Restorative is Not Gentle

People often share with me how they have handled a difficult situation, with the following caveats:
“Elaine, this was probably not restorative, but I told her:  ‘I don’t want to be spoken to that way. It’s not ok.’ “

“So I did NOT use my restorative voice. I used my loud and stern voice and I told them they need to stop running like that. It is simply NOT SAFE.”

“I was certainly NOT my restorative self at home yesterday. I was so tired of the mess and not being supported. I was really angry.”

These comments tell me that many people are thinking of “restorative” as synonymous with “gentle”, “passive”, or “therapeutic.”

I would like to challenge this belief.

I believe restorative is not necessarily gentle. I believe restorative is FIERCE, HONEST, AND COURAGEOUS.


The form of restorative justice I have studied and shared comes from the work of Dominic Barter and colleagues in Brazil – and can be considered a form of nonviolent action – as practiced by MK Gandhi in India and South Africa – and by Dr. King in the U.S.

Because of the frequent misunderstanding – in the West – of nonviolence as passive or gentle, Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” to describe the heart of nonviolent action.

“Satyagraha” is a combination of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning “truth”) and agraha (“holding firmly to”). Gandhi wrote in 1968:

“Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders, and therefore serves, as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence… (see: Satyagraha in South Africa by MK Gandhi).

Gandhi has also referred to this term as “soul-force”, “love-force”, and “truth-force.”

While we do not want to over-generalize from one non-violent movement to another, I think there is much for us to gain from the conceptualization of satyagraha.

When we are restorative, we fiercely commit – first and foremost – to truth-with-love.

That means finding “containers” or “vehicles” to share our truth with others in a dignity-enhancing way – instead of avoiding them, attacking them, or writing them off as less “human” than ourselves. That also means being open – truly open – to the possibility that their underlying truth may be unknown to us and will impact how we move forward.



Restorative Circles, facilitated dialogues, and other restorative practices – are all CONTAINERS that help us have COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS about CRITICAL TRUTHS (Dominic Barter).
We sometimes need facilitators and restorative containers in order to tell truth with love – because we may need help compensating for a lack of trust, power differentials, inability to hear each other, or hopelessness about the possibility of right action.

Loving kindness, mindfulness, healing work, and therapeutic approaches are all important practices that create positive outcomes. So is music, exercise, yoga, gardening, sleep, and a healthy diet, to name just a few.

However, these practices all have different goals and different means than restorative action.



Satyagraha also contains within it the philosophy that HOW we get to an outcome defines – or co-creates – the outcome.

Just as the tree grows out of the seed, our restorative outcomes must grow out of restorative actions.

When truth-force happens, it may look fierce and passionate. However, it will not be disparaging or disdainful. Passion is not disgust. Truth is not disdain.

Dr. King, has expanded on this sentiment, saying that “the means we choose must be as pure as the ends we seek… [but] it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” (Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963).

Thus, neither restorative actions nor restorative outcomes can be dignity-denying. They must both be dignity-enhancing.

Restorative may not always be gentle. However, with the right container and the right people, restorative can get us to the truth-love-force — and to the right action.

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