In Communication, Conflict Resolution, Restorative Communication, Restorative Justice & School Bullying, Trauma Responsive Communication, Whole-School Restoration, Whole-School Restorative Discipline, Whole-School Restorative Justice, Whole-School Restorative Program


© 2018 William A. Bledsoe, PhD 

One of the most striking differences between a coercive response to misconduct, and a restorative response has to do with voice. A coercive response suppresses voice. A restorative response invites it.

In a coercive response there are 3 voices: the explicit code or implicit norm, the person interpreting the code/norm and determining a sanction, and the person who acted “out of the norm.”

In this scenario the code is an unspoken voice, ever present, and therefore never questioned. The person in charge uses the account of the “offender”, extracts the necessary information from him/her to determine how the code or norm was transgressed, and applies a sanction/punishment (determined by the code). The account offered by the person who transgressed is used against him/her.

Both the code and the person in charge of interpreting the code are reauthorized. This is how a hierarchy of power is continually re-established. It’s a vertical and self-substantiating system of power-over governance, conflict and behavior control. The code is at the top; the interpreter in the middle; the person who acted out of the norm at the bottom.[1] The interpreter’s role avoids question.

The rules are the rules. I didn’t make them!

Notice that in this equation, it is the code that has the loudest voice, spoken through the judge/interpreter. Those who may have been directly or indirectly impacted by our actions may or may not be asked to share their story. If they do, their account is used to provide evidence for the justification of enforcing the code/norm.

Because human beings are genetically programmed for survival, our survival instinct is activated when we feel threatened. Our primal brain reacts with a fight/flight/freeze response. These 3 reactions are expressed in how we communicate about “what happened.” When we know our account will be used against us, we protect ourselves. If we fight, we become defensive – “I had every right.” If we flee, we evade, maybe by deceit or deflection – “I didn’t do it” or “he made me do it.” If we freeze, we withdraw and become silent. That’s the neurological explanation. Culture plays an equal part.

We may think this only applies in a court of law. In truth, it happens in families, schools, and workplaces. We’ve been culturally conditioned. It’s an old western paradigm. The Catholic boys’ high school I attended had this discipline system. When a student violated the code of conduct, the priests became the enforcers and doled out the punishment.

This coercive impulse is both inherited, and comes from within us. It can happen in an instant.

Whenever we encounter behavior that we don’ like, pushes our buttons and causes us anxiety, we may instinctively react with evaluation and judgment – before we investigate.

Someone does something we don’t approve of, we make an instant evaluation (right/wrong), and then we judge (good/bad). This instant rationalizing validates our decision and provides justification for our coercive response. We construct a story. This is how we turn people into problems. It’s a micro justice system conducted in our head. In this reactive instant we become the judge, jury and executioner in the blink of an eye. It’s also what escalates a conflict. Road rage is a stunning example.


Rather than a hierarchical model, restoration is a circle. “Justice” is not handed down from above. It emerges out of the interaction occurring in the circle as people discuss what happened, how they were impacted, and what needs to happen to achieve resolution and restore relationship equilibrium. It’s a horizontal practice of inclusion.

There is no predetermined outcome. It is an interactive model where everyone impacted by an incident is welcomed to share their experience. In fact, we don’t know what the outcome called “restoration” is until everyone talks about what happened and how they were impacted.

I argued in a dissertation that rather than being a “discourse of justice” (western legal proceeding), restoration is a “justice of discourse.”

The philosophy of communication that restoration enacts is one that might be characterized as a “justice of discourse”: an understanding that to participate in determining what “justice” should be, is in itself, just and fair.

In this regard, participation becomes the meaning of “justice.” As a result, the conversation processes that constitute restoration can be characterized in critical terms as participatory justice—a “justice” not only of “distribution,” but of contribution and inclusion as well. [2]

I know, this sounds like “heady stuff.” I got a headache when I wrote it. In layman’s terms it simply means two things. First, we can’t know what “justice is” until everyone impacted by a violation has the opportunity to share their experience. Second, because of this invitation, the process of restoration is one that demands that everyone’s voice be heard. Restoration depends on this aspect. Therefore, restoration is a “justice of voice.”

I also argued that “restoration happens experientially in the process of deciding what restoration is as an outcome (the agreement).” The experience of coming together to explain what happened, express and acknowledge the hurt, and consensually create a plan for healing that hurt is, in itself, restorative. I call it “restorativity”. I’ll explain that in another article. It’s trippy stuff too, but oh so true.


When something happens that negatively impacts people and relationships, those people need to have voice. They need to have voice not only in talking about what happened, but in determining what needs to happen moving forward. For this reason, restorative communication is what I also call a “discourse of liberation.” The restorative engagement ethic liberates individual, group, and community voice in order to determine and reestablish healthy social norms. Perhaps restorative communication is an ancient form and forum of democracy.

I realize I’m being overly simplistic in this discussion of the two communication paradigms, but I believe this description is accurate. A restorative discussion can be just as suppressive as a legal discussion. This is especially the case when the outcome of a discussion has been predetermined by the person(s) facilitating the discussion. This often happens when the misconduct is a common occurrence.

CU Student who chose the restorative way instead of the courts…

When I was building the restorative justice program at the University of Colorado, it was inevitable that students who threw a blow-out party that resulted in garbage, were going to have to pick up the garbage as part of their restorative agreement.

But while this was a generic response, the communication during our conferences with students was guided by their understanding of the impact of their party on their neighbors, the community, and the particular student’s acceptance of responsibility.

In those cases where a student wasn’t keen on having to pick up their own trash, they had an option. That option was to go back to court and have the judge sentence them to picking up the trash. This meant the student would be charged with a misdemeanor violation that would go on their record.

The choice was up to them. In no uncertain terms, they got to decide “which discourse of justice” they wanted to experience.



[1] Robert Yazzie, “Life Comes From It”: Navajo Justice Concepts”, Marianne O. Nielsen and James W. Zion (Eds.), Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005, P.47), University of Arizona Press.

[2] William A. Bledsoe, Performing Restorative Justice in a College Community: Integrating Navajo Peacemaking with an Accountability Conference Model, Dissertation published by the University of Colorado at Boulder (2009).

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