Restorative Jusitce provides a context to increase empathy.

Empathy.  A crucial emotional response to those around us.  We are hard-wired to connect with others.  From the book Born for Love which is about the:

empathy that allows us to make social connections, and the power of human relationships to both heal and harm.

I had a nice conversation with a man who serves youth.  He was once “at-risk”, and we had a good conversation about Restorative Justice approaches.  This man explained the importance of context for empathy.  This man grew up in poverty, he never knew about home ownership, it was not part of his growing up.  As a man, he now owns a home.  He explained how he understands “foreclosure” now, but as a teen he had no context for that.  I agreed about the context for empathy, but I continued to think about it.

In Restorative Justice Circles, we start with values.  Values are principles, standards of behavior.  According to Kunreuther 2009, “they are deeply felt and difficult to articulate”.  The author goes on to explain, “values articulate aspirations; they sustain us through disagreements, misunderstandings, and differences”.  I appreciate that take on values and I believe using then in Circle lays the foundation to connect with others, to bond.

Once bonded with those around us, even in a short-term setting, that bond increases our empathy.  Feeling that bond is important.  We are born for and designed to be in relationships with others.  One of my training slides, “In Relationships we are broken, in Relationships we are healed”.  The first few stages of Circle set that up.  The Getting Acquainted and uilding Relationship stages prepare people for the heavier discussions ahead in the last two Circle stages (Addressing Issues, Taking Action).

I get to do all different kinds of Circles, some focus on a common topic (underage drinking), others focus on a specific incident, others are community building circles.  The form of all Circles is essentially the same.  The outcomes are often different that people expect going in.  I am no longer shy about letting those who have never been in a Circle know this:  people will behave differently that you would expect.

When people open up and share in a deep and meaningful manner, it opens up others to do the same.  To bear witness to someone being genuine, open, respectful and honest just brings out the same.  When we create space for this or role model this in Circle, we are creating a deeper context for empathy.

My friend recognized he didn’t have empathy for foreclosure, but he also wasn’t out causing foreclosure harms.  In a Circle about the harm you caused, you can have empathy, because you were on the other end of that stick.  Harm, that thing others refer to a crime or conflict, in Restorative Justice, we look at it from our perspectives and increase the context of empathy by understanding how the harm, harms everyone.


Kunreuther, F., Kim, H., & Rodriguez, R. (2009). Working across generations: Defining the future of nonprofit leadership.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.