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Speak from the Heart: How to Have Helpful, Healing and Honest Discussions

Restorative Resources is a Sonoma County nonprofit that provides restorative justice services and training within our schools, local agencies and community institutions. Key to the process is the “circle dialogue”, a discussion practice that nurtures an atmosphere of respect, compassion and integrity as a way to help people with disparate opinions and perspectives “talk it out” safely.

So how does it work?

It begins with finding a space where everyone feels safe enough to speak their mind.

First, form a circle.

If your discussion includes more than 1 or 2 other people, choose to sit in a circle formation, so that everyone feels equally included in the process.

Check your rage at the door.

Unconscious fear and anger can derail any discussion. Wait until strong feelings have died down enough that the discussion can proceed toward a reasonable outcome, not as a response to over-whelming emotion. It’s important to remember that everybody has a right to their feelings and percep-tions, whatever those might be, and nobody should feel ashamed or afraid to express themselves as individuals with their own needs – providing they do so with the utmost respect for everyone in the circle.

How you listen and respond makes all the difference.

Listen from the heart

It’s often easier to talk than to remain quiet and deeply listen. And it’s often tempting to believe that what we have to say is more important than being open to learning from others in the dialogue. So, try to allow your inner dialogue to become quiet, and try to imagine how things feel from the other person’s point of view. If something comes up that’s uncomfortable for you to hear, take a deep breath and give your emotions space to sort themselves out before you respond.

Take your turn

Just as each person has the right to speak, so each one also has the right to be heard without inter-ruption or comment. At Restorative Resources, we pass a “talking piece” around the circle. Whoever has the talking piece has the right to speak. All others have the obligation to listen respectfully. After one person has spoken, they pass it on to the person sitting next to them. You don’t need a talking piece, but you should follow the protocol of “safe speaking space” and respectful listening.

Speak from the heart: be gentle with your words

Name calling, demeaning language and accusations may make a speaker feel “right” for a moment, but in the long run the dialogue, as well as personal relationships, will suffer. Remember that you are there to seek a solution or further understanding, not to engage in a blame game. To clarify issues, ask open-ended questions with words that invite discussion such as “How can we make things bet-ter?” rather than questions that can be answered in a simple “yes” or “no”.

Accept responsibility

While some choices and perceptions are definitely more healthy than others, rubber stamping those as “right” and “wrong” usually results in a shutdown conversation and shifting of blame. Simply saying “I’m sorry” if you have harmed someone or fallen short of expectations opens the door for others to take ownership of their own feelings and behavior. In the process, you’ll be helping to ease tensions and create a safer space for others to face their own feelings and accountability.

Practice makes (almost) perfect

Make it a habit

Try to follow these discussion practices in your everyday conversations. When problems come up, as they always do, you will be better able to weather the sometimes stormy emotional aftermath, and to find equitable solutions that include added respect, empathy and understanding for everyone con-cerned.

Circle Dialogues work for all ages. Go to our website ( for printa-ble posters of our Circle Guidelines for Young Children (on our “Somos” page under the “Schools” section -, and Circle Guidelines for adults and older children (on our “Restorative Middle School” page under the “Schools” section -

Article by Vicky Ness

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