After many years of hearing the men in our PAR group say they wished they had learned “this stuff” (i.e. strategies and techniques for building and maintaining healthy relationships as well as safe and healthy ways to cope with emotional stressors) sooner, we felt a strong desire to become more proactive in empowering men with helpful information and practical skills. With support from the United Way of Cambridge and North Dumfries, our agency began offering “Healthy Living; Positive Steps for Dealing with Anger.” It has been nearly 5 years and we’ve had over 150 men participate in the program. I hope you enjoy my interview with David Brown, one of the co-facilitators and the man behind the vision of the hands on learning offered to the men in the group.
N: Dave, my vision when applying for funding for this program was that you and your co-leader, Derek would be “emotion coaches” to these men. What was the inspiration behind the use of visual aids as teaching tools for this group?
D: The core of what Derek and I are doing in the Healthy Living group is definitely centred on coaching the men to identify, express and manage their emotions. However there are a lot of societal messages coupled with peer pressure that “real men” don’t talk about their emotions. Hence, the visual aids help to overcome men’s resistance to talk about their feelings and act as “creative conversation starters.” Unhealthy, aggressive anger and its destructive consequences is a heavy topic. The visual aids lighten the atmosphere in the room, promote curiosity and help to reinforce the concepts being discussed.
N: How have the men responded to these visual aids?
D: The visual aids, which comprise toys and other hands-on objects ranging from magnets to a bottle containing 500 thumbtacks, have been an amazing teaching tool. They create intrigue and help eliminate any pre-conceived ideas that “Healthy Living” is going to be a boring two-hour lecture. The value of the visual aids is also underscored when a group member describes something positive he has learned in the group by referring back to one of the visual aids. Each visual aid serves as a tangible reminder of a strategy or technique, which makes it easier for the men to retain the various concepts taught in group. In fact, many men refer back to these aids over the course of the 10 weeks.
N: How many different visual aids do you have and can you share a couple?
D: We now have nearly 30 visual aids that we use during our 10-session program. It is quite common for a group member to talk about someone “pushing my buttons.” One of our visual aids is a red button with the word “Easy” written on the top of it. When you press the button a voice says: “That was easy.” The first time the men hear the button talk they always laugh. However, we use the red button as a creative conversation starter to discuss the importance of men taking responsibility for their emotions rather than shifting blame to the person who is pushing their emotional button. Another effective visual aid is a toy monster truck with large springs mounted on each wheel that represent shock absorbers. We use this toy to illustrate the importance of the men having “emotional shock absorbers” that can cushion the effect of daily work stress or negative circumstances, such as financial pressure. We encourage the men to practice good “self-care” (e.g., taking time to eat, sleep and exercise properly) so they have more emotional capacity to absorb upsets, disappointments and frustrations. Another simple visual aid that the men can easily relate to is a set of magnetic balls. We explain to the men that in a relationship our goal is for the other person to be drawn to us. However, unhealthy, aggressive anger drives people away. The magnetic balls illustrate this principle of repulsion and attraction. What we want the men to begin doing is asking themselves: “Is my behaviour attracting people to me or is it repulsing them?” Self-awareness coupled with an awareness of how our behaviour is impacting others is foundational to good emotions management.
N: I understand you have begun incorporating visual aids into the agency’s Partner Assault Response (PAR) program as well. How has this change impacted the group members’ involvement with this program’s 16-week curriculum designed for men charged or convicted of intimate partner violence?
D: The same benefits we’ve seen from using visual aids in the Healthy Living program are also evident in the PAR program. To date, we’ve come up with more than 30 toys and objects for the PAR program. Healthy Living and PAR each have different visual aids so that each program has its own unique identity. The PAR group members are also intrigued by the visual aids and curious about how they relate to that particular session’s topic. The visual aids used in the PAR program are equally effective in helping the men to remember the concepts being taught. This is confirmed when a group member shares about an experience and refers back to a concept from a previous session by mentioning the visual aid. It is surprising sometimes how much the group members are retaining because the PAR curriculum is extensive. However, the visual aids serve to give the men a reference point or reminder that helps them learn, particularly for those group members who need “visuals” to learn or who benefit from being able to actually pick up a toy or object to solidify an intellectual concept.
N: What do you like best about the Healthy Living group?
D: Each session is a collective conversation because the group members willingly participate in the discussions. The vast majority of men who come to the Healthy Living group genuinely want to change because they are tired of being angry and they understand unhealthy, aggressive anger hurts everyone, including themselves. When you have a room full of men who are committed to change the atmosphere in the room is conducive to change. There is a strong sense of collaboration rather than confrontation. As co-facilitators, Derek and I are not forcing anyone to change. We have the special privilege of helping the men to change.
Sadly, many children do not receive emotion coaching, increasing their risk of addictive and destructive behaviours. You can make a difference. Only one month until the Kin Club of Woolwich’s Amazing Race! Pledges can be dedicated in support of FCCCND’s programming for children and youth. Visit http://www.woolwichkin.com/. We currently have two teams supporting FCCCND: “Freaks of Nature” and “Partners in Grime”.
“THE HEALTY LIVING; POSITIVE STEPS FOR DEALING WITH ANGER” Men’s Group runs Mondays from 6:30-8:30 pm. This 10 week program is run by men, for men. Come to our walk-in counselling on Thursdays from 1-7 pm to sign up or call (519) 621-5090 and ask for Derek for more information.
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