." I felt validated. He had completely understood that it wasn't what he had done that required the apology, it was the impact of it that required the apology. He had totally heard me and validated my right to feel hurt which told me that what happened to me shouldn't have happened to me, I didn't deserve it. Even as an adult this is so reparative. But I also felt shame. Shame that he could demonstrate this empathy and connection, yet I had failed to do it for him. Sometimes we think kids, especially boys, can't hear sensitivity, or reject it. But in a private and safe space I think it is so important for children to hear sensitivity and boys especially. I told him he had more compassion and courage than me, and I was truly sorry that on that day I had shut him down when he needed me most to listen to him. I asked him to accept my apology and he did. There were tears, to be fair it was mostly me and his family supporter, he was way too cool to cry.
If you want to learn more about the frameworks for repairing harm and thinking about the shared story, and the parts we all play in conflict when it occurs, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more, or sign up for our Online Restorative Practice in Action course.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and and chief quality controller of all chocolate in her house.
The Double Circle: A Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach
A collaborative problem-solving approach I really like and have used in the past with schools, businesses and in Justice Settings is that of the Double Circle. After all, the only thing that is better than one circle, is two circles. This works on the idea of an inner circle surrounded by an outer circle. Those in the inner circle are the people who are impacted by the problem you are trying to resolve. They might be the child, the teacher(s) and the parents, it might even be a group of staff who are struggling with changes in your school or have a problem to resolve which was identified by an Educational Inspection. Those in the outer circle are the resources. They are there to offer options to resource the plans or needs which the child, family, teachers and others in the middle identify, (see diagram below).
Much like a family group conference model, the Inner Circle meets first to talk about what problems are being experienced and what people need to move forward positively. After this has been identified, the Outer Circle joins and works to resource any needs that the Inner circle couldn’t resource on their own.
Here is an example of a Double Circle we ran at a rural Secondary School back at the end of 2019 and the action plan which the Double Circle came up with as a strategy to resolve a 16 year old girl’s truancy from school.
The Circle (all names have been changed to protect anonymity)
Crystal has been referred to Educational Welfare because her attendance at school had dropped so dramatically in the last 6 months. Her History teacher was vexed because he saw great potential in Crystal and so he asked for a circle to be offered to Crystal and her family to try and support her back into school. An early preparation conversation between Crystal and Mr O’Donaghue revealed that Crystal’s mum was suffering from depression following the death of her Grandmother, and her father was often working away, (he was a long distance lorry driver) so Crystal at the tender age of 16 was being relied on to cook, do laundry and support the younger children with homework.
In the Inner Circle was Crystal, her mother Margaret, her father Patrick, and her two aunts, Marie and Claire as well as the History Teacher Mr O’Donaghue. In the outer circle was Crystal’s Head of Year, Miss Albert, The Education Welfare Officer, Alicia, and a local youth worker, Paul.
After welcomes, introductions and reassurances at the beginning, the Inner Circle began with Mr O’Donaghue explaining why he had called the circle, speaking fondly of Crystal and her fun and bright nature in his class. He posed the question of “What’s Happening?” that Crystal was not coming to school regularly.
There was a very awkward silence and it was clear that Crystal was conflicted, her eyes darting between her mum and dad. The Inner Circle was stuck. Mr O’Donaghue tried again reassuring everyone that this was a safe place to talk and everyone here believed in the importance of all working together to give Crystal the best of themselves. But still the Inner Circle was stuck.
Mr O’Donaghue tried again – this time, working from a basic knowledge of what he knew was going on for Crystal, he shared his own story. He told everyone how as a 15 year old he had struggled to always be at school on time because his parents had separated and his dad took the only car the family had with him, so he had a 2 mile cycle to get to the bus stop. And in a rural setting, he remembered one particular day when he was furiously kicking the “pedal to the metal” only to see the back end of the bus pull away around a corner. The next day in a fit of anger he said to the bus driver “would you ever give me an effing chance – I’m trying to fit in a 2 mile cycle to get to you on time and you left 5 minutes early yesterday morning.” The bus driver, a calm and grandfatherly sort, had laughed and said “son, you should have said – I’ll give you 5 minutes leeway in future.” Mr O’Donaghue laughed as he said “I never realised it at the time, but that Bus Driver gave me the best chance I had back then – I guess none of us can do it alone.” This is a beautiful example of building common ground and connection and it was transformative. Crystal laughed, the Aunt’s laughed, even Patrick laughed, and he didn’t look like a man who had cause to laugh too often with his rough hands and his furrowed brow. There was a pause before Mr O’Donaghue asked again “What Happens in your house that makes it difficult to get out the door in the morning?”
Crystal quietly said that she just “didn’t have enough time to do everything that needed done.” By the time she had “sorted the wee one’s in the evening, made sure they had something to eat and their homework done and their clothes set out and tidied for the next day, she often missed out on getting her own homework done. Or it was sloppy and untidy.” She paused and then looking down at her hands and picking at the skin on the side of her fingers, she said “I hate being told off all the time for being careless and untidy when it’s just not true. It makes me feel pissed off most of the time and I don’t want to be here.” Mr O’Donaghue nodded and replied, “when actually you are caring for everyone a lot, that must feel very thankless and tiring.” Crystal nodded, head still down, tears splashing into her lap. Her father looked so uncomfortable, his face had turned the colour of his t-shirt, a muddy red colour. Mr O’Donaghue looked him straight in the eye and said “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be torn between working to look after your family and wanting to be there to help your daughter cope with all she has on her plate. What can we do to help?”
Patrick looked like he would burst – he blurted out “I don’t know – it’s all fallen apart, Margaret lost her mum – it’s been really hard”, he patted Crystal’s mum’s hand awkwardly as she started to cry, “I don’t know what to do,” he shrugged. Now this is where silence is a beautiful thing, but as anyone who has sat in silence with someone else before, you know it can also tip over into feeling painful and punitive, so be careful to keep connecting and reassuring people but without stepping into the space and directing the conversation. Mr O’Donaghue held the space beautifully. He made a few reassuring murmurs and said “I know it is hard.”
Then one of the Aunt’s, Marie, explained that her sister had been struggling to cope since their mother had died last year. Mr O’Donaghue turned to Crystal’s mum and said “I know what it is like to lose someone important – I fell apart when my mum died two years ago – it is so hard to get your head above water, what can we do to help?” Until this moment, Margaret had been struggling to say that she felt deep rooted shame that she wasn’t “cutting it” as a mum, something she had always prided herself on, but she felt so angry and lost at the death of her own mother. In a waterfall of words, tears, and pain out came Margaret’s total devastation at the untimely loss of her mother to cancer. A rock in her life, the lynchpin of the family and now she felt completely desolate and lost. Mr O’Donaghue’s empathy and understanding was the catalyst to encouraging Margaret to share out loud her shame and regret that she was not able to be the mum she knew Crystal needed. When she took a breath, Mr O’Donaghue said “right now.” “What?” said Margaret. “You can’t be the mum Crystal needs right now – but you will get back there again with support,” said Mr O’Donaghue. This is a lovely example of understanding, of being real and of recognising that it is OK that we are not all perfect, all of the time. This, I think was the moment I wanted to clone Mr O’Donaghue and put him in my pocket to take to every school I ever visit.
Mr O’Donaghue then asked Crystal directly, “Crystal, what do you need to come to school in the mornings?” Crystal shrugged and then said “I need to not be tired and have had time to do my own home work.” “And what else?” said Mr O’Donaghue. “And to get my head shired” came the simple reply. (For those of you joining us from outside Northern Ireland this is a colloquialism meaning to get out of the worry in your head and have some fun and relaxation so that you can be refreshed) “Anything else?” asked Mr O’Donaghue. There was a pause before Crystal said with a break in her voice. “And I need to know mum is going to be alright.” Mr O’Donaghue nodded.
“Ok,” he said. How do we make this happen? Who can help? He wrote up the four things Crystal had said she needed up on a flipchart.
The Head Of Year from the Outer Circle suggested a referral to a bereavement counsellor, and when Crystal’s mum shook her head in rejection of the idea of talking to someone, Crystal, bolstered by the support of other people in the room, tearfully said “I can’t keep doing this on my own mum, you need to get help.” Aunt Marie then suggested that Margaret might feel happier talking to their priest initially, until she felt more able to approach a specialist support group. Aunt Marie committed to making an appointment for them to see the Priest together and going with Margaret for the first few times until she felt more comfortable. Margaret seemed more able to cope with this suggestion and agreed to give this a try.
Patrick then admitted that he had been taking on a lot of overtime in the lorry driving, because it was so uncomfortable to watch Margaret fall apart. “I don’t know what to do with her,” he said clearly uncomfortable with all these feelings flying about the room. He turned to Crystal and said “love I promise I won’t take on any more overtime, I’ll be at home more often to give you a break.”
Ms Albert, the Head of Year then suggested that perhaps Crystal could avail of the homework club which ran on Monday’s and Wednesday’s after school. It would perhaps help her to find some quiet time to concentrate on her homework. Crystal hesitated and Aunt Claire immediately said, “Don’t worry, I’ll pick the younger one’s up and take them until tea time – it’ll give you a break too Margaret, and you can focus on getting better and maybe having a tea ready for everyone when they get home.” Margaret nodded.
After listening quietly for the whole meeting, Alicia, the EWO simply said, “I am amazed at how strong you are Crystal and what a great family you have around you. I feel like you need something for yourself. To just have some fun. My own daughter attends a dance and drama group – is it something you would be interested in? Crystal nodded and Alicia offered to get the details of the group and check out any funding sources available to get Alicia registered onto a programme. Again, concerned about her mum and the younger children, Crystal hesitated and Paul the Youth Worker suggested that both the younger children attend their youth club which was open 4 nights out of 7, to give Crystal the time to chill out with her own friends and pursue the drama and dance programme if that interested her.
The circle naturally came to a close with Mr O’Donaghue asking Crystal again if there was “anything else?” Once he was satisfied they had developed a workable plan, Mr O’Donaghue asked would everyone be prepared to connect with him by phone in 4 weeks to see what progress had been made, and after gaining agreement, Mr O’Donaghue promised to send out the actions from the circle meeting.
This is what Crystal’s Circle Action Plan looked like at the end.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and an excellent chocolate quality controller.
Impostor Syndrome, Courage and Curiosity
Leadership is tough. Brave leadership is really tough. But also worthwhile. You can lead from a place of “expertness” – the all knowing person who has all the right answers. I’ve tried this, and can I tell you, it is damn scary, very lonely, and frankly a lot of nonsense.
Because any teacher, parent or business leader worth their salt, knows that the more you learn the more you realise you have to learn. It is just not possible to be all knowing or to have all the right answers.
So, what happens when you fall into the seductive pit of “I am an expert?” Well unless you have the confidence of the single bull in the cow pen, you start to develop “Impostor Syndrome.” Impostor Syndrome if you haven’t heard of it before are the crippling feelings of inadequacy that persist despite external proof of competence. Impostor Syndrome has been my dark enemy for many, many, years and I still struggle with it today. In fact you can be guaranteed as you read this I am sitting at home repeating a gratitude mantra to myself to prevent me from falling into the dark pit of self-doubt as to whether I should have ever thought I was good enough to write a Newsletter about Restorative Practice and Themes. I think we all have it to some degree. The dark hours after an interview, or meeting, or class, when you rehash all the things you said and shouldn’t have, that you didn’t say that you should have, that you forgot, that you spent too long labouring that you… urgh - it’s exhausting!
One of the best ways to combat Impostor Syndrome is to accept that we are not experts in anything. We are just part of a team of people who have something to contribute and if you can get out of “I’m the holder of answers, knowledge and the right way to do this” and step into collaborative leadership which is curious and courageous, then you have a solid foundation to discover and create teams and projects and schools and families which will develop, create and pivot as challenges come their way. Talking about your Impostor Syndrome is a huge step towards this. You will be stunned at how many people of all genders, ages, cultures and backgrounds and of all degrees of success experience it.
There are ways to build this into your school or organisation. But be prepared, this will take effort and will be uncomfortable. Here are three of them which Brene Brown talks about in her "Daring Leadership" programme:
Name it: It's tough to do this, but the discomfort is short lived, mere seconds in fact. You might say something like: "That's one way of thinking about it, and you often have great answers, but you will lead more effectively if you can ask the right questions. We can work on this together."
Teach Curiosity: Make learning curiosity skills a priority. Like any skill, it has to be practised. I still work on this daily. Asking questions, and trying not to talk to much! There are three great books in the recommended reading list in our September Newsletter, on how to build curiosity skills (subscribe above to get this direct to your inbox).
Acknowledge & Reward the IDK's: Acknowledging and rewarding the "I Don't Know's" gives your team and children such immense power to be a learner, to be on a journey (growth mindsets) instead of in the "right" or the "wrong" camp (fixed mindsets). You can say things like "I don't know either, how can we find out?" Or "That's a great question, hey everyone, listen to this great question - what are your thoughts?" Or " Now that's a question which brings a fresh perspective, nice work - what do you need from me to follow that path?" Or " That's a brave question, thank you, I appreciate that. let's talk about this for a while."
Curiosity and Courage are my two central values. They are both hard. Curiosity requires me to give up expertness in favour of being an eternal student. To reduce my giving answers behaviour and instead ask questions like “tell me more”, “and what else?” and “how do you see this?”, and “what are your ideas on how to tackle this problem?” which inform and help others and myself to become more clear on what we have, what we need and how to go about achieving it.
Courage is even harder, it challenges me everyday to do the difficult things, to publish the newsletter, to reach out and ask someone for a referral or recommendation, to challenge a colleague who I believe is acting irresponsibly or who hurt me, or who devalued me. To tell my partner I feel less connected to him than usual, to say out loud, “I don’t feel good enough today”, to ask my son “how do you really feel about me getting married again?” and really listen to the answer!
When people are unconscious of their Impostor Syndrome thoughts they can easily fall into behaviours which are covert and hidden, to try and protect themselves by covering up mistakes, pretending to be a knower or expert in something that they just aren't, telling lies to themselves and sometimes others, and having cold clammy sleepless nights feeling the fear of “when will they catch me out and realise I’m an Impostor?”
The Harvard Business Review highlights why it is important to spend time learning about your Impostor Syndrome thoughts and understanding where they come from. (If you are interested - most of them come from our core shame and sometimes trauma, (see earlier Newsletter Articles for more on these areas). They note how a range of early life shaming messages can make some people more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome in later life. These messages are conveyed (with no malice, I should add) in schools, families and communities, when children are very young and they internalise these messages as they grow and develop into teenagers and adults. You can read the HBR article with great onward links here
For me courage and vulnerability certainly helps. These are not different things, they are the same thing, just different sides of the coin. To be courageous you have to be vulnerable. This is why when a child comes to a parent or teacher to say sorry, or is willing to just sit in the same room as someone they hurt and hear what they have to say, I am awed by how much courage they have. And, when it is a child who has no reason to trust any adult in their lives, who has been hurt, let down, rejected, scorned and humiliated most of their young lives and they still turn up in a room to face a person they have hurt and perhaps learn something very upsetting about the impact of their behaviour, I am hands down, straight up, humbled by their courage and bravery. And I tell them this. Don’t ever sniff at how much courage it takes a person to put their hand on a door handle, push it open and step into that place of vulnerability. And while we are talking about it, you don’t outgrow vulnerability when you get older. If you really practice courage then you grow towards it. Taking more risks, leading from the unknown with curiosity to learn.
In our Restorative Practices Training you can learn more about how shame and feelings of “not being good enough” impact a child’s internal world and external confidence. You will no doubt recognise your own shame behaviours and Impostor Syndrome scripts there too! You can also learn some of the ways in which you can combat it.
You can learn more about our face to face training by contacting me at email@example.com
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.