Attending to Relationship Repairs

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I just finished listening to the audiobook What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo. I’ve put off reading it since it is a heavy topic, but the audiobook popped up in my library queue right when I had finished listening to another book so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. In the book, Foo delves into her childhood abuse and subsequent complex PTSD. In the later part of the book, she writes about her present-day work to heal and move forward with her life and mental health diagnosis. I won’t give away the details of the book, but one of the themes in the book is healing, which lead her to a therapist who worked with her on the importance of repairing relationships.

Working on racialized problems and working to undo racism is messy, tangled, and hard. All of us, regardless of race, will mess up at times and cause harm to someone we’re in a relationship with in some way. (Relationships include work relationships, friendships, and family relationships — not just intimate or romantic relationships.) When these ruptures in our relationships happen an apology is often a first step, but moving it beyond an apology to include work at repairing a relationship will go further.

A basic apology is often a one-way transactional interaction. This is why now formulaic statements, in the vein of ‘thoughts and praryers,’ after a tragedy do little and are not sufficient. It says I’m sorry something happened, but there is no attunement to relationship and repair work that needs to take place. There is no love or an investment into a relationship with thoughts and prayers statements.

Repair work is deeper than an apology. It asks both sides to come together to acknowledge what happened. This takes self-awareness and empathy. Self-awareness, when emotions are high, is taxing. I know when I’m in the moment and upset I don’t want to be self-aware, I want to be righteous and right. Once I’ve come down a bit from the emotional high is the place where I have to stop and evaluate how to repair the relationship.

Earlier this week a colleague who works in informal dispute resolution told me about how she coached an administrator to talk to a grandparent who was deeply unhappy with how her grandchild was treated at school. The school administrator felt he’d taken all of the steps he was required to – he’d checked off all of the legal and policy steps he was required to do. He was hesitant to talk to the grandparent since he knew they were justifiably upset with him and the school. Talking to someone who is upset is very rarely at the top of anyone’s list of things they want to do, thus he avoided the grandparent. After talking to my colleague who coached the administrator on how to talk and listen to the grandparent they had a productive conversation. The grandparent wanted to be understood. The grandparent and administrator took steps towards repairing their very tentative relationship. After the conversion, the grandparent was less upset, and the administrator understood more about what had happened that led to the conflict — empathy had grown between them. They were also able to avoid a drawn-out administrative process that wouldn’t have benefited either side.

Many times repair processes can be healing and help people move forward. I have friends and colleagues who work on restorative justice processes. For these processes to work people have to invest in them with openness even though they may be hurt and be willing to invest in the relationship. For people, especially people of color, who experienced a racialized incident this can be hard and not something they are willing to revisit. Racism cuts deep and can’t always be repaired quickly.

Repair work takes time. Sometimes it can be accomplished in one conversation, but other times it takes many conversations, patience, and empathy to reach a place of repair. Shame and hurt over causing a breach in the relationship can be constricting and cause people to want to avoid starting a relationship repair.

Relationships are the basis of moving race work forward. Along the way we will mess up and a relationship may be at risk of ending. Instead of avoiding the problem, we should pause and work on seeing the relationship as valuable and working on repairing the hurt that was caused.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawai’i; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.