He entered the room with fire radiating from his eyes – a deep rage that looked like it could only be quenched with a violent, possibly deadly, expression.
The others in the room fell silent. They too could feel the threat and danger emanating from this man. His 6 foot 4 inch muscular frame, long black unkempt hair and beard, coupled with the bikie outfit, made for an image of potential primal violence straight out of an R-rated movie.
My first thought was, “My God – he’s here to kill one of the guys who’s been screwing his wife”. It was that type of rage.
As he, let’s call him Max, proceeded to aggressively explain what he was doing here, denouncing the people and agencies who forced him to show up that night, I was frantically thinking to myself, “What do I do?”
This is not an easy, or comfortable place to be – with a 193cm enraged muscular man, in a bikie outfit, staring menacingly at me.
We are five weeks into a nine-week fathers program and entry was closed three weeks ago. At the forefront of my mind are the questions, “If I turn him away, will he become violent?” “What is best to do here – for him, for the group, for we the facilitators?” “How do I calm him down?”
This is one of the reasons I love running groups so much. You just never know what will happen in any group and there are always several ‘balls in the air’ at any one time, adding to the uncertainty and energy in the group.
What judgements would you make of a man who presents like this? And how would these judgements impact on your capacity to effectively intervene in a manner that is respectful to him and the group?
I made a decision.
I invited him to join us. As we all sat down I announced to the group, “We have a new group member. Let’s go around the group and introduce ourselves to each other”.
As the group members introduced themselves to our newest member, I continued to frantically look at my options and plan what to do next. It was obvious the plan my co-worker and I had so carefully prepared for tonight was ‘out the window’, which is not unusual in group work.
When it came to Max’s turn to introduce himself he passionately launched into his reasons for being there that night. As his story unfolded, it became very clear to me why he was in such a fury. It also occurred to me that if this had happened to me I would be feeling pretty much the same.
“DoCS (Department of Community Services) thinks I’m intimidating”, says Max.
“Well, when you walked in the door here, I thought you were going to punch me out”, I say to him.
“Really?” he asks. Looking very perplexed at how anyone could think this of him.
“Well, yes”, I say. “Although these guys here would not tell you, they were all pretty scared themselves”, opening my hands out to include the other five male members of the group. And this was a group of men who were used to tough and hard men, having grown up and continuing to live in some areas of Sydney where violence and intimidation were commonplace.
“Really?”, he asks incredulously again. He just cannot believe anyone would find him threatening, much less intimidating. As he has eye contact with a few of the men in the group they nod their heads.
It turns out Max has been out of gaol for only three weeks. Although a big muscular man, he was scared shitless in prison, so scared in fact, that he was still walking around with a glaring stare, his shoulders thrown back, chest stuck out, with closed fists at the end of stiff arms, in his version of a ‘Don’t fuck with me’, prison walk.
His genuine surprise at being seen as intimidating came from his recent experience in the correctional system, being surrounded by genuinely dangerous men and also from his upbringing. Really, his world view and experience of himself is that of the disempowered, scared little boy he used to be, when growing up in the violent environment that was his family and school life.
As he went through his story, my intent was to validate the hurt beneath the anger – to locate the more vulnerable feelings that drive anger, in my view. So I acknowledged and validated his hurt, pain, humiliation, fear, impotence and his shame in being de-valued and dismissed by the people he was dealing with that had power over him and his life choices.
All the workers saw him as an ‘angry, intimidating and violent man’ and consequently wrote off any of his concerns and the injustice, from his perspective, at his treatment by those with power over him.
Calm now, he could see the empathy in the men’s faces in the group, their understanding and, for a couple of them, their experience tallied with his. He let his shoulders drop, his eyes softened and his voice became softer as he breathed a little deeper.
He understood he was not being judged or invalidated here. There was nobody here to condemn, belittle, or ostracise him, without really listening or hearing his perspective and point of view.
Despite the level of personal or relationship skills you think you have, never underestimate the power of genuine empathy and a willingness to understand.
The way he presented that night, many years ago, it would be understandable for another person to call the police after rejecting him – and it could so easily have gone the other way. Yet because he was validated, and a genuine attempt was made to understand his viewpoint, his life began to change after this night.
He was softer and more patient at home. His interactions with the various government and non- government departments with which he had to deal had shifted from being full of animosity and mistrust to being one where he had created a working relationship with the people who made decisions about his life. They began to work with him instead of against him.
It is so easy when dealing with someone, particularly a man who presents like this, to judge, condemn and ostracise him, without any attempt to engage, understand or respect his perspective.
Surprisingly, Max returned the following week and stayed for a total of 14 weeks in the father program. His appearance upon his return on the second night was starkly different from that of his first night. The long hair was gone, cut in a short back and sides style, and he was clean-shaven. The bikie outfit was dispensed with and was replaced with jeans, t-shirt and sneakers.
His girlfriend could not show her appreciation enough for what Max was experiencing in the group – understanding, support, guidance and the feedback of other men had a profound impact on his behaviour at home with his partner and her children.
‘Before you judge another, walk two moons in his moccasins’. This saying, attributed to the North American Indian nations, outlines a simple approach to interacting with others. Instead of judging, labelling, ostracising or spreading malicious gossip about another, take a long walk in their shoes. Try to see life from their perspective, through the lens of their life experience, which is bound to be quite different from yours. Take the time to listen openly to what they have to say; not just waiting for a space to interject your world view.
Genuine empathy – it’s not just a nice sounding idea or concept to try one day. It’s a possibly life changing, heart opening experience we can gift to another, to give them a new reference point for respect, care and acknowledgement that, yes, their life experience really matters.
While some groups, such as the one depicted here, are at the more extreme edge of men’s groups, this graphic account illustrates the deep inroads men everywhere are making into accepting other men and holding a powerfully authentic space for them to make the changes they choose in their lives. Many independent men’s organisations run structured, more mainstream groups where ordinary, everyday men of all ages and backgrounds meet to explore real issues such as parenting, relationships, self-sabotage patterns, father issues and a sense of life purpose.
There is a common thread through all of them – creating a non-judgemental, confidential space of acceptance, realness and support for men to become who they want to be, for themselves and the people in their lives.
November 19 is International Men’s Day, designed to recognise the good work men do in the world and help create better life outcomes for men and boys.
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