Key component of Peacemaking circle rests on trust, respect


Katie Orringer and Megan Wang


As young women beginning our journey in the legal world, we had the privilege of interning for the Honorable Timothy Connors of the Washtenaw County Court this year. The two of us – one a senior at the University of Michigan and the other a soon-to-be member of the University of Michigan Law School Class of 2025 – learned about Peacemaking from our mentor.

We had the unique opportunity to be a part of a summer training Peacemaking course with approximately 20 peers from across the nation. Judge Timothy Connors and his wife Professor Margaret Connors were among the outstanding teachers and facilitators who presented at the conference. Students were taught by several other distinguished Peacemakers, many of whom are from the Native American Rights Fund Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative.  The speakers included Cheryl Fairbanks, Judge Mike Petoskey, Brett Shelton, Carson Smith, Karen Biestman, Niyo Moraza-Keeswood, and Judge Yazzie. The extraordinary speakers taught us the importance of everything from self-care to compassion for fellow human beings. We are humbled to have had the opportunity to learn from such empathetic, energetic leaders in this up-and-coming field of conflict resolution.

Over the three days of the conference, we learned about the various aspects that comprise effective Peacemaking circles and even role-played mock Peacemaking circle scenarios to practice our new skills. Each of the students had a specialized character to play in the circle and the activity was intended to show how circles function and how it feels to be a part of this type of conflict resolution. The teachers first led these circles but by the end of the third day students were leading Peacemaking circles of our own.

On the first day, we learned the foundations of Peacemaking including how to pick an effective talking piece (something meaningful, light, and appropriate for the setting) and discovered the importance of setting and respecting circle values (such as love, respect, and humility). Every participant is given the opportunity to speak when they hold the talking piece. This allows the holder to speak freely and state their thoughts without interruption which is essential to Peacemaking as it allows equal opportunity to speak. However, passing is always an option. Everyone who has been affected by the situation can feel heard but is not pressured to speak.

On the second and third days, students had the chance to practice leading Peacemaking circles. In so doing, we learned how to listen closely to others and summarize and repeat what we heard during each round of discussion. To give a concise yet all-encompassing summary, the Peacemaker had to be engaged for the duration of the entire circle. Obviously, this was hard work, so we followed up with a self-care workshop to teach us rising Peacemakers how to fight “burnout.” Incorporating time for ourselves allows us to recharge and be energized to more effectively act as Peacemakers. This is an invaluable lesson.


A key component of a Peacemaking circle is the foundation of trust and respect. Participants must trust one another to not judge, interrupt, or enter the circle displaying outright anger. A Peacemaking space relies on respect for one another and the situation at hand. The goal is conflict resolution and the means are communication and empathy. Without respect and trust, no progress can be made. In order to establish the trust and respect a Peacemaking circle requires, core values must be set. At the facilitator’s request, each member of the circle is asked to name a value that they wish to display during the circle. These values often mirror the cultural values from the local Indigenous community, such as love, honesty, humility, or wisdom. Effective conversation can be extremely difficult to accomplish with feelings of mistrust or a lack of respect as Peacemaking requires conversation and openness. Setting values aims to ameliorate such challenges.

Peacemaking circles are meant to resolve conflicts in a productive, safe manner. However, it is understandable why participants may enter the circle with negative feelings. During Mr. Brett Shelton’s segment, he educated the class about the concept of fighting the problem, not the person. He emphasized the importance of working together to resolve the issue instead of placing blame on others. The purpose of a Peacemaking circle is for the participants to communicate with one another and work together to resolve an issue. This cannot be done while people are blaming each other so it is crucial to remember to fight the situation, not the person. It can be easy for parties to lash out at each other during a circle, but they must remember that they are there to resolve issues and create solutions, not hurt each other. This not only encourages mutual respect of individuals but is actually far more productive than blaming.

It is understood that the actual practice of fighting the problem and not the person can be incredibly difficult, especially with tension and built-up anger. One thing that Peacemakers encourage is compromise, as difficult as it may be. If no party is willing to compromise, nothing can be resolved. In situations where every party has differing thoughts about a certain problem, it is crucial for participants to be willing to compromise to resolve the issue. It can be easy for participants to be too stubborn for their own good, however, they must be encouraged to compromise on a resolution. While finding a solution may be difficult, it is not impossible. In our mock scenarios during this training, we witnessed people with a wide range of ideas agree on a solution.

The diversity of a circle group can sometimes slow the process of coming to a solution, but that diversity is critically important. A group of diverse minds gives way to creating more effective solutions, and this process, if done properly, is inherently slow-moving. A variety of opinions and thoughts allows more room for discussion and growth by bringing different and fresh perspectives to the circle. One person may discuss something that no one else had considered. Openness to diverse viewpoints can create meaningful change and this can be seen through Peacemaking circles no matter the size. Of course, respecting each other’s differences of opinion is the crucial first step.

Evidently, participating in Peacemaking circles requires an immense amount of effort and willingness to change. Peacemaking circles are incredibly productive and successful in conflict resolution, but these resolutions do not materialize in one session. It can take multiple sessions, weeks, or even months to create solutions and see change. This is because people do not change overnight. In order for Peacemaking circles to be successful, they require a lot from their participants including a willingness to compromise, development of trust and respect, as well as an ability to maintain a mindset of fighting the problem instead of the person. These skills require time and practice to develop but they benefit circle participants outside of circles. Peacemaking circle participants must work with each other to hone and place these skills into practice.

The success from these circles requires tremendous amounts of preparation, time, and commitment. They require a true willingness and drive to resolve an issue, even if that resolution requires change.

Through Peacemaking, a lot of progress and healing can be achieved, but it is a process that takes time. During Peacemaking circles, participants can sometimes feel disheartened and feel like nothing is being resolved. However, through the Peacemaking process, participants learn how to communicate, actively listen, and compromise. These are all important skills from which we all may benefit. Little progress does not mean no progress has been made.


Our course leaders taught us numerous lessons, many of which are unique to those learned in a traditional legal setting. One of our most important takeaways from this course was learning how to listen effectively to others as well as to our own feelings. We worked on listening to and separating out facts, emotions, and interests. This is obviously unique to the traditional law school “IRAC” formulation during cases, but in Peacemaking circles, it was important to recognize and validate emotions. Acknowledging and “leaning into” our emotions allows us to truly connect with others and change for the better. We will take the lessons we learned about trust, respect, love, and humility with us in not only our careers, but our personal lives as well. These are life-long skills that if utilized by many have the power to create stronger, more compassionate communities. We may even utilize these skills during conflicts at the dinner table in honor of our mentor Judge Connors.


Katie Orringer was accepted to the University of Michigan Law School and will be a part of the Class of 2025. She is  working for Judge Timothy Connors of the Washtenaw County Court primarily on his Peacemaking initiatives.
Megan Wang is a rising senior at the University of Michigan and plans to attend law school.  This past summer, she interned for Judge Connors and learned about Peacemaking.

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