I have been a telephone counsellor at Men’s Referral Service (MRS) for 18 months. Outside of MRS, I am sometimes asked how, as a woman, I can work with men who use family violence. On reflection, I think I had a similar concern myself when coming into this role. I now recognise that those concerns were based on a fear that I might be seen as somehow excusing a man’s use of family violence. It didn’t take long for me to realise this concern was unfounded, and certainly not reflective of the service that MRS provides.
I believe that a ‘good’ conversation with a man who is using family violence is one where we support him to develop an understanding that he is responsible for his own behaviour, to develop insight into how his behaviour is impacting his family, and to see that his relationships can be happier and healthier. And from that point, we can link him into services, such as Men’s Behaviour Change Programs (MBCPs), where he can be supported to develop further insights into his behaviour and its impact, and to learn different ways of behaving and communicating.
Some of the men we speak to don’t believe they need to change. There are times, but not very often, when a man I am speaking to wants the conversation to focus on his belief that men are treated unfairly because of the very fact that they are men and that women ‘have it easy’. And sometimes these callers want to challenge the counsellor to respond to those beliefs.
In conversations like these, I do often wonder how that narrative might be different if they were speaking to a male counsellor. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that question. Talking to male colleagues it is certainly a narrative that they also have heard. While these conversations might play out differently, what I do know is that my gender doesn’t impact the level of engagement that can be achieved with men on the phone, nor the ability to challenge abusive behaviour.
My gender does not limit the ability to create a safe space for a man to feel he can speak openly about what is going on, to take responsibility for what has brought him to this point and to be open to change, no matter how uncomfortable or overwhelming that change might seem.
This work can be confronting, but it is work that I believe is really important – these conversations might be the first time men using family violence have spoken to someone about their behaviour, and they are a powerful opportunity to keep women and children safe from abusive relationships.