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.