melissa profile pictureMelissa Sorenson is Assistant Director for Special Projects at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in Monterey, California. She wrote this piece after attending a restorative practices training conducted by Stacey Miller, IIRP Trustee, Assistant Provost for Inclusion at Valparaiso University and Managing Partner of The Consortium for Inclusion & Equity.

Sorenson is part of a small team that is responsible for organizational development at her college. Her work includes facilitating training and development opportunities, supporting leadership groups and collaborating on institution-wide projects.

In November 2018 I was invited to participate in a three-day training on restorative practices held at Middlebury College. I had never heard of restorative practices before the training, and, to be honest, I was a little skeptical about how relevant the training would feel in a professional context.

Restorative practices is defined by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) as “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.”

To be clear, those topics are right up my alley, but I was surprised I was being invited to dedicate three days to learning about social connections for my job. I don’t think anyone would deny the importance of community, but is there actually supposed to be room in everyone’s job descriptions for this work? Should relationship building be viewed as a critical component of our jobs?

The restorative practices training convinced me that the answer to those questions should be “yes.” In fact, for a community to successfully navigate change, overcome challenges, and demonstrate a value for diversity and inclusion, those answers need to be yes. By day three I had gone from skepticism to an overwhelming sense of certainty that I had found a critical missing piece at the foundation of my work.

In brief, the framework behind restorative practices encourages thoughtfully facilitating opportunities where all voices can be heard, doing things with people (rather than to or for them), creating opportunities to acknowledge and voice feelings, recognizing and navigating our experiences of shame, using fair processes to engage and build trust, and making intentional spaces for difficult conversations.

The more I learned about restorative practices, the more I realized that it had a lot in common with activities I found meaningful, but often felt like I had to hide or minimize because they weren’t real work. For example, I enjoy organizing informal lunches to bring colleagues together on campus, but I let them drop whenever I get busy with my real work. I appreciate processing the emotional impact of issues during meetings, but if we don’t hurry to focus on action items I’ll probably worry that we didn’t do the real work.

Discovering these contradictions surprised me. Despite the deep value I have for relationships, I have never considered them an explicit part of my job. In fact, I have facilitated countless sessions on a tool that examines the balance between being task-focused and relationship-focused, and I have always defended my place on the extreme relationship-focused side by qualifying it with “don’t worry, I still get work done!”

I’ve been missing the point.

Developing relationships is real work, and if we don’t acknowledge this as a very real part of our jobs, we ultimately run the risk of weakening our community and organization by putting our well-intentioned efforts elsewhere.

Since beginning my work in organizational development over four years ago, I have spent countless hours researching and learning about the factors that contribute to organizational health and well-being. Initially I was drawn to the safety of hard skills like classic leadership habits and concrete managerial practices. These often seemed easier to grasp and offered clear value when planning a training or workshop.

Only recently have I allowed my research to venture into the much more intangible factors like vulnerability, trust, relationships and belonging at work. The research overwhelmingly underscores the importance of these factors, yet they are much more difficult to systematically improve.

This is why restorative practices feels like the missing piece. The framework offers a road map for finding a way forward in practicing vulnerability, building trust, developing relationships and creating a sense of belonging. The beauty of this challenging work is that our mere participation starts the positive cycle. Our willingness to engage and be vulnerable helps build trust, trust creates the foundation for relationships, and relationships form the core of community and belonging.

I’m excited our organization is engaged in this initiative, and I hope you will join me in the real work of helping our community thrive.

This article was originally posted at the Personal & Professional Development Lab @ Middlebury.

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