Restorative Justice vs. Conflict Resolution: Assessing for Intervention

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While “restorative justice” and “conflict resolution” both deal with issues of crisis in relationship, these disciplines differ somewhat in their basic assumptions, language, and goals. Discerning and choosing the discipline or “frame” best suited to the crisis at hand helps preserve the well-being of all parties, as well as societal and organizational ethics.

Definitions and Examples:

Conflict Resolution is a process to resolve “struggle[s] between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals” -Interpersonal Conflict, Wilmot & Hocker

For example:

  1. A student is unhappy with a mark he receives in school, and approaches his teacher indignantly about it. The teacher explains her rationale, listens to the student’s concerns, and together they come up with a plan for the student to improve and re-submit the assignment.
  2. Two secretaries work in the same large organization. They frequently have struggles over their respective roles (who is supposed to do which tasks), and the tensions have escalated to the point where there is no trust or direct communication between the two. A workplace mediator is asked to assist the parties in rebuilding trust and communication.

Restorative Justice is a process to “involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” -Howard Zehr, 2002

For example:

  1. A student is unhappy with a mark he receives in school, and approaches his teacher indignantly about it. The teacher explains her rationale, listens to the student’s concerns, and suggests they come up with a plan for the student to improve and re-submit the assignment. However, the student is unhappy with this idea and angrily storms out of the room. That night, the student and a friend drive by the home of the teacher, throwing several eggs at the door and windows. The students are confronted at school and take responsibility for the vandalism. A facilitator in the school convenes a process among the boys, the teacher, and key school staff to discuss how to repair the harm.
  2. Two secretaries work in the same large organization. They frequently have struggles over their respective roles (who is supposed to do which tasks), and the tensions have escalated to the point where there is no trust or direct communication between the two. Out of anger, one of the secretaries writes a letter which reveals private information while insulting and demeaning the other’s character. The letter is circulated it to the entire department staff. The subject of the letter complains to the manager, who convenes a meeting involving both of the women and key organizational staff. The purpose of the meeting is to address the harm done by the inappropriate circulation of the demeaning letter.

Overlap and Similarities:

  • The principles of restorative justice share much in common with those of conflict resolution, and some streams of restorative justice practice in North America grew initially within the theoretical framework of conflict mediation.
  • In some organizations (schools in particular), conflict resolution approaches have been woven into an organization-wide framework of restorative practices.
  • Effective conflict resolution is undoubtedly an essential component in the prevention of those harmful behaviours which would give rise to a restorative justice response.
  • People in conflict commonly experience themselves as having been harmed by another party, and may view their situation has having elements of “injustice.” In these situations the philosophy and language of restorative justice may provide a vehicle by which to address issues such as accountability, healing and repair. For example, encouraging parties to “take responsibility” for their actions (a term more often seen in restorative justice discourse than that of conflict resolution), can be enormously helpful in conflict situations.


  • Conflict resolution is often approached with an assumption of relative “moral balance” between parties (Zehr, 2010). Restorative justice, on the other hand, is approached with the assumption of moral imbalance that has been created by a harmful act, and seeks to re-balance relationships through dialogue and reparation. The premise is that an individual(s) causing harm has offended against a victim or target and has obligations toward personal accountability, whereas the victim has no such obligations.
  • Conflict resolution practice depends on the negotiability of issues. However, restorative justice generally assumes the premise that one party is responsible for an offence or violation of the rules or norms of the organization. In cases where there is clear violation of societal norms, rules or laws, the act of such violation is non-negotiable – even if the particulars of how the situation will be satisfactorily resolved can be subject to negotiation.


How can decision-makers and facilitators assess whether an incident might lend itself to conflict resolution or restorative justice?

A “frame” is the lens through which we view an issue, topic or incident. Whether an incident is seen as a “conflict” issue or a “justice” issue depends on the framing of those mostly directly involved in and affected by the incident, as well as the organization or “community” of which these individuals are a part. Thus, those intervening need to consider these important factors in order to frame the incident in non-harmful way.

  1. The parties’ framing of the incident: Is one party taking responsibility for having wronged another? Is there disagreement about who is responsible? Is there a shared feeling of mutual responsibility?
  2. The community, organization or society’s framing of the incident:
    ♦     Did the incident violate rules or collective ethics, or otherwise ‘cross a line’ within the group?
    ♦     Imagining the parties were left to frame and resolve the situation without the support of a third party, would any negotiated outcome be acceptable to the organization? If not, why not? If the community or organization has a clear ‘stake’ in the incident, this may be one indication that justice issues are present, which would then require a justice response.
  3. The facilitator’s framing of the incident: In addition to the framing of an incident by parties and those in their surrounding environment, facilitators and decision-makers have an added responsibility to ensure that the framing of an incident helps to mitigate, rather than contribute to harm. Incidents involving bullying or harassment behaviour, physical or verbal abuse, or violence in any form, do not in themselves constitute “conflict” but rather unilateral actions made by one party to another (possibly in the context of conflict). These acts would by definition violate most people’s moral standards and almost certainly affect the well-being of other parties in a negative way. Even where forms of violence are used by both parties in a conflict, the violence itself should not be treated as conflict but rather as a breach of relationships which requires a justice intervention.


  1. Justice issues arise when there has been a breach or violation in human/community/ organizational norms or rights. To the degree that these situations are present in interpersonal relationships, organizations and communities should consider themselves as having a responsibility to be active in the framing and intervention of the issue. The primary focus is safety. Restorative justice processes are possible where there is a common understanding by the parties and surrounding community that the issue at hand involves a violations of relationships or a breach of justice.
  2. A conflict is a problem that involves mutual accountability and does not involve a specific ‘offence,’ or violation. Conflict resolution processes are appropriate in response to disagreements, misunderstandings and other disputes, and in which solutions can ethically be left to the parties to decide in full.
  3. Inevitably, certain incidents may not fall neatly within the categories of ‘conflict’ or ‘justice’ issues. Along the spectrum between these two frames, those intervening may consider the following questions:
    ♦     What ethical ‘stake’ do we as the community/organization have in this situation, and how should that be communicated?
    ♦     What is the appropriate balance between an emphasis on participant safety, versus an emphasis on participant self-determination, in our response to this situation?

As in all matters, facilitators should be guided by the principle of ‘do no further harm’ in assessing whether or not to convene any type of dialogue about that incident. The more closely aligned the framing of a given incident or problem by the parties and their surrounding community/organization, the greater the likelihood that the dialogue will prove beneficial rather than harmful.


About the Author:

Aaron is a facilitator, trainer and mediator specializing in issues of justice and accountability. He facilitates victim-offender dialogue in serious and violent crimes, and provides training and consultation for communities and organizations across North America and internationally. Aaron holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Transformation. Since 2009 Aaron has facilitated with Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives’ pioneering Victim Offender Mediation Program. As Training and Education Coordinator, he has trained groups across governmental and non-governmental sectors internationally. With the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute, Aaron provides training and consultation on a variety of topics related to workplace conflict, violence and justice in Canada and the United States. Aaron completed graduate studies in Peacebuilding and Restorative Justice with Dr. Howard Zehr of the Centre for Justice and Peacebuilding. In the United States he facilitated collaborative justice processes through programs at the Prince William County Circuit Court and the District of Columbia Superior Court. In 2008 Aaron convened Youth Justice Family Group Conferences in New Zealand, widely considered the world’s first national program of restorative youth justice. Born and raised on British Columbia’s west coast, Aaron developed an early passion for human dynamics as a wilderness leadership instructor. After a year in Jerusalem during his undergraduate studies, Aaron became involved in designing and facilitating arts-based dialogue programs for Palestinian and Israeli youth with Vancouver-based Peace it Together. From 2003-2006 Aaron worked with adjudicated young men struggling with violence and substance abuse through PLEA Community Services in the Vancouver area. Aaron currently lives in Fort Langley, British Columbia, with his wife and two children. Blending keen intuition and leadership, Aaron brings creativity and new possibility to all of his work.
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  1. Just Outcomes Principals  March 15, 2016


    Great question, and one I was wrestling with even while writing down these thoughts. I agree, given the power dynamics inherent in making rules, they are a hugely problematic basis for the construction of ‘justice’ and ‘injustice.’ Still, I can’t imagine a situation in which structural harms were addressed through a justice process, that didn’t involve a narrative of society/group norms being violated.

    Perhaps we would do better to frame injustice as a violation of rights, and leave rules out of it. That is still subject to human distortion of course, but perhaps it brings us a step closer to the truth?

    Curious your thoughts.

    Good to hear from you,

    David Anderson Hooker  March 14, 2016

    Thanks for offering this distinction between CT and RJ

    Im interested in whether restorative justice principles are applicable in cases where there are shifting morals that might require a reconsideration of “wrong/blame/accountability. Or is RJ applicable in cases where there is NO shared agreement of morals (or even a case where societal rules were established to the exclusion of certain groups) can the wrong be the rules themselves and not a violation of the rules