Restoring peer relationships: how to learn skills for life

Kia Ora, my name is Holly Traviss and I am a student in my final year of study at Selwyn College. I have been studying Art History, English, Geography, Social Studies, and General Science at Selwyn College this year. Next year I plan on going to university to do Global Studies majoring in global environment and sustainable development. I hope to apply this knowledge to a career in journalism or the media. As a senior student this year, I have been the Restorative Team leader, which involves organising and helping with all the restorative work around the school. I am very passionate about this role and strongly believe in restorative practice as a means of conflict resolution.

As I look around the room, I feel claustrophobic. There are so many huge emotions crowding the small space. I look across their faces and see hurt, frustration, anger, and guilt—so many deep, intense feelings that are difficult to process. What should I say next? How can I fix this? Suddenly, it feels like a lot of responsibility to be in charge of restoring the relationship between these two girls. Neither of them wants to be here. It is clear from the looks on their faces. They have been fighting so much that their families have cancelled their vacation because they can’t be around each other anymore. But no matter how hard I try, neither one of them wants to fix what has been broken. They would rather tear apart their friendship and families before admitting they have done something wrong. Ultimately, they agree to avoid each other, but it is not the ideal outcome.

Restorative practice is a tricky, confusing, and complicated process for the inexperienced practitioner. It is a system curated to aid people in restoring relationships. The facilitator is a trained individual who works as a neutral mediator, attempting to restore the relationship between two parties with an ongoing conflict. I have trained as a restorative mediator and learned much about conflict resolution.

In Year 11, my closest friend and I fell out all over a boy—the ultimate cliche. We went between arguing and ignoring each other for weeks until we finally had a fight so nasty that the friendship ended once and for all. It was so brutal, and I had no idea what to do. It led me to realise I had no idea how to resolve conflicts. I craved closure but did not know how to go about getting it. The situation left me confused as to why it was so hard for people to restore relationships. Why would people rather stop being friends than confront, own up to, and apologise in difficult situations?

I was introduced to restorative practice a year later through school. When I was first invited into the group, I had yet to learn of the restorative system. I only knew about restorative justice, a practice used in prisons to introduce victims and their families to those who hurt them. I had no idea that this system wasn’t just helpful for solving conflicts between bullies and their victims but also between students, teachers, and friends who had fallen out. Throughout the process, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had known about it sooner. Why weren’t we taught how to deal with conflicts earlier in life? However, even though I was now aware of the resources available and the techniques used to mediate and resolve the conflict, I didn’t try to mend our friendship. It took me two years to even talk to her again, and it was because we were put in the same group for a school activity.

I am unsure if I would have ever made that effort, and I don’t know if she would have either. We were both so stubborn and stuck in our own versions of the story that we didn’t even try to see eye to eye—completely neglecting the fact that we were once really good friends. Conflict resolution is so difficult because, in doing so, we have to admit we are wrong – admit that we made mistakes. This is something that humans really don’t like to do. Why is this? Culture? Pride? I hate being wrong; it’s humiliating and makes me feel less than other people. But why do we react this way? Because we care so much about how we are perceived? Anxieties? Insecurities? Is this perspective ingrained in us? This incessant need to be correct and never admit that we aren’t.

After getting insight into the conflicts of my peers and how they handled them by doing restorative practices regularly, I wonder why we aren’t all taught how to better handle arguments and fights with our peers. Getting a mediator to resolve our conflicts works while we are in school, but in the real world, this practice isn’t available to us, and we need to have learnt these skills for ourselves. Maybe if we were all taught how to own up and resolve conflicts in a healthy, restorative way, it would be easier for us to admit and then accept where we have gone wrong. Maybe we would be better at resolving conflicts if we were actually taught how.