Concept of the Month -- January 2006

Can A Criminal Learn to be Empathic? -- Part II

There are programs that teach criminals to learn to empathize with victims. Crime victims, perhaps even the victim of the offender's immediate crime (if willing), talk with him about the impact of crime on him (her) and others. There is an emphasis not only on the harm done to the immediate victim, but the ongoing ripple effect to the victim's family, friends, and community. This is effective with some offenders, but for others it is just one more opportunity to build themselves up as good people. That is, they pervert the objective of the experience in a self-serving manner. This does not mean that the effort should not be made. And the victim may be helped by it.

While teaching the offender to become aware of his day to day thinking and report it, inevitably there will be a focus on learning to carefully consider the needs and preferences of other people rather than just do what he wants at the moment. Role playing can help, especially in groups, call to a criminal's attention his longstanding pattern to use other people for his own purposes, to question this thinking and its ultimate effect, deter the thinking and substitute respect, consideration, and so forth. However, nothing can substitute for the day to day routine of becoming aware of old patterns, reporting them to an agent of change, becoming fed up with the patterns, deterring them, and putting into practice new patterns of thoughts.

I had one client who expected family life to revolve around his wishes when he came home from work each evening. He demanded quiet time so he could sit and read the paper, while his wife continued to care for young children and cook dinner. He believed he was entitled to peace, quiet, and respect. Obviously, this was not realistic to expect. Therefore, anger permeated each evening. I asked him to think about "who was he" that he expected the world to stop to serve him. He needed to consider that his wife was most likely as fatigued as he, especially after nonstop taking care of young children while grocery shopping, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and so forth. She would welcome his playing with the kids and helping her in other ways. That is what would make for a enjoyable and peaceful evening. It was his choice. He could continue to make demands and emotionally abuse his wife, perhaps eventually lose her and his children. Or he could make changes.

It is mundane, regular daily situations like this that demand the criminal's attention. By helping him to look in the mirror, think about who and what is truly important, and consider carefully the consequences of his past thinking and behavior, empathy can be learned.

From December 2005

Can A Criminal Learn to be Empathic? -- Part I

A hallmark of a criminal personality is that of looking only at life in terms of one's immediate self-serving aims. The criminal builds himself up at the expense of others. He cases others out to secure his own advantage. He sees himself as
the hub of the wheel around which everything revolves.

An offender on probation asked his probation officer in all sincerity, "This empathy thing -- what's in it for me?

There are many responsible people who are not particularly empathic. They take care of their day to day obligations, support themselves, but do not "feel another's pain" very often. Being empathic is a characteristic one can acquire if motivated to do so.

The cognitive tool is learning to consider a situation from another's person's point of view. The criminal's objective is to convert others to his point of view. However, if he reaches a critical time in life when his way of living has led to nothing
but disaster as he himself views it, he can in fact practice learn new patterns of thinking.

First, however, he must understand that he has wrought havoc even to people who care about him and about whom he says he cares. His insistence of doing things his way and running roughshod over others has led to wide-scale injury to others.

The first step toward experiencing empathy requires that the criminal recognize that a point of view other than his own exists and may be very worthwhile. He must suspend judgment and not jump to a conclusion, but instead listen to what the other person is saying and repeat it. This is the very beginning of learning to empathize.

To be continued with the first 2006 Concept of the Month

Stanton E. Samenow

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