What Time Does Your Group Start? Thoughts on Engagement

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Years ago, while working as a court services officer, I took “Ben” to visit Boys Town in Nebraska. This young man knew that his home situation was not healthy, but he was reluctant to consider a different living arrangement. When we walked into the main office of Boys Town, the receptionist bounded out from behind her desk and greeted Ben with enthusiasm. She asked about our trip, and asked if we needed anything. While she was polite to me, she maintained her attention and focus on Ben until the admissions representative joined us. The admissions representative interacted with us in the same enthusiastic manner. She was clearly prepared for our visit. She asked Ben excellent questions, and treated him as if he was the most important person in her life at that moment. We never sat in a waiting room. She simply treated Ben as if he mattered. The outcome of this visit was that Ben decided to live at Boys Town.The Boys Town receptionist and admissions representative created such a positive connection that it left a lasting impression on me. So much so, that I am writing about this experience 25 years later. Boys Town had intentionally honed the art of engagement.

"Beginning facilitators can become reactive to these early defenses. This reactivity can harm engagement efforts."

The approach used at Boys Town with Ben is also valuable when working with the resistant clients who walk through our BIP program doors. BIP staff routinely face the challenge of engaging those who are resistant. We all know that many of the participants in batterer intervention programs are unhappy to be there, at least initially. I hear complaints like, “you are just in it for the money”, or, “my partner should be here instead of me, she’s crazy”, or, “I was only arrested because I am the man”. Anyone who works in a BIP for any length of time is surely familiar with the hostility and resentment that we can encounter at the front end. Beginning facilitators can become reactive to these early defenses. This reactivity can harm engagement efforts.  Boys Town had learned—probably from years of interacting with delinquent youth—that they win, and their clients win, when every interaction is done with purposeful intention. We have attempted to use that same philosophy, starting with the first phone call. We try hard to give every participant a personal greeting as they come into the office. I remember once when a man became angry with me in class because he had come to expect that personal greeting, and I had missed him on this particular occasion. His response serves as a reminder of how important these interactions can be.

This intentional focus on engagement is carried forward throughout our program. For example, if you ask any FPI facilitator what time group starts and ends,they will tell you,“group starts when the first person arrives, and ends when the last person leaves”. We want people to come early, as that gives us more time to engage, connect, support and encourage. We also want people to stay after class for the same reasons.

"...there are some participants who desperately need this connection. Skilled facilitators take advantage of this added opportunity."

This focus on interaction with intention “until the last person leaves” is sometimes questioned due to concerns about collusion and manipulation. What we have found, time and time again, is that there are some participants who desperately need this connection. Skilled facilitators take advantage of this added opportunity.

In addition to helping participants feel that they matter, this intentional interaction helps facilitators gain valuable information on participants’ emotional state prior to, and after class. It is always nice to know what  issues might be bubbling in the room, and obviously, victim safety can be impacted by knowing what frame of mind participants are in when they leave. The more information we have before and after class, the better for everyone. 

A facilitator’s job becomes easier as they master the art of engagement. It is important to send the same message that Boys Town so artfully sent to Ben. We are happy to see you. We have been waiting for you.

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