The NTV Conference Takeaways Report highlights the key themes raised at the National Working with Men to Tackle Family Violence Conference, 14-15 February 2017.
Working as a family violence telephone operator I speak with hundreds of men from many different relationship and life contexts. When I speak to men that have chosen to behave in a way that causes problems for their family and relationships, the theme of ‘responsibility’ commonly comes out of our conversations. It sounds simple, that we are responsible for our own behaviour. However, accepting responsibility can be a big challenge if we have chosen to behave in a way that physically or emotionally hurts someone, especially those closest to us. It’s common to encounter self-imposed barriers to owning our choices of behaviour that we’re ashamed of. However, for many men I’ve spoken to who want to work toward safer, happier relationships with their partner or kids, challenging themselves to take responsibility for their own behaviour is an important first step. Here’s some common barriers I’ve noticed and learned from myself:
“I just snapped”- thinking your emotions control your behaviour
An all too common barrier to change can be the perception that our behaviour is out of our control at times. Many men I work with are reluctant to describe choices of violent behaviour they have made, instead using language that suggests a lack of responsibility; “I just snapped, just lost it”. When probed as to what this actually looks like, often there’s a description of emotions such as anger, frustration, stress (when probed further; vulnerability, inadequacy). Often violent incidents are described as an overwhelming situation that escalated out of their control, rather than a difficult emotional experience and a choice of abusive behaviour in response to that situation. This narrative is reinforced for men in public. For example when you hear a footballer talk about choosing to punch an opponent as “an emotional response, bit of a brain fade”, or someone describing a choice to drive dangerously as “road rage”. As convenient and seductive as this excuse is, it becomes dangerous when you consider that difficult emotions are part of life and certainly part of any lengthy relationship. For many men I’ve worked with, letting down this barrier and accepting that they are in control of how they behave when they experience difficult emotions, has made it easier for them to explore respectful choices of behaviour that contribute to happier relationships and families.
“My buttons were pushed” – thinking other people control your behaviour
If we are reluctant to own our choice of behaviour, it’s common we attribute this responsibility to someone else. Often the men I work with tell me their partner “provoked me” or “pushed my buttons”, automatically shifting blame onto their partner for the violence they used. Often when this is unpacked in conversation, men I work with can reflect that it was indeed difficult emotions, rather than what they previously perceived as provocation. They’re subsequently able to describe different ways they could have chosen to behave in response to these difficult emotions. When I ask men I work with what needs to change to move toward safer & more respectful relationships, it’s common for them to focus on what they believe their partner is doing wrong when conflict arises. The irony of trying to control someone else’s behaviour rather than take responsibility for their own doesn’t end there, as for many men it’s maintaining this grip on control that contributes to their difficult emotional state and relationship problems to begin with. For men I speak with who want to change their use of violent behaviour a big step is letting go of the notion that anyone else can be responsible for it. Once they focus on their own choices of behaviour, it becomes much easier to explore strategies for responding to difficult emotions and choosing behaviour that contributes to respectful, loving relationships.
“I’d had a bit to drink” – thinking alcohol controls your behaviour
At times, men I speak with describe being alcohol affected at the time of using different forms of family violence, and attribute any behaviour to this. Quite often I’ve spoken to men highly remorseful for how they have behaved but very resistant to taking any responsibility for it. They claim that alcohol took control of their behaviour and that for them to change, it’s as simple as them stopping drinking. While choosing to reduce intake of alcohol can be a useful part of a safety strategy, for some men I’ve worked with it doesn’t address the entire issue. Upon reflection, many men talk about several other incidents in which their partner felt controlled, intimidated or unsafe due to their behaviour though during these times, they had not been alcohol affected. Some go on to reflect that while alcohol affected, they have never been abusive to anyone other than their partner. These reflections can often suggest a pattern of behaviour that they are choosing to use specifically for their partner. While alcohol can contribute to problems in their relationship, it’s not likely the cause. For most men I talk to who want to change their behaviour and improve their relationships, it’s important they acknowledge their choice of behaviours in addition to any substance use issues.
“Can’t I defend myself?” – trying to justify your behaviour
At times, a barrier to taking responsibility for some men I engage with is a perception that a choice to use abusive behaviour is justified as a form of ‘self-defence’, when in reality, it’s not. The concept of self-defence, that your physical safety is under threat and there is no other option than to respond with violence, starts to get a little blurry when you unpack the situation men I work with describe. Often when we discuss scenarios where these men have used violence, they describe no concern or fear for their immediate safety or physical-wellbeing. Similarly, upon reflection, they can describe numerous other choices in how they could have responded to the scenario that could have diffused any potential danger, such as leaving or calling police. Upon reflection, many men describe feeling angry and choosing to use violence, rather than a last resort choice to defend themselves. For many of these men I’ve worked with, challenging these perceptions of self-defence and taking responsibility for their choices of behaviour has made it easier for them to respond to conflict in ways that keep themselves and others safer.
“It wasn’t that bad”- not thinking about how others experience your behaviour
With all this focus on our own choices of behaviour and whether or not they are in our control or justified, quite often the experience of those impacted by violence can be dismissed. That is the experience of past or current intimate partners, or that of children exposed to these dynamics between their parents. These experiences are woven through all the above barriers to taking responsibility. Many men I’ve worked with struggle to empathise and acknowledge how their behaviour impacts their partners, kids or family members. It’s quite common for the use of abusive and violent behaviour to be minimised as being “blown out of proportion, I didn’t mean to, they’re over reacting”, even in instances where police have been called to intervene and those affected have expressed fear. It can be challenging to listen to and acknowledge how someone has experienced your behaviour if you have hurt them or made them feel unsafe or scared. However, for most men I work with, this can be a big turning point in moving toward happier and more respectful relationships. This involves not just reflecting on individual instances of abusive behaviour, but acknowledging the impact of how patterns of these behaviours can have a cumulative effect on their partners & family members, causing them to feel controlled or fearful. Likewise, the acknowledgement of how this dynamic between parents impacts children, regardless of if they witness abusive behaviour first hand, can be a huge step in working toward a safer home environment for them to grow up in. The barriers I’ve mentioned start to make less sense for the men I work with once they can empathise with how their partners and kids experience their behaviour. When men begin to take responsibility for their choices of behaviour and these barriers are easier to overcome.
Over 250 delegates from the family violence sector met at the National Working with Men to Tackle Family Violence Conference to share practical solutions to ending men’s violence against women and children. Hosted by No To Violence incorporating Men’s Referral Service (NTV/MRS), the four days included interactive workshops, speakers, and panel discussions. Attendees heard a range of prominent advocates, experts and frontline workers in the field such as Rosie Batty, Dr Michael Flood, and David Mandel (Safe & Together Institute).
Bookending the conference, workshops on Monday and Thursday focused on intervention dynamics, technological innovations, men as parents and primary prevention strategies. Each intimate session allowed participants to network, listen and bounce ideas off each other.
The conference proper kicked off on Tuesday with a motivating welcome from NTV/MRS CEO, Jacqui Watt, who asked those in the room and beyond, “to find out what on earth is going on with men.”
With Ms Watt setting a frank agenda for the conference, and a directive to “have the hard conversation about men’s violence”, an expert panel of speakers did just that.
Anti-Family Violence Campaigner, Rosie Batty spoke of the violent men that too often fly under society’s radar because we can’t read the warning signs of violent behaviour. “What does high risk look like to you?” asked Ms Batty. “Suicidal ideation is a high risk flag in my opinion. When men are saying things like ‘I can’t do this anymore’, we need to intervene.
Moorabbin Magistrate, Anne Goldsbrough, agreed more education and training was needed for people in and around the justice system. “All professions — law, police, justice, corrections, medical professions, teachers, counsellors everyone — we must be able to identify family violence behaviour and know how to respond.”
Speaking with gravitas, CEO of Kornar Winmil Yunti Aboriginal Corporation, Craig Rigney underlined the tragic reality that Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to experience family violence despite being just 1.3% of the population. “Men need a safe place to talk and to be held to account.”
For the situation to improve he stressed that funding structures needed to change. “Competitive tender models make it virtually impossible for organisations like us to be funded adequately. I have men who’ve left us after a session or two and call up again wanting to come back. They say ‘I’m angry, I need to talk to someone’ but we don’t have the sessions to take them.”
All panellists, despite varying perspectives, agreed that holding violent men to account meant holding all layers of society to account; from individuals, bystanders, to service providers to government. Tellingly, they saw men themselves as crucial advocates for ending men’s violence.
Attention then turned to the state of play in the host state, New South Wales. Acting CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Sophie Trower, was forthright in her assessment, outlining the fragmented nature of service providers in NSW. She asked the room at one point to “put up your hand if you’d trust another service provider to carry out your work safely and thoroughly after handing it over?” In a room of nearly 250 people, about 10 hands went up.
Just before lunch, Associate Professor in Sociology Dr Michael Flood provided food for thought in his ‘Reframing Masculinity’ presentation, clarifying how we define gender. Gender is perceived as sex but is in fact the social, personal and political aspects of who we are. Sex, not to be confused with gender, is just our biological makeup. Gender has nothing to do with sex – it is merely a social construction that society has created, based on biological reproductive functions, and we see this played out in rigid, antiquated stereotype ideals of the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ explained Dr Flood.
On how we campaign for change, Dr Flood challenged us to unpack what it means to be a ‘real man’. He found both campaigns appealing to what ‘real men’ do or don’t do’ and campaigns that dis-invested in masculinity altogether, both had merit. “Whatever works to create change, let’s go with it” said Dr Flood.
From the theoretical to the personal, Tarang Chawla gave a heartfelt presentation on the human cost of violence. After his younger sister, Nikita, was murdered by her partner in 2015, he challenged men to cut out men’s violence from its roots. “When you hear locker room talk veiled as misogyny speak out. Don’t let it quieten you. Don’t let it dim the fire within.”
The afternoon had delegates breaking into groups to dissect issues around prevention through parenting, male advocacy and empowering indigenous men. Audiences in David Mandel’s session debated whether we should be asking 12 year olds ‘what kind of dad do they want to be?’ while in another room Craig Rigney assured facilitators it was ok not to have all the answers in a Men’s Behaviour Change Program, particularly in programs working with indigenous men. “Don’t assume and always ask” said Mr Rigney.
As day one came to a close, delegates left the Sydney Boulevard Hotel with much to talk about, continuing conversations long into dinner.
The difficult but essential dialogue flowed straight into day two which opened with men’s services professionals discussing the dynamics of working with men. While indigenous facilitator, Alan Thorpe from Dardi Munwurro, said we needed “more training to deal with trauma”, Psychotherapist, Anthony Lekkas from Victoria Aids Council had a different view when it came to working with men in same sex relationships. He questioned if trauma informed strategies were too concerned with therapy and not “partner focused enough.” Mr Lekkas went on to say “regular check-ins with current or ex-partners is the most neglected aspect of men’s behaviour change programs.”
Chair of Men’s Behaviour Change Network NSW, Diane Coleman, delved deeper into the psychology of working with men. “As humans we find it difficult to acknowledge what’s going on in violent relationships. We can’t be beaten by fear. We must stay aware that violence is occurring and is the reality” said Ms Coleman.
Later in the morning, delegates were treated to interactive workshops where they put their ideas to paper on the specific interventions that worked with men. These smaller sessions, gave a platform to voices not yet heard and helped people from different parts of the sector form closer ties.
In the afternoon, Central Queensland University’s Dr Silke Meyer, expanded on David Mandel’s work on engaging men as fathers with powerful research findings. Her study found a high prevalence of victim blaming among male offenders who also had little perception of how their behaviour affected children. Dr Meyer concluded that using fatherhood to help shape a man’s identity lead to a higher motivation for changing violent behaviour.
After two days of shared experiences, education and insight, delegates came together to express their final thoughts on ‘where to from here?’ As representatives from each state and territory lined up to have their say on what more was needed to keep families safe from violence, a common call for a national response to the problem emerged. A unified, consistent and appropriately funded response for organisations to up-skill, collaborate and connect with all sections of society was the consensus.
With renewed determination, delegates headed home to turn talk into action.