Conversations about abusive practice | HMA

Conversations about abusive practice

You are a social worker from a small rural provider, who suspects that within a family you are working with that violence is occurring. In the situation the social worker is providing a home based support service in an isolated setting. The worker has built up considerable rapport with the family, but suspected that there were ripples of family violence beneath the surface. Her dilemma is that she wants to have a conversation that would open up the discussion re suspected violence within the family, but would not destroy the work that had gone on in building up the relationship with the client family.
What would you do?

This is not an untypical situation for many social workers engaging with families/whânau in a range of settings. They are out there every day supporting families to manage the complexities of life.

I was recently asked by Social Services Providers Aotearoa to provide a one-off one-day workshop for workers in North Canterbury on this theme. This has now turned into a roadshow that has taken me to Palmerston North, Christchurch (twice), Ashburton and Timaru where I have delivered workshops to 25 participants on each occasion. That tells me that the questions raised by the social worker whose voice was heard are widespread.

So how do we ask the unaskable? How do we begin such an important conversation? How do we manage our own resistance to going there; our fear of wrecking the relationship that we have developed? How do we manage the reluctance on the part of the people we are talking with, to be pono (honest) about what is going on? How do we know that when we walk out the door, we know we have done something to create greater safety for that family/whânau?

Raising questions around family violence are the same as any other difficult conversation. Difficult conversations challenge the very essence of who we are: am I competent; am I a good person; and am I worthy. Our challenge therefore is to tread purposefully but lightly to invite a level honesty about what goes on behind closed doors. As I often say, “We are asking people to be on their best behaviour talking about their worst behaviour.”

The framework I find most useful is that of the three stories that exist within any interaction. Let me explain.
My story is one that has concern for the wellbeing of what is occurring within the family/whânau. If I am to only tell my story, “Abusive behaviour will tear your family apart”, then the risk is I will get a negative reaction from either the person being abusive or the person living with the violence.

Their story will include an initial reaction to defend and protect. As indicated above we are challenging competency, worth, and goodness. When I have got it wrong you can almost see the cogs going around in the person head as they are thinking, “Who does this person think they are criticising my behaviour without even knowing anything about me?!”

Our assessment might be accurate but that does not stop the reaction which can be seen as built in. We call this the ‘righting reflex’. Human beings seem to have a built-in desire to set things right. If the worker takes up the righting reflex with someone who is ambivalent, the natural response is to argue the other side of ambivalence. The following process outlines the steps in this process.

Person talks about dilemma (ambivalence)


Worker develops an opinion re proposed solution


Person argues for that resolution


Person argues the opposite


Worker strengthens their argument


Person strengthens the opposite side of ambivalence


Worker offers alternatives


Person says “yes, but…”

We all know that when we get into an argument with a client, then the therapeutic moment is lost and we are helping the client consolidate their original position.

This is where the third story is the most useful one to work with to bring about change. The third story when confronting a situation of abusive practice within a family situation could be something like:

“I am worried about your behaviour towards your family. I want to understand how you make sense of what is happening. I also have ideas that can help but I am not sure how interested you are in my view.”

Consider what is embedded in this story. You are maintaining integrity of your position about naming your worry about behaviour occurring in the family. This means you are not ducking the issue and colluding, you are maintaining your ethical position. The second sentence works on the position of trying to understand how the person sees the situation from the inside. They are in essence living this situation on a daily basis. The third sentence is one of invitation. It works on the righting reflex. By offering rather than telling, that you have ideas that might be useful, sets up a position that the person will be interested in what you have to say.

Of course there are a whole list of other useful questions that can assist the person to consider the nature of the conversation before beginning to go with depth. A few examples include:

On a scale of 1-100 how up-front do you think you can be with me?
If a person answers they can be 60% honest with me, then I can work with this. My response might be: “Sixty percent is a good starting point. When I am talking with you I will know that you are leaving out 40% of what might need to be said”
What would I notice that would tell me you are being 60% honest with me?
What ideas have you got to increase this level of honesty?

The other questions that are very useful include reframing the key identity questions of : am I competent; am I a good person; and am I worthy.

At times we all make mistakes and get things wrong. When this happens how do you manage this? (message we can’t be competent 24/7)

What do you think is the best thing to do in this situation? (appeals to a good person script)
What do you reckon a good person would do in this situation, work to sort things out or keep doing more of the same? (appeals to a good person script)
It takes courage to work on the hard stuff. (appeals to worthiness)

When you are next having to contemplate a conversation about abusive practice be mindful of which story you are working in and see the difference.

Published on Wednesday, October 28th, 2009, under Practice tips and techniques

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