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Resolving conflicts through listening

ORANGE — A group of residents are practicing a new way to resolve the often bitter conflicts that have divided the town in recent years.

Though simple, they say, the approach is also quite powerful, by asking all who participate to hone the often neglected art of listening.

Karl Bittenbender said he and other residents started the peacemaking group, which met several times last fall, in response to their concerns about the growing animosity of local public debates on topics like school regionalization and the town’s budget crises.

“The agony of financial and other issues has caused us to not be civil with each other” in committee and other town meetings, Bittenbender said. While selectmen and other officials were among the 30 participants at the November meeting, the group is not sponsored by the town.

While the process, which Bittenbender calls “circles of civility,” does not attempt to solve specific issues, it encourages people to hear each other, diffusing tempers that get in the way of “our ability to come to any answers … People are becoming more aware of the damage that we’re doing to each other” as tensions increase in public meetings.

According to Bittenbender, the group uses a “restorative circle process” he has been trained to facilitate through his volunteer work with the court system’s Reinventing Justice program.

The approach is based on Native American tradition in which people sit in a ring, and take turns speaking and listening to one another. An object, such as a feather or stick, is passed around the circle. Whoever holds the object is allowed to speak, while everyone else listens.

Through the Reinventing Justice program, local judges order offenders to take part in the circles, which include community volunteers, probation officers, and sometimes the offender’s family and victims. But according to Bittenbender, circles can be used any time people are struggling to understand different perspectives.

Circle principles discourage interruptions, allowing speakers to experience rapt attention from the group. And because the object travels from person to person, every voice is heard, and no one dominates the conversation.

Bittenbender said that for most people, the circle process is “a phenomenal experience” as it allows them to be heard and to hear what others say without immediately having to respond. “Sometimes when we are listening to each other we are working to build a response as opposed to just listening,” he explained.

Bittenbender considers the circles to be something like an insurance policy the next time tempers flare on the town floor and in other public forums. Instead of allowing controversy to escalate into a bitter exchange, someone can suggest the matter be tabled and a circle process be set up at a latter time to discuss it.

Bittenbender said the group plans to continue meeting in the new year so that group members can deepen their skills in facilitating the circle process.

All meetings are open to the public. The next meeting will be Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Orange Innovation Center, third floor.

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