‘He Broke His Promise’: Repairing Relationships Skillfully

Two happy boysThis article is the second part in a series on right use of power for youth.

Scene: ESL (English as a second language) class in Central Borneo, Indonesia. There are four 12th grade students and six 6th grade students in this class. This process lasted for three 1-hour-long class periods.

Let’s review: power is the ability to have an effect or to have influence. All people have personal power, whether they know it or not. Any position of authority adds another layer of power to personal power. Positions of authority include teacher, religious leader, doctor, head of a company, government official, supervisor, even parent. This added power also has added responsibilities. Do you remember some of them? To make sure things get done, to find out how well they are getting done, to help those down-power feel appreciated and encouraged, to be fair and kind, to have good boundaries, to protect those down-power from harm, to take care of problems and conflict. Good, right.

We also have talked about why up-power people might misuse their power. Here’s the list we made: ignorant, greedy, don’t want to think about anyone else, don’t accept these responsibilities, are mad and take it out on down-power persons, just plain mean, want revenge. One student says, “I have something to add. Maybe they just had a headache.”

“So today I want to talk with you about what happens if an up-power person hurts you for one of the reasons we just named. How do you feel when that happens?” “Upset.” “I feel angry.” “Confused.” “Sad.” “I didn’t feel strong anymore.” “We didn’t talk anymore.” I responded, “Yes, painful, huh? All of you remember feeling hurt sometime?” Heads nod. “So, now I want you to think about a time when you felt hurt by someone up-power like a teacher or a principal or a coach or a policeman or a parent. Now, please draw a picture of this time.” (Very intense and focused period of drawing.) “When you are finished, tell the person sitting next to you about your picture.”

They weren’t ready to share their stories with everyone, but they would tell the stories to me as I went around the room. Some of their stories were of hurts with a friend or sibling rather than an up-power relationship, but they got the point. “My best friend broke his promise.” “My mother blamed me for something I didn’t do.” “My teacher called me stupid.” “My little brother broke my soccer ball with a nail.” “It happened a long time ago, but I still feel bad.” “A gang of boys broke my bicycle.”

“These are painful stories. I’m so sorry. I’m curious about whether any of these hurts got repaired?” “My mother and I made up.” “I’m glad to hear that. Any others?” (No others.) What happened for the rest of you? “I lost my best friend.” “I’m still scared of those boys.” “I never liked that teacher.” “I got revenge on the kid who called me a bad name.”

“Would you like to know how to make things better? I call it repairing the painful relationship. There are some things that you can do. I’ll tell you what they are. There are five things. These have been used by many, many people, in many, many places, and in many, many hurtful situations, like some of yours. Here they are.” (I have made the following five cards that I explain and put out on the table. The older students understand the one word descriptor, and the younger ones understand the sentence sample.)

Acknowledge: “I think you are feeling (sad, angry, hurt)?”
Understand: “I didn’t mean to hurt. I was trying to (help, explain, correct, teach)”
Regret: “I’m sorry.”
Learning: “I have now learned (not to get angry without a reason, not to use mean words)”
Repair: “I want us to (be friends again, work this out, understand each other.)”

“Now as you look at your picture and think about your story, which of these things would have made you feel better. If the person who hurt you said they were sorry, would that have helped? What about if the person acknowledged that you felt hurt? Would that have helped repair your relationship?” One by one, each student pulled toward him/her self, any of the cards that would have been helpful. As they picked each card, someone else in the group said the sentence to them so they could see how it feels.

“Now let’s practice. These are skills that need practice. I’m going to pretend that I am upset. You pretend you are my teacher. Now I’d like to hear you practice. ” Several students were able to practice each of these, and then students were able to take the down-power role, too.

Practice listening to how people feel and what they make up
Practice apologizing so you mean it
Practice saying what you meant
Practice saying what you learned or how you will do it differently
Practice checking if the problem is over, or what else is needed

We then went through the same exercise with the five cards but from the point of view of what they themselves could do from the down-power place in their picture stories.

Acknowledge: “I feel (sad, angry, hurt).”
Understand: “I’d like to understand what you meant.”
Regret: “I’d like to hear that you are sorry.”
Learning: “I have now learned (that you didn’t mean to hurt, that you were upset with someone else).”
Repair: “I want us to (be friends again, work this out, understand each other).”

“Now that you’ve practiced repairing relationships, I have a big challenge for you. Try to heal or repair either the relationship in your picture/story, or if that happened too long ago, try to improve a problem situation you have right now. Write about what happened for homework by Monday.”

We are in Indonesia, a culture in which great effort is made to keep things happy and nice, so this was quite a challenge. Several of the students wrote clearly and well about how they could go about solving a relationship problem (but didn’t try it out). Several said that they didn’t have a problem with anyone right now. Several had successful results. Here’s the most dramatic, in Henky’s words: “I have a problem. It is about a bad relationship with my best Friend. He broke his promise and I do not know why it happened. I try to solve it. The way I solved it was by understanding what is already happened which is wrong about us, find the best way and condition to talk about the problem together, make everything become clear by understanding each other.” I asked him to tell us more. “This broken promise happened two years ago. My friend avoids me. This weekend I saw him at the Mall and asked him to have a soda with me. We talked. He apologized and made a new promise. The relationship became good again.”

I will follow up later with these students. What is significant to me is how well they understood and were willing to engage with fairly sophisticated ideas about resolving relationship difficulties.

Related articles:
Don’t Underestimate Me: Ethical Use of Power for and With Children

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Morgan

    March 20th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Promises are broken by all of us every day.
    We don’t mean to, we don’t mean to hurt others by doing it, but it happens.
    The most important thing that we all need to learn is how to apologize and take responsibility for some of that.
    Don’t shirk it and own up to your mistakes.
    And resove to treat someone better then next time, the way that you would want someone to treat you.

  • joe

    March 20th, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    if you are in a position of power especially over young people you do not have the right to break promises and abuse those powers that you have been given- you are taking away trust and confidence when you do that, and i don’t know about you but that is the last thing that i would want to do to the kids of the younger generation

  • Carl Smith

    March 21st, 2012 at 7:51 AM

    Relationships,whatever kind,can and will go through lows and rough patches,it happens all the time.No relationship can be great all the time.That is not the problem.

    The problem is that most of either do not bother to or do not want to repair the relationship.Yes,it is best if the perpetrator starts this repair process but there is no rule that the other person cannot.

    So go out and repair that relationship of yours.Tell your friend you were hurt and you understand why he was mad, speak with your buddy and say sorry, just go out and repair it!

  • Cedar Barstow

    May 6th, 2012 at 2:02 AM

    There’s a lot of agreement here about making mistakes and hurting people NOT BEING THE PROBLEM! I like how Carl puts it: “Most of us don’t want to or don’t bother to repair relationships.” I would add we may not know how to, or believe we can repair relationships, usually because we’ve been traumatically hurt by unrepaired relationships. So, do, as Carl says, go out and repair what you can…it’s not too late. Thanks for reading the article. Cedar (author)

  • kristie

    October 15th, 2015 at 4:55 PM

    i made a promies to my girlfriend to not tell me sister and mom we where thinking of me moving to her and shes really mad at me for saying that i promise not to talk to them and i wound up telling them because i was excited to be getting to go love with the girl i love… what can i do to show her she can still trust me?

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