NVC + Restorative Justice: A New Way of Healing

This blog talks a lot about Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, and we have likely mentioned restorative practices at some point. Today, I’d like to talk about the incredible benefits of combining the two.

But first, some insider history:

Dr. Cindy Bigbie, the founder of The Bigbie Method, has focused The Bigbie Method on training people in Nonviolent Communication. However, before TBM existed, she served as the director of a diversion program for teens called Community Connections. As director, Dr. B combined restorative practices with NVC training for the teens involved, and she was able to reap truly incredible benefits. I’m talking less than 12% recidivism rate plus the majority of teens coming back to the program as volunteers after they had finished because they loved it so much. For this work, Dr. B won the 2019 Dennis Maloney Award for Youth-Based Community and Restorative Justice Programs.

Dr. B is also a bit of a force within our community (my judgment). When I say that, what I mean is people rally behind her. She has been teaching NVC for many years, and her students appreciate her work, as NVC has changed the lives of many of them. To that end, people in the community saw what Cindy was doing at Community Connections and wanted to expand the work beyond this fairly small, youth diversion program.

Enter the birth of Connection First, Inc. (CFI), a Tallahassee local nonprofit whose mission is to heal trauma and build hope by promoting and supporting the spread of restorative justice as well as NVC education. For several years, CFI has advocated for a restorative justice program in Tallahassee, and it is finally happening! They have created a program that combines restorative justice practices with NVC, a combination only ever precedented by Cindy’s work in Community Connections, as far as I know, at least. The difference here is that her work with teens did not include the impacted parties, whereas the CFI restorative justice program will. Additionally, CFI will be taking adult criminal cases, not juvenile, as the vast majority of crimes are committed by people between the ages of 18 and 28.

So What is Restorative Justice?

When there is a harm (or crime), what follows is often a deep wound for all of the parties involved, their communities, and society overall. Restorative Justice, also referred to as RJ, is an alternative way of handling harm within the community that is quite different from the traditional criminal justice system. RJ fosters accountability, healing and safety.

Restorative Practices more broadly are defined as processes that proactively build and maintain social capital and relationships, and reactively respond to harm or conflict when it happens in efforts to repair relationships. This is done through deep listening with an emphasis on harmonizing conflict and restoring balance to the community.

Restorative Justice falls under the Restorative Practices umbrella term. It is a voluntary process that involves individuals who have a stake in an offense (crime) to collectively identify and address impacts, root causes, and needs in an effort to ensure accountability and healing.

RJ centers around 3 questions: 1) What happened and what are the root causes? 2) Who has been impacted and how? 3) What can be done to repair the harm?

RJ fosters accountability and responsibility in that the person responsible for the harm deeply hears the feelings and needs of the impacted party (as they are related to the harm). This is something that is incredibly difficult to do, and often brings up a lot of emotions for both parties. Listening to these impacts from the harmed party themselves often ignites empathy in the responsible party. Additionally, RJ conferences end in a collective drafting of agreements. These agreements contain a list of actionable items that the responsible party consents to completing in order to repair the harm.

RJ also fosters healing and safety. One way that RJ vastly differs from traditional criminal justice approaches is that the impacted party has a voice. They have an opportunity to be fully heard and they have agency in deciding what can be done to repair the harm. Impacted individuals who go through this process experience significantly less symptoms of post traumatic stress related to the harm in comparison to impacted individuals who do not participate in RJ conferences. Additionally, the recidivism rates for responsible parties who go through RJ are significantly lower than those of people who do not participate in RJ. This means less crime in the community, and greater safety for all.

How NVC Factors In

NVC and RJ are like PB and J. It just makes sense.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a communication and mindset approach created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg over 60 years ago. It takes blame and judgment out of language and focuses on observations, universal feelings and needs, and requests. NVC is a way to slow down and respond with compassion and care rather than reacting with all the various ways in which people tend to react – many of which do not lead to connection. The purpose of NVC is to find connection, even in times of conflict. You can learn more about NVC through The Bigbie Method’s Intro to NVC Course here.

NVC is deeply ingrained in the way CFI operates. Learning and integrating NVC into one’s life takes intentional commitment and deep practice. CFI believes NVC is the “missing link” in many restorative programs across the country, which is why they have thoughtfully integrated it into their restorative justice program for Tallahassee, Florida. Each of the three RJ facilitators on this project are not only trained in NVC by Dr. B, but they are also facilitators for The Bigbie Method.

In RJ conferences and preconferences, it is important for all parties involved to have a sense of being heard and understood. NVC does just that. CFI RJ facilitators are trained to listen with presence, reflect what they hear, and guess needs that might be alive in someone. This process of giving empathy helps RJ participants to have emotional safety and trust during the process. It also often works as a strategy for de-escalation, which is crucial when bringing together a responsible and impacted party.

The CFI RJ facilitators will use their NVC skills to keep the conversation emotionally safe by redirecting judgments and blame language to observations and needs-based language. They will also help participants identify the needs that are alive within them so that they can have greater clarity around what is going on for them, but also so that the group can come up with a list of agreements that ideally meet the needs of all parties involved.

I, for one, am very excited about this marrying of NVC and RJ. I can’t wait to see what CFI does with this program.