Building Trust in the Circle
When there is trust between students it creates a social environment in which students can safely risk self-disclosure, authenticity, confrontation, and expressing affection. Trust is not automatic however, and students have likely had many experiences of broken trust: confidences betrayed by gossip are a near-universal experience, for example. Restorative circles are always by invitation; students should not feel compelled to share when they do not feel emotionally safe with those who are in the circle.
It can take considerable time and effort to build an atmosphere of trust. There is a simple way to tell how trust is coming along: observe the degree of participation in the circle. If many students are passing and if sharing is superficial, you may take this as a reliable indicator that students do not feel safe to share; there is insufficient trust in the community.
We come to trust others’ good intentions through experiencing them responding to us in a respectful way. It is perhaps a mark of wisdom to withhold sharing anything intimate with those who have in the past belittled us. As circle leaders we should encourage people to share, but avoid encouraging them too much. Always remember that there may be very good reasons why students are not sharing. Let the maturation of the circle have its slow, positive influence on students’ sharing.
We discover how much we can trust others through interactions that test their intentions. If a student shares a thought or idea that is well-received then that student begins to trust the good intentions of the people with whom it was shared. On the other hand, if the idea is belittled or if the student is mocked in any way then a very different conclusion is reached: that these are not people to be trusted with information that is in any way intimate. Yet the student’s need for belonging remains strong. The problem now is, “How can I belong, without being intimate?” This problem is solved in many ways, none of which are conducive to a truly healthy community. Becoming a bully is one solution, for example.
In restorative circles we build trust by giving students safe ways to test how much they can trust each other. We begin in our first circles by using prompting questions that invite low-risk answers. Students can give answers that do not expose their inner lives; thus, they can feel fairly safe from social consequences such as teasing. Students should not be required to take risks that are unreasonable, including social risks in socially hostile environments. Students have sound instincts about how much self-disclosure is safe; their level of participation is a reliable indicator of the risk environment.
Teachers and other circle leaders can observe students’ level of participation, along with how students react to each other’s answers, and steadily increase the depth of intimacy and authenticity invited by prompting questions, choosing prompts that invite more intimate exposure of personal thoughts and feelings. This carefully managed and sequenced journey into greater intimacy and authenticity is a cornerstone of building community with circle dialogue.
An example of a low-risk prompt is, “Who is a hero of yours--from real life or the movies, and why do you choose this person?” Notice that students have a lot of choice in how they answer. They can say a lot or a little. They can copy what someone else said or they can be original. Whatever their answer, they will have an opportunity to gauge how other students respond. Will they be made fun of? Will their answers help them get to know each other better and perhaps find surprising connections?
When all students are willing to answer questions such as this more or less authentically the time comes to move to questions that are more revealing, and therefore riskier to answer. For example, the prompt might be something like, “Tell the story of a time you had a conflict with someone else and what happened.” This subject is relevant to the lives of all students, and they may have a deep desire to speak about it. But it also invites answers that are more intimate and revealing. If trust has been built in the classroom they will welcome the opportunity to talk openly. But if they know they will be ridiculed or that other unpleasant social consequences will result it makes perfectly good sense for them to either not answer or to do so in a superficial way.
In summary, using level of participation and quality of sharing as a gauge, move steadily from safer prompting questions toward questions that invite more self-disclosure and that focus on things that really matter to students.
Characteristics of Prompting Questions
…for Building Trust and Connectedness
Easy to answer without introspection
Wide range of choice in answers that are honest
Fun and fast, invite lots of smiling
Not particularly “edgy;” do not invite students into new territory
Primarily about story telling--connecting, rather than content
…for Building Intimacy and Authenticity
Subjects may be controversial
Less choice in how the question may be answered honestly
Answers may require time and introspection
Often edgy, inviting students to share in ways that are new or unfamiliar
Primarily about emotional expression and developing social skills (content)