We are taught young to seek out the best possible sources of information when trying to better understand an issue or problem. If you need information about the law, a lawyer is a better choice than a banker. If you need to know about human behaviour, a psychologist would be a better choice than an engineer. Somewhere along the way though, this message seems to go into a grey zone.
I remember taking a criminology class when I was in university. We were discussing violence prevention and what we can do as future criminologists to prevent violent crime. When my turn came up, I suggested we interview as many violent offenders as possible in order to learn from them: learn what had motivated and fuelled their anger; learn what had prevented them from acting out on different occasions; continuously learn as much as we can from them in order to incorporate these findings in preventive, educative and prevention programs.
Well, apparently the teacher wasn’t too impressed. The prevention programs were already available and the correct answer was to apply these programs (as-is) in schools to educate and prevent an escalation of violence and crime.
Having worked with offenders now for over twenty years, I maintain my initial hypothesis. I have learned more about anger and violence from the offenders themselves than any book, lecture, or training session. Actually, I have learned more about myself from trying to teach them than I wanted to. In prison, it seems inmates are always observing their environment for little details. When they have a new case worker, they will meticulously observe and analyse them to see if they if a working alliance will be easy or difficult to establish. After a while, they will tell you things about yourself you hadn’t noticed. It turns out I wear too much black clothing, touch my elbow before challenging a participant’s erroneous thought, and the list goes on.
It always seemed like a no brainer to me to get to know my clients better than the files that accompany them. After all, wouldn’t the best source of knowledge about violence be from someone who has a problem containing their emotions and acts out their anger? Doesn’t it almost seem pretentious to think we can study emotionally healthy well balanced individuals while not consulting, interviewing or studying the ones afflicted by this behaviour in order to create programs aimed at taming their anger and violence?
Violent offenders, while they are incarcerated or on parole are usually quite open about what makes them tick, what calm them down and what makes them explode. By carefully listening to what they have to say, we can learn a lot about violence and discover different treatment options that would not only benefit them, but would benefit society as a whole.
For anyone working with offenders, addicts, or any other behavioural problem for that matter, I would suggest that listening to what they have to say can go a very long way towards recovery. It is after all, a symbiotic relationship that can help make the world a better place to live in.