The Tao of Anger Management: A Yield Theory Approach

The Tao of Anger Management: A Yield Theory Approach

by Christian Conte
Anger management expert, Christian Conte, PhD, describes his unique and highly effective approach to teaching and counseling violent offenders.

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“The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.” —Lao Tzu

Brian had been incarcerated for taking a baseball bat to his girlfriend’s truck with her inside of it; he then pulled her out and beat her unconscious. He was out of prison and in my anger management group for two weeks when he reported, “What I did may have been too much, but she deserved it because she stole my money.” He claimed that he shouldn’t have gotten in that much trouble because it was “my truck anyway,” and besides, she “slipped and hit her head on the ice.” Brian was still in the precontemplation stage of change: he didn’t think he had a problem.

Things got worse before they got better. The following week Brian was furious when he came to group, complaining that he had been called in by his probation officer two days in a row to be drug-tested. The only reason for this, he claimed, was that his ex was “sleeping with a cop.” In a state of rage, his face flushed, his fists and feet pounding wildly, he shouted about police corruption and denounced his ex-girlfriend, the “whore” who was just out to get him. 

Instead of asking him to calm down, take a breath, or do anything other than be where he was in the moment, I simply validated him. I imagined what the world would look like from Brian’s perspective as I said, “Man, that’s just plain messed up.” I knew that Brian didn’t know anything other than what he knew in that moment, and he needed someone to see what he saw, so I went with him further: “You know, it sucks that you work so hard to be sober, and then people go and pull this shit, and test you even more.” I paused briefly, made a projection about what he might be thinking and added, “I mean, they tested you literally, but they’re also testing your limits too. It’s like they’re trying to set you back.”

He responded emphatically, “Exactly! They’re pushing me!”

“You know what?” I said, “this was kind of messed up, so I’m not even going to ask you to calm down right now.” I paused, shook my head, and waited for a moment before continuing. “In fact, even if this is supposed to be anger management, it would be stupid for someone to think you need to learn from this right now, because you have a right to be pissed off.”

He nodded his head in agreement, and he was visibly calmer, so I went on.

“I’m not going to tell you to learn anything from this right now, but let’s say this was tomorrow at this time, what do you think you might say about this experience?”

“I don’t know.” He paused. I waited. “I guess I would say that I probably overreacted.”

I then said, “I’m not going to say that you overreacted because it was really messed up, but, I don’t know—I wonder if this was like a week later… I wonder what you’d say about this experience then?”

The startling recidivism rates in our country (close to 70% of violent offenders return to a life of crime after imprisonment) should be all the evidence we need to understand that our system of rehabilitation-by-incarceration alone simply doesn’t work.


 “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’d say that probation has a right to test me two days in a row in case I’m using or something.” He was calming down more, and moving more and more into his frontal lobes.

So I said finally, “Look, I know you’re pissed off, and I see you’re hurting about this, and we don’t need to talk about this tonight—but if this were a month from now, I wonder what you might say about this whole night?”

Almost completely calm now, Brian replied, “I guess if this were a month from now, I would probably look back on this night and see that I was still doing the same thing I always did: blaming her for me not wanting to be drug tested.” 

The shift occurred. The door was open to future work. 

Behind the Mask

"Treat the people as trustworthy, and they will be trustworthy." —Lao Tzu


When Brian came in furious and outraged, it could have elicited fear in me—he was, after all, an imposing figure—but I knew that Brian wasn’t angry at the world or at me; he was angry at having to take responsibility for something unpleasant. When that happens, people are usually blinded with rage, but not likely to hurt someone they don’t know. Brian was scared to face the world without what he had come to depend on: drugs to alter his state of mind. He was not ready in that moment to genuinely be accountable for what he did—so that was not the time to get on a soapbox and criticize his actions. 

More importantly, Brian didn’t scare me because I am armed with the knowledge that anger masks fear. Just as you wouldn’t walk into a costume party and believe that goblins and monsters are suddenly alive and dancing with each other because you would know it was people dressed in costumes, so too do I see that when people are angry, they are wearing a mask to hide what is really going on inside them. It was important for me to trust the deepest part of Brian’s essence: the part that is, in my view, inherently good. 

As a therapist, my goal is to facilitate people’s journey through the depths of their undiscovered psyches in a way that helps them move beyond the battle of the ego/true-self dynamic so that they can find, hold, and live in expanded consciousness. My working assumption is that the essence of people is much deeper than what we can see on the surface. This assumption helps me view people as vastly greater than their actions, and infinitely more than any pain and suffering they have caused or experienced. 

I specialize in working with people who have been convicted of violent crimes: murder, rape, and the abuse of others. The work is not easy, but it is some of the most rewarding work that I have ever done, due in part to the amazing transformations that I’ve witnessed throughout the years. I’ve watched gang members gain awareness and perspective enough to walk away from their gangs; I’ve seen people who train as fighters walk away from street fights; I’ve seen people who have spent their lives believing that life is about getting “respect,” make incredible changes and learn to more deeply respect themselves and the world around them. 

No one sets out to be defined by his or her worst moment in life, yet almost every violent offender is judged, convicted, and defined by his or her worst moment.
No one sets out to be defined by his or her worst moment in life, yet almost every violent offender is judged, convicted, and defined by his or her worst moment. Just imagine if everyone in your life defined you by your worst moment, that this moment accompanied you like a badge of shame throughout your life, limiting all future possibilities, including your hopes and dreams. It would seem terribly unjust; and yet this is what we do with violent offenders. They carry the burden of our shadow projections and are left believing that they are terrible people because they have done terrible things. And because they lose hope about the possibility of breaking free from these deeply internalized expectations, they live up to their self-fulfilling prophecies by continuing to do terrible things. 

The startling recidivism rates in our country (close to 70% of violent offenders return to a life of crime after imprisonment) should be all the evidence we need to understand that our system of rehabilitation-by-incarceration alone simply doesn’t work, but it’s not. The “more shame, more guilt, and more punishment” approach—though it has a long history among treatment of violent offenders—has led to 7 out of 10 people returning to lock-up. It’s clear that it is time for a new approach to this problem, and it requires a change in consciousness, not only among violent offenders, but also among the population at large. 

Yield Theory

“Knowing how to yield is strength.” —Lao Tzu


My approach to working with clients who have committed the most heinous of crimes is grounded in what I call “Yield Theory,” a powerful and compassionate approach to communication that essentially boils down to radical empathy delivered with intentionality. Taoism is a spiritual tradition—the core of which is seeing beyond the black and white world of either/or, good/bad, and recognizing balance through the single essence of everything. Founded by the legendary Lao Tzu more than 2,500 years ago, “Tao” means the way. For me, the journey that clients take to personal growth is the same as what we all undertake along the way in life.

Yield Theory differs from radical empathy in that in addition to attempting to think and feel entirely from clients’ perspectives, therapists also go with or literally yield to what clients are saying in the moment, with the intention of guiding them to new insight on situations. This approach involves more than simply understanding that multiple factors contribute to violent interactions—you must cultivate the ability to not resist even the angriest outbursts. Yielding entails both joining with the essence of who clients are, and “going with” clients to circumambulate their fight-or-flight responses so they will be more open to the possibility of healthier options.

The underlying assumption of Yield Theory is this: If we lived every day as another human being—not just walked a metaphorical mile in that person’s shoes, but actually had the exact same cognitive functioning, affective range, and life experiences—then we would make every single decision that that person has ever made. Every single decision. This goes beyond simple empathy: it is the capacity to truly recognize the essence of others, and non-judgmentally accept who people are, regardless of their choices and actions—including violence. 

By yielding with others and genuinely trying to understand why they have done what they’ve done rather than judging them, I have found that people are more than just willing to open up and talk—they are also much more open to the possibility of change. I have found that by accepting the essence of people, I have an easier time approaching violence with compassion. The Yield Theory framework has allowed me to rid myself of judgment and do the job I was intended to do: assess people accurately and help them change and lead lives directed by their true selves (their essence), rather than by their egos (introjected identities). 

My anger management program is predicated on respecting all human beings who enter treatment, regardless of their actions, and strives to meet every person where he or she actually is. I call it, “conscious education rooted in compassion.” Even the most resistant clients who ardently deny any accountability for significantly harming others are accepted as readily as those who are actively seeking change. Everyone has a story, and people’s cognitive functioning, ability to process emotions, and life experiences shape and continually influence them.

Though many therapists and counselors may claim to “accept all people,” in practice, most struggle in their work with people who have violent tendencies.
Though many therapists and counselors may claim to “accept all people,” in practice, most struggle in their work with people who have violent tendencies. It could be that the natural fight-or-flight response triggers their survival fears and causes them to write off violent offenders as incapable of change, dangerous, and hence deserving of judgment; but it could also be because human beings tend to value their own standards of living, beliefs, and ideas over those of others and in subtle and often unconscious ways judge people who are different—particularly when those differences appear threatening. 

It is hard for most people to grasp that fully accepting a person who commits a violent crime has absolutely nothing to do with condoning that person’s actions. Truly understanding this, however, makes all the difference in our work with those who are pushed the margins of society. 

Components of Yield Theory

Vulnerability takes courage—especially amongst people who define themselves by how “tough” they are—and yet I have found in my anger management groups (which are open, so there always new people coming in) that people share with the same level of vulnerability and honesty as any therapy group I’ve ever witnessed. I believe this is due to the key components of Yield Theory that I apply in my groups: acceptance, the elimination of shame, mindfulness, creativity, conscious education, non-attachment and authenticity.

Acceptance
The potential for everything great and everything terrible resides inside all human beings. If a human being has performed an act, then it is accurate to say that it is “human nature.” If we can accept the nature of human beings (that we will at times be loving and kind, at other times hurtful and cruel, and everything in between and beyond), then we can evaluate others, as well as ourselves, in terms of trying to simply understand human behavior. Furthermore, if we accept the premise that we cannot do one single thing to change the past, and we merely have the ability to impact the present to shape the future, then we can see that pejorative, judgmental approaches do little to impact the present or future in positive ways; whereas acceptance of what is, along with acceptance of the essence of people, can set the stage for conscious learning and change.

With Brian, it was important to accept him for the essence of who he is, and from there to accept where he was cognitively and emotionally in that moment. From his perspective, after all, things were unjust and unfair, so acknowledging that was an important first step.
 
Shame
Years of studying people who commit violent crimes has led me to the conclusion that people who live in shame act out of shame.
People who live in shame act out of shame.
Eliminating shame, therefore, has become central to my work. At first glance, it may seem difficult to swallow the idea of not shaming someone who has committed a violent act; however, as David Hawkins (2002) suggested in his “map of consciousness,” shame is the lowest form of consciousness that human beings experience. What I have learned is that it is difficult for human beings to make highly conscious choices from low levels of consciousness, so helping people have expanded consciousness becomes paramount to changing their actions.

It would have shamed Brian to try to get him to see what he did wrong while he was in a state of fear and anger. It was not the time to have him acknowledge responsibility or even awareness of anything he did that was hurtful. Instead, it was important to work with what was available for him cognitively and emotionally in the present moment.

Mindfulness
Mindfulness was first described in the Dhammapada as a way that the Buddha taught others to observe and keep constant watch over their thoughts. Engaging in “right mindfulness” entails expanding the awareness that we have not only for ourselves, but also for the world around us. The more mindful we can be in every moment, the more likely we are to consider alternative ways of interacting with others. Mindfulness begins with self-awareness, but it also extends to an awareness of the environment and what is going on inside other people as well. As a group leader, I both practice and teach mindfulness. Though it is fairly easy for therapists to learn how to teach or simply read a basic mindfulness exercise in a group setting, it is the role modeling of mindfulness (i.e., the therapist’s constant awareness of present moment intra and interpersonal experiences) that seems to make the biggest impact on clients. As many people who teach mindfulness would explain: mindfulness must be lived to be understood. 

It was important for me to be mindful and aware of my own thoughts when Brian began railing against his parole officer and his ex, and to be careful not to get caught up by them. I tried to be as aware as possible about what might be going on inside of him, based on what I was seeing in him and my own internal reactions, but ultimately the best we can do as therapists is project what we imagine others are thinking, and then check those projections. In this instance, my projection appeared to be accurate. But mindfulness goes much deeper than just awareness of my thoughts and his; it is also an awareness of the environment in the moment, and a willingness to stay present with whatever unfolds without reverting into a reactive or defensive posture.

Creativity
In my experience, having the ability to genuinely meet a diverse group of clients where they are separates average therapists from very good ones. If we are charged with meeting people where they are, then we must consider that people have varied learning styles, and forcing clients to only get information in the way that we think works is, in my view, irresponsible. To implement creativity in therapy is to constantly evaluate one’s own communication style, and to be open to adjusting it accordingly to what people need. I believe the onus of communicating effectively rests with the therapist, so when clients are not getting what we are communicating, I believe it is our responsibility to find creative ways to meet them where they are. Creativity can come in the form of analogies, metaphors, techniques, or even just in the openness to develop new ways to say things in ways clients can fully hear. 

In the heated moment with Brian, I chose to use a future-self technique with him. I have found that in working with a largely angry population, being able to think quickly and creatively is not only a bonus, but a necessity. 

Conscious Education

“What is a good man, but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man, but a good man’s job?” —Lao Tzu

In my view, it is the responsibility of therapists to offer something more than just listening to their clients. Teaching skills is essential to helping people who are struggling with anger. We cannot expect people to respond differently to the world until we teach them different options. For counselors to implement conscious education, they must be willing to teach concepts patiently and compassionately until clients understand the ideas. This is quite different than simply relating concepts and assuming that clients understand them. In conscious education, therapists do not assume their clients should already have specific information; instead, they make the effort to teach in compassionate ways that meet diverse learners where they are.

 

As a former tenured professor, I know all too well how lengthy the discussions can be over the semantics of what does and does not constitute teaching. Outside of the world of academia, however, I would argue that we are always teaching others—even if the lesson is about how we are likely to respond in a given situation. I know from further interactions with Brian that he learned that day how to implement the future-self technique. He subsequently reported using it several times and even taught it to another group member during an anger management session.

 

Non-attachment
The idea of non-attachment is at the foundation of healthy learning. Whereas it is fairly easy for most Westerners to understand the idea of attachment to material goods through identification (“I’m a homeowner” or “This is my car” or “I am a good person because I have a high-paying job”), the notion that we are equally attached to our ideas seems far less widespread.

As long as our ideas are a part of who we are, we become defensive when people disagree with us.
As long as our ideas are a part of who we are, we become defensive when people disagree with us. When we can separate ourselves from our things, as well as from our very ideas, we are engaged in the process of non-attachment. As therapists model this concept, they create a safe path for clients to learn to express themselves openly, knowing they will not offend their therapist in any way. 

As a caution to those becoming too attached to the idea of non-attachment, Zen practitioners offer the concept of the “soap of the teachings.” Consider that to clean a shirt, it is necessary to use soap; but if the suds are not rinsed out, the garment will not truly be clean. In this same way, non-attachment to the idea of non-attachment becomes central to practicing the concept. 

In the case of Brian, I was not attached to his response, and would have been content with being off base had he told me that was the case. I was also not attached to the technique I was using with him; had it not helped, I was ready to readjust my technique to something more useful. 

Authenticity
People can spot disingenuousness easily. Mirror neurons are not only the root of vicarious learning, but are also the key part of our neurology that helps us identify when people are being authentic with us or not. It is well known in our field that clients will use the inauthenticity of their therapists as a reason they cannot or should not have to change. On the other hand, when people experience authenticity and know that we sincerely have their best interest at heart, they are much more open to learning about themselves.
When people experience authenticity and know that we sincerely have their best interest at heart, they are much more open to learning about themselves.


The most pragmatic way therapists can convey authenticity is to regularly practice the ideas that they are teaching in their personal lives. It is paramount to practice what we preach. We do not have all the answers, nor should we purport to. We make mistakes as equally as our clients: not better or worse mistakes, just different mistakes, and we are all in this process of experiencing what it is like to be fully human. 

Conclusion

“Can you love the people and lead them without imposing your will?” —Lao Tzu

To understand people’s stories is, in a sense, to journey with them to the depths of their psyches. As a modern journeyman, I like to use vehicles as an analogy for journeying. Here’s my analogy for using Yield Theory to work with clients: Imagine that you are riding in a car and you come to a merge point (a yield sign). You merge with another car until you are side-by-side. Suspend what you know about reality, and imagine that as you travel beside the car long enough, the other driver sees that you are going in the same direction, so he invites you into his car. 

 

As a passenger now in this person’s metaphorical car, you have a better opportunity to see the road as he sees it, through his windshield. As the trip goes on, perhaps the driver gets tired and is ready to rest for a bit. You are now trusted enough to take the wheel. When you do, you can help steer the car down a more effective path. 

 

Lao Tzu said, “What is painted on these scrolls today will appear in different forms in many generations to come.” Similarly, the words of all therapies emerge at different times and come in different forms, but they are always essentially the same. For Yield Theorists, accepting the core of who people are, finding creative ways to communicate so that we are actually heard, teaching in some form, modeling openness, facilitating awareness and being authentic are therapeutic concepts that are simultaneously a way of life. 

 

The first practice of the Tao is something called undiscriminating virtue. It means taking care of those who are deserving and also—and equally—taking care of those who are not. When therapists practice Yield Theory, they are practicing undiscriminating virtue by immersing themselves into the psyches of others—regardless of anything they have done up to that point. Violence as a human construct probably cannot be eliminated; however, people—even those with the most violent backgrounds and intense struggles with anger—can learn a different way. 

 

We can continue to stand on our soapboxes and preach against violence and against the people who perpetrate it, but violence will always exist and shaming people simply doesn’t work. If we truly want to help people overcome their violent tendencies, we must work from a place of consciousness, choose to merge with others—see the world as they see it, attempt to understand what they understand, and help support them in their journey to new levels of awareness and peace. 

“To the highly evolved being, there is no such thing as tolerance, because there is no such thing as other.” —Lao Tzu

 



 



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Christian Conte Christian Conte, PhD is a psychologist, author, and professional speaker who specializes in anger management and communication, and was an award-winning, tenured professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He co-founded a center in South Lake Tahoe, California, to work with people who have been convicted of violent crimes. Conte’s programs always focus on helping people change and improve their lives. His latest book is Life Lessons. He was the co-host of the Spike TV series, Coaching Bad. You can learn more about him at www.drchristianconte.com.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe Conte's Yield Theory approach to treating people who struggle with anger management and violence problems.
  • Apply "radical empathy with intention" techniques with clients who are challenging to work with.
  • Explain the intersection of Taoism with Yield Theory and the practice of psychotherapy.