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Is saying you’re a nice guy getting in the way of being a nice guy?

Working as a TRW at the Men’s Referral Service, I hear many different perspectives on family violence. Within the service sector there is a wealth of knowledge around the drivers, impacts and avenues for change. At times this knowledge and experience seems to contrast with public discussion around the issue. In broader public discussion, I hear attempts at advocacy around family violence encouraging ‘real men’ to call out ‘violent men’. I hear exclamations that ‘not all men’ are violent. On the phone with men who use forms of family violence, I consistently hear them tell me they are ‘not a bad guy’ and that they are ‘a nice guy’. At times there are common threads across all of these perspectives that get in the way of change.

I’ve learned from working with men who use family violence that challenging our perspectives can be an important step in working toward change. I’ve found it helpful myself to challenge my perspectives on how I fit into social issues more broadly, in an effort to work toward respectful interpersonal relationships in general.

Here are a few examples:

Is my identity getting in the way of empathy?

On face value, it’s hard to see how identifying as a nice guy could be anything but positive. However, it seems that all guys hold some version of this identity; a sense of self that separates them from the others, the bad guys. It can make us feel good by placing societal problems (family violence, misogyny, racism etc.) within the innate qualities of other individuals. We shift the focus to someone else and think we don’t need to concern ourselves with them. But if we all think we’re our own version of a nice guy, then effectively, there is no ‘someone else’. This raises the question, what does being a nice guy actually mean? Does it mean we are somehow not affected by cultural norms that contribute to social problems? Does it mean our behaviour can never cause harm to anyone?

In my role as a TRW everyday I talk with men facing this very challenge; they may love their partner & kids, they may hold ideas of what they consider to be a good partner and father. They may also behave in a way that frightens, intimidates or physically hurts them. They may hold attitudes and beliefs about their role as a man that contradict their ideal outcomes of a loving family. A big part of working toward change is inviting men to step back from how they see themselves. It’s more beneficial for them to focus on taking responsibility for their behaviour and the impact it has on people.

The more I do this work, the more I think this framework of challenging ourselves can apply to so many different contexts and can effectively help the identity of a ‘nice guy’ from getting in the way of respectful and empathetic interpersonal relationships.

How can I acknowledge harm I did not intend to cause?

Empathy is commonly acknowledged as a positive skill, a building block of respect. However, it can be challenging for us to show empathy for someone we have impacted in a negative way. A common defensive reaction I’ve notice when working with men on the phone, is a focus on the intentions of their behaviour, rather than the experience of those affected by it.

For example, a person who felt intimidated and scared by their partner’s yelling may be dismissed by him saying “I didn’t mean to, I’m not a violent guy.” Similarly, someone feeling unsafe or uncomfortable by a man’s unwanted sexual advances may be dismissed as “I meant it as a compliment, I’m not trying to be sleazy.” Likewise, someone from a minority ethnicity feeling uncomfortable by derogatory humour directed at their race, may be told “it was just a joke, it wasn’t intended to be racist, sorry if you interpreted it that way.”

In all examples, these choices of behaviour have led to actual harm, and this harm is potentially exacerbated by their experience being dismissed. Moreover, this situation is likely to repeat itself if the person refusing to acknowledge their behaviour, caused the harm.

My work as a counsellor has taught me that good intentions aren’t so good when they stop us from empathising with the actual impact of our actions. To work toward empathetic and accountable ways of interacting with people, I’ve found it useful to resist the urge to defend my intentions, but rather try to take responsibility for my behaviour, listen to and acknowledge how others have experienced it.

How do I contribute to social problems that I don’t experience?

It can be a huge step toward change to expand empathy beyond an individual’s experience to include their social context. This can be challenging and confusing if we aren’t impacted by or experience any negative impacts of cultural norms that disadvantage certain groups of people. If we have not experienced any disadvantage due to our race, it may be easy to consider a joke that is derogatory toward a specific ethnicity, sexuality or gender, as not a big deal. But the attitudes and beliefs that maintain such discrimination can influence us all, and we can contribute to them, intentionally or not.

Public discussion around the impact of men’s violence against women can sometimes be dismissed by people defensively saying ‘not all men’ use violence against women. Ironically, this derails the conversation and gets in the way of change in the same manner that men who do use violence against women are resistant to taking responsibility. Working as a family violence counsellor has taught me that damaging attitudes and beliefs that fuel gendered violence are woven through many aspects of all cultures. Unless we have been living under a rock our whole lives, all men are influenced by these cultural norms in one way or another. All men have the potential to influence damaging cultural norms with our own attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in a positive way that could shift these perspectives and work toward change.