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Conferencing: A Group Process That Promotes Resiliency
Lorenn Walker, Health Educator and Attorney, Hawaii

Posted 2000-08-12

INTRODUCTION

Conferencing is a restorative justice practice that also provides opportunities for participants to develop coping skills and resiliency. Research has established that there are protective factors which can promote individuals’ resiliency. Specific elements of the conference process provide the conference participants with the opportunity to develop these protective factors.

CONFERENCING

Conferencing is a group process for dealing with crime which incorporates restorative justice principles. Restorative justice is an "alternative approach to criminal justice" which began evolving about 15 years ago in response to the ineffectiveness of our current justice system (Pranis, 1996, p. 493). The current system is based primarily on retributive values where: "Crime is a violation of the state, defined by lawbreaking and guilt. Justice determines blame and administers pain in a contest between the offender and the state directed by systematic rules." Restorative justice is based on values that hold "Crime is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Justice involves the victims, the offender, and the community in a search for solutions which promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance" (Zehr, 1990, p. 181). Conferencing provides the opportunity for restorative justice values to be realized.

Conferencing is mainly based on ideas from traditional Maori practice in New Zealand (Consedine, 1995 & Maxwell, 1996). Other indigenous groups including the Hawaiians, Native Americans and Native Canadians have similar conflict resolution practices (Shook, 1985; Schiff, 1998; Stuart, 1996). Conferences are used in response to a crime where there is a known offender who admits guilt. Conference participants include victims, offenders, their respective supporters and the affected community. The process is facilitated by a neutral third-party. The conference group uses consensus in deciding how to make things right as a result of the crime (Zehr, 1990). The group collectively decides what is necessary to "promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance" (Id., p. 181).

Group Process

Humans are social "small-group beings" (Johnson & Johnson, 1994, p. 5) who learn best in groups. Moral educator Lawrence Kohlberg recognized that "the unit of effectiveness of education is not the individual, but the group" (Power, Higgins & Kohlberg, 1989, p. 48). Moreover, it is well known that various group structures and processes affect individuals differently.

The importance of the distinction between different group processes was established in the 1930s by social psychologist Kurt Lewin who showed how different group structures significantly influence individuals’ behaviors and thoughts. Lewin and others conducted research on group dynamics based on three different structures: democracy, autocracy and laissez-faire (Lewin, 1997). Ten-year-old boys participated in each of the different groups with striking results. The boys in the autocratic groups were 40 times more hostile than the boys in the democratic groups. When autocratic leaders were extremely repressive, the participants reacted with apathy. The autocratic group boys were also far more self-centered than the boys in the democratic groups.

In addition to Lewin’s research, Kohlberg and others have demonstrated that democratic process is more likely to leave its participants with a greater opportunity to develop morality (Power, Higgins & Kohlberg, 1989). Although the United States is a democratic government, its judicial system is highly autocratic and adversarial. Judges play the role of referee between battling litigators. Victims have practically no role in the judicial process. Offenders are only required to appear and deny or admit charges in court and they have a lawyer who represents them.

In contrast to the traditional autocratic and adversarial system, conferencing is based on group consensus decision-making. Consensus, where all participants agree to an outcome, is the most effective decision-making process (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). Consensus leads to cooperation and compromise, which are vital to conflict resolution (Fisher & Ury, 1981). Conference groups are structured to enable each individual participant equally in an attempt to deal with the crime that brought them together. Conferencing provides a group dynamic that can lead to cooperation and resolution for those truly affected the most by the crime. Conferencing, while not a panacea, certainly provides more of an opportunity for a positive resolution to crime than our traditional system.

RESILIENCE

Resilience is defined as the "ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change" (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). As Louie, a domestic abuse counselor says, "Resilience is like being a duck. When water splashes on you, it just beads up and falls off. The water doesn’t penetrate your feathers and get you wet." We all need to be ducks sometimes in life to survive. None of us will leave life without having suffered painful and sad experiences. Whether these experiences come from extreme situations like being the victim of a serious crime, losing a parent, being abused and neglected as a child, or from less severe situations like being rejected by a favorite playmate as a child, or breaking a leg before an important baseball game, we all suffer losses in life. Our level of resilience will determine our ability to recover from the suffering that is a natural consequence of living.

The Kauai Longitudinal Study

In 1955 the Hawaiian Island of Kauai provided the birth cohort for an important resiliency study known as the Kauai Study. Emmy Werner, professor of human development at the University of California at Davis, and Ruth Smith, a clinical psychologist in Koloa, Kauai, have followed the lives of 505 people born on Kauai in 1955. About one-third of the cohort was designated as "high risk children because they were born into poverty (their parents were semi- or unskilled plantation workers) and they had experienced moderate to severe degrees of perinatal stress, or they lived in an environment troubled by discord, divorce, parental alcoholism, or mental illness" (Werner and Smith, 1992, p. 192). Although one out of every three in the cohort was "born with the odds against successful development"…"one out of very three of these high risk children (some 10% of the total cohort) had developed into a competent, confident, and caring young adult by age 18." (Id., p. 2). "With few exceptions, the resilient children grew into competent, confident, and caring adults whose educational and vocational accomplishments were equal to or exceeded those of the low risk children in the cohort who had grown up in more affluent, secure, and stable environments" (Id., p. 192).

Protective Factors

Werner and Smith have identified protective factors which they believe enabled the successful individuals "who grew up in childhood poverty and troubled families" to overcome "psychosocial risks associated with adversity" which usually lead to maladaptive outcomes. The cohort is now 45 years old. Werner and Smith have published four books on the cohort detailing their lives as young children, adolescents and adults through age 32: The Children of Kauai, 1971, Kauai’s Children Come of Age, 1977, Vulnerable but Invincible, 1982, and Overcoming the Odds, 1992.

The Kauai study found three clusters of protective factors which set the resilient youth apart from their unsuccessful counterparts: 1. Cognitive development including an internal locus of control and behavior characteristics that "elicited positive responses" from others including "robustness, vigor, and active and social temperament;" 2. Relationships with someone older who cared about them which "encouraged trust, autonomy, and initiative;" and 3. External support system, e.g. church, school, youth groups, which "rewarded competence and provided them with a sense of coherence" (Werner and Smith, 1992, p. 192).

Michael Rutter, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of London, has done research for many years which also confirms that cognition is essential for resiliency. Rutter maintains that "Both good and bad experiences influence development. However, it is also crucial that some experiences that seem negative at the time may nevertheless be protective. Just as the resistance to infection stems from ‘successful’ encounters with infective agent in a modified or attenuated form (the basis of immunization), perhaps too resistance to psychosocial adversity is fostered by successful coping with earlier stressful experiences" (Rutter, 1989, p. 27).

CONFERENCING, COGNITION AND RESILIENCY

Locus of Control

Resiliency is the mental ability to cope with difficult situations. We all suffer in life, but some of us are better able to cope with suffering than others. Research has demonstrated that individuals with an internal locus of control verses an external locus of control cope better and have more resiliency. "[L]ocus of control refers to the beliefs that individuals hold regarding the ways in which given outcomes occur" (Lefcourt, 1984, p. 158). Julian Rotter developed the original locus of control theory (Wade & Travis, 1999). People with an internal locus of control believe that their actions are a consequence of what they do, while those with an external locus of control believe consequences are the result of something in the environment outside of their personal control. For example, an internal control may believe that they were stuck in a traffic jam because they didn’t leave earlier to beat the traffic, while an external control may believe that they were in traffic because of the poor driving skills of others. What we believe, and how we cope with what happens to us, is a function of our thinking. Locus of control is important for offenders and victims.

For offenders, the conferencing process encourages them to take responsibility for their behavior and to consider the consequences that their decision to commit a crime had on others and themselves. The offender admits her or his bad behavior. Admitting wrongdoing is an internal response, yet our traditional criminal justice practices encourage offenders to plead not guilty, when in fact they are guilty. Our system promotes external responses to wrongdoing. The offender has an incentive to plead not guilty when she actually committed the crime because of plea-bargaining. The government is more likely to give the offender a deal at sentencing if she originally denied guilt, which would require the state to prosecute her, and then admitted guilt without requiring the state to go to trial. Additionally, the philosophical ideal that the government prosecutes the case for the people and must prove its case against the defendant (which further takes responsibility away from the offender for her bad behavior) encourages the offender to deny wrongdoing and not accept responsibility for her choices and behavior.

Conferences also provide offenders with the opportunity to focus on how victims and the community have been affected by their bad behavior. During a conference, offenders can think about the consequences of their decision to commit the crime. This cognitive opportunity is not only a protective factor for resiliency but vital for developing morality. The cognitive ability to understand how one’s decisions affect others is key to developing morality (Kohlberg, 1969). While initially children learn from external controls, it is the ability to develop internal controls that determine morality later in life. "[A]s children’s morality develops, as socialization moves from building responsiveness to external controls to responsiveness to internal controls, direct forms of shaming become less important than induction: appealing to the child’s affection or respect for others, appealing to the child’s own standards of right and wrong" (Braithwaite, 1989, p. 72).

Viktor Frankl was a victim who had an internal locus of control in an extreme situation. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps, believed that it was his ability to control his thoughts and to find meaning in his suffering, even the horror of Auschwitz, that accounted for his survival. He said, "Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks, which it constantly sets for each individual" (Frankl, 1984, p. 85). We each face our own individual challenges in life whether it is abuse and neglect as children or being victims of crimes. According to Frankl it is our responsibility to meet those challenges and find meaning in painful events.

Optimism

Since 1964, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, has dedicated his career to understanding helplessness and depression. He has focused considerable time on developing resiliency interventions for youth based on his theory of optimism and personal control. Consistent with Rotter’s locus of control theory, Seligman believes that "The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes. Each of us has habits of thinking about causes…Explanatory style develops in childhood and, without explicit intervention, is lifelong" (Seligman, 1995, p. 52). When things happen to us in life, we explain them by thinking in a variety of ways. The ways we interpret what happens to us–what caused something to happen to us–leave us feeling various degrees of personal control and optimism.

Conferencing offers hope. It is a process where people come together to try and make things right after a crime. The idea that they can work toward repair of something that has hurt them gives participants the feeling they can personally control the outcome–this is an optimistic outcome. This is unlike the traditional criminal justice system that leaves those most affected by crime powerless to resolve the damage it has caused.

Our current system mainly seeks retribution. The primary focus of our courts is to punish offenders. Some victims may feel vindicated by punishments imposed by a court, but vindication does not necessarily lead to optimism–especially when you get it only after a fight proving that you were justified. Further, victims do not have a right to restitution and most do not receive it. Victims may ask for restitution, but there is no assurance that the court will order that the defendants provide any. In the United States, judges only order restitution in about 18 percent of all adult criminal cases (Maguire & Pastore, 1995) while juvenile courts only order it in 15 percent of the adjudicated delinquency cases (Schmalleger, 1999).

Strens

William Hollister, a psychiatrist with a public health background, introduced the concept of strens. One evening in 1947, he and Margaret Mead were discussing the positive benefits of crisis when she said: "‘We have the word ‘trauma’ to designate an unfortunate blow that injures the personality, but as yet we have no word that describes an experience that is fortunate, that strengthens the personality. The closest thing we come to this is to say ‘It’s a blessing.’ Counting our blessings does not really meet our need for a collective noun directly opposite in meaning to ‘trauma’" (Hollister, 1967, p. 197). Inspired by Mead’s observation, Hollister went home that evening and invented stren, which he defines as "an experience in an individual’s life that builds strength into his personality, or more specifically, extends and strengthens cognitive-affective ego functions" (Id).

Today, a stren is described as a "a trauma that was subsequently converted by the survivor into a growth-producing stren" (Proulx, Koverola, Fedorowicz & Kral, 1995, p. 1466). The event is "converted by the survivor" through the use of her thoughts. A stren is an event that a resilient person thinks changed her life, made her stronger and which caused her to experience a more meaningful life.

A study of 180 female child sex abuse survivors showed that the most resilient in the group used cognitive coping strategies for their positive adjustment to the abuse. The study found the resilient sex abuse survivors used four coping strategies: 1. Disclosing and discussing the abuse; 2. Minimizing the impact of the abuse; 3. Positive reframing; and 4. Refusing to dwell on the abuse experience (Himelein & McElrath, 1996, p. 753).

Another study that analyzed healthy psychological adjustment to trauma showed how important thoughts are in successful trauma adaptation. This study found that recovery from trauma is the result of "cognitive assimilation of the traumatic memory or a revision of existing schemas to accommodate the new information." One's "interpretation and redefinition of the [traumatic] event that occurred [determined one's] adjustment" (Greenberg, 1995, p. 1266). In other words, successful survivors need to think about their traumas in ways that are compatible with a constructive view of the world and themselves, which may or may not be their original view of the world and themselves.

Additionally, a study showed that 53 cases of prominent Americans who represented "prototypes of optimal health" shared the belief that "[t]raumatic events in childhood often serve as catalysts for the later development of such positive adult characteristics as altruism, compassion, commitment, and resistance to psychological and physical illness" (Pelletier, 1994, p. 40). This finding is consistent with the concept of strens which is how resilient people describe crisis events.

Crisis and suffering are natural conditions of life on our planet. Painful events are inevitable and inescapable. Whether crisis is encountered in nature, like hurricanes and droughts, or whether it results from human interaction, crisis cannot be avoided. Research indicates "that an individual’s reaction to a traumatic event is usually more significant than the event itself" (Pelletier, 1995). Strens are a positive cognitive response to a crisis which leads to adaptability and growth.

Strens also build stronger families. Georgetown professor C. Margaret Hall studied about 400 families and found "that there is significant probability that a crisis may produce constructive changes in life-orientation, and that a crisis may become an important catalyst in reordering personal values. This contradicts the conventional wisdom that crises are harmful and to be avoided" (Hall, 1986).

Our culture makes judgments that victims of crisis and conflict will experience negative outcomes as the result of the bad events. "Poor thing, that happened to you." Certainly, an offender acts badly and is wrong to hurt people, but for others to respond that an offender’s crime results in a bad effect on the victim works to re-victimizes the victim. The offender already hurt the victim, why would we want the victim to then feel they have been harmed by the event, which causes them more suffering? This is not to imply that we shouldn’t have empathy for victims and appreciate the pain that they suffer, but we do not need to reinforce to the victim that what happened to them necessarily has to have a bad result.

Frankl said, "not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete" (Frankl 1984, p. 76). Crisis and crime are sad events for victims. In interpreting the outcomes of crime, victims can try and find strens instead of traumas. Crisis can make life more meaningful depending on how we think about it. We are all going to die–everyone we love is going to die–why label that a bad event? We choose to judge the events that happen to us. Sad things happen to all people. It makes more sense to try and find how they can make our life more meaningful instead of dwelling on why life is worse as a consequence.

How can we find meaning in painful events? First, we can move our thoughts away from analysis and critical thinking into moment-to-moment experiential living. Conferencing is a process that offers this opportunity. It is a chance to experience firsthand why someone hurt us–we learn new information at the conference. It is also an opportunity to evaluate the outcome of a painful event on our life and the lives of others. After processing the effect of the crime with the group, we are more likely to stop asking why it happened over and over again in our minds. A conference can help bring healing and closure to the painful event.

By changing our behaviors, we can change our beliefs. One’s belief about crisis can be shaped by behavior–it is a behavior that brings us to a conference. We can control rumination with our behavior. When we continually see an event over and over again, we can respond with different behaviors. We can move into another room, turn on music, talk to someone about something else. The possible behavioral interventions for ruminations are countless. After we have succeeded in changing our thoughts, our self-efficacy increases, and our belief in our ability to control our thoughts increases. Cognition changes with effective performance (Bandura, 1977). The first step in developing our self-efficacy is in trying the performance–going to the conference. If one practices watching their thought processes (meta-cognition), one can become aware of the influence that thoughts have on their feelings and on the quality of life. Resilience can be developed by the act of continuing on with life and striving to find meaning and strength in the painful events that we cannot avoid.

CONFERENCES PROMOTE RELATIONSHIPS

The Kauai Study showed that an important protective factor for at-risk youth is the development of relationships with someone older who cared about them (Werner and Smith, 1992). Conferences are an opportunity for victims and offenders of wrongdoing to seek out supporters and bring them to the conference to participate. This opportunity leads to the development of relationships. Conferencing also provides the opportunity to develop an external support system, e.g., church, school, youth groups (Werner and Smith, 1992). Often supporters at conferences are from external systems such as teachers and counselors. Moreover, agreements at conferences often lead at-risk youth to participate in external systems.

CONCLUSION

Conferencing is a healthy response to crime and wrongdoing that can help turn painful crises into strens. Conferencing promotes resiliency. It is an opportunity for cognitive development, to build relationships and supportive external systems. Conferencing is an opportunity to build community out of wrongdoing. We cannot avoid all pain and suffering in life. We do not anyone to be a victim and experience harmful events, but once they have experienced a crime we can assist them to find strens. Conferencing provides an opportunity to find some meaning in the pain and suffering many of us will experience as a result of living; it is a chance to learn better coping skills and resilience in response to crime and wrongdoing.

 

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