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Getting to ‘Thank You’

Rewiring our Apologies…and Our Brains
by Chris Fitz

We were getting to end of dialogue. The woman who’d been robbed expressed her grace, that she didn’t hold this against the boy in front of her—or his mom. He was 15, with older friends, saw her get out of her car, waited, then jump into it, grabbing her belongings and ran.

Months later, they’re in the same room talking. He’s apologized. He thought she’d ream him out. Instead he’s experiencing her grace. “Every day, my family reminds me of this one thing I did. Now here you are, not judging me. I don’t know what to say.” He stops, as if paralyzed by a cocktail of overwhelming emotions, self-doubt and love.

There’s a pregnant pause. As if holding the hand of a young child, I quietly ask him. “What do you say to someone who is offering you this gift of forgiveness?”

Getting to Yes book cover

In their 1981 seminal best-seller Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury outlined key principles for better negotiation. They suggest people can better get what they want through a dialogue based on deeper interests rather than demands. The principles have endured, but nearly forty years later, we are still learning.

Trauma-informed research is showing how fundamental emotional growth and psychological development are to our well-being, our ability to function as rational adults. Fisher and Ury’s thesis relies on a high-functioning rationalism, a resilient emotional state in which people can feel safe and see a situation with increasing clarity. After the landmark ACES Study by Kaiser Permanente, it’s now clear that a huge portion of the US, especially those living in poverty, people of color and other marginalized groups, can’t as easily get to “yes.” More than 1 in 5 of our neighbors go about their day-to-day in a state of threat, with reduced physical and mental health capacities over the long-term.

In traditional thinking about restorative justice, like the conversation between our youth and the woman he robbed, the goal is an apology. Saying “sorry” makes everything better, right? But try this experiment: think of three situations where someone apologized to you. What did you feel? What did you say?

Over and over in restorative dialogue—and everyday life around me—I see people responding to “I’m sorry” with “it’s no problem.” No problem? Why? Because it’s emotionally burdensome to receive an apology. My experience is that a victim actually feels worse during the apology phase of a dialogue, not better. To ease our own burden (and feeling bad for them), we often minimize an offender’s actions.

“Thank you.”

That’s what the youth said to the woman he robbed. “Thank you for seeing me and not judging me.” With that, the conversation changed completely. No longer lost in childish self-pity, he was finding his own words, his own power, his own clear view of the woman who met him half-way. And in that moment, the victim was also being seen, recognized, appreciated, perhaps de-victimized. The conversation quickly shifted to making things right, creating an agreement, and “yes” came quickly.

At Advoz, we’ve heard incredibly positive feedback on “getting to thank you.” In a recent restorative dialogue, a remorseful but threatened offender was asked “what he appreciated” and began recognizing the value of others in the room – and not dwelling on his negative self-worth. It also gave victims more closure to focus on what they were thankful for, rather than the harm done. We’ve gone so far as to amend our Apology Letter Handout for court-referred offenders to include getting to ‘thank you.’

Neuroscience suggests that getting to ‘thank you’ is rewiring our brains to actually release trauma and build resilience. It doesn’t negate the need for an apology, but builds on it, taking the right kind of responsibility, and shifting apology to empowerment. Because with empowerment, “yes” is an easy step to take.

Anatomy of a transformative “Thank You”*

Try these “thank you’s” at home or work with a spouse, family member, child or friend, and let us know the results in the comment section below.

<What you did> made me feel <this way>.”

“You showing up today made me feel hopeful.”

“Your choice of words was careful and made me feel respected.”

“Just bringing up this difficult topic makes me feel uncomfortable but also hopeful that we can work it out.”

* Adapted from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolence Communication.

Chris Fitz Advoz Director of Strategic Initiatives

Chris Fitz is Director of Strategic Initiatives at Advoz


Resources for Conversations about Racism

By Chris Fitz

Racism is a loaded word. In Advoz’s dialogue work, mediators often first ask, “how do you feel?” Then we ask, “what do you think?” So I’ll ask you, reader, “what comes up for you when you hear the word ‘racism?'”

The volatility and lopsided experience of racism in America is a big reason why “neutrality” and a purely rational discourse is impossible. Unpacking this volatility, it’s history, the emotional experiences we’ve growing up, our different media perspectives, conversations, social media feeds, diversity trainings, poignant encounters, traumatic memories, careless jokes…the list goes on. These are all fuel for a very charged conversation. Everyone–those in our mainstream race culture or marginalized race cultures–has a story to tell. In most conversations we have about racism, we are not going to “mediate an agreement,” but we can facilitate understanding. So we move out of a position of “neutrality” into a concept often called “multipartiality.” And while telling our diverse stories can bring us to common understanding, the stories are not the same.

To start a conversation about race, it’s helpful to understand, especially from a majority-culture (White) perspective, that we don’t have the same stories. We need to listen for difference to understand it. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in 2020 show us that African Americans and other people of color are still experiencing a kind of violence–backed by the authority of the police–largely unknown among most white people. This video about the difference between “equality” and “equity” helps to explain how our stories are not equivocal.

Equitable dialogue means making space for very different stories, different tellers, different experiences, a different “shoe” so to speak.

The volatility and lopsidedness of racism in America is also what makes it so powerful and important to have good dialogue with others. The emotional weight of racism is a huge burden, and sharing our stories in constructive ways helps us share that burden. (Though we–especially White people–want to be careful of unloading our burden and guilt on others too.)

The following is brief “field guide” to support you having a one-on-one conversation with a friend, neighbor, family member or colleague. A big shout out to Dr. Amanda Kemp, Advoz’s 2018 Dignity in Dialogue awardee, for some of the inspiration for this mindful “leaning in” approach to deep dialogue:

Start as the Listener

Who is this person before me? What are my assumptions, even subtle biases about them? Can I put them aside to hear this person?

What am I curious about? What is the story behind this situation? What was this person’s experience of racism as a child?

What can I learn here? Not to use as a weapon against them, but to enlighten myself?

Can I continue to put my own opinions, biases and stories aside for now?

When I notice that I am repeatedly not able to listen, I need to make that clear politely before I am totally impatient and irritable.

Become a Facilitator

Side By Side Sunset

It helps me to think about this phase as “walking beside” someone processing their stuff. Here are some of the questions I’m asking:

Are there open-ended questions that that I could offer to help us both understand the issues and stories we’re processing?

What is this person feeling? Can I reflect that and honor that in my own words? Can I recognize their own feelings with a word they’ve used, especially one they’ve used repeatedly?

Is there a story that this person needs to process?

Can I summarize what I hear them saying?

Can I name what I hear is important for this person?

Can I affirm the value that this person has? And the values that this person holds dear?

Can I ask for the opportunity, the permission to tell my own story?

Inhabit the Storyteller

To be deeply present to a conversation, and to be heard, it’s helpful to find and tell my own story. This is different from my opinion on “issues.” My story is always true–for me. Your listener cannot deny its validity for you.

Is there a story, a moment in my own life that’s coming up for me?

Can I ask for the space to tell it?

How did it begin? What was the setting? Who was involved?

What was the key crisis moment?

How were affected, changed by that moment? What did you learn that you could or couldn’t do, say or couldn’t say?

How does this story impact your view of racism beyond your own experience?

End Well

What are the themes you hear that we share in this conversation?

What do you appreciate that you heard?

Can you appreciate the continued tension as well as the connection you experienced?

How would you like to follow up this conversation?

What are you motivated to do now?

Check out Amanda Kemp’s TedX Talk as she walks through some examples of conversations like this, mindfully and purposefully.

For more practical resources on racism and police violence, click here.

And let us know how these conversations are going!

Chris Fitz is director of strategic initiatives at Lancaster-based Advoz: Mediation & Restorative Practices, created from the merger of Conflict Resolution Services and the Center for Community Peacemaking.