Christian Conte on Anger Management

Christian Conte on Anger Management

by Victor Yalom
Christian Conte, PhD, shares his passion for counseling violent offenders, the radical empathy techniques that help him overcome judgment, and his unique tools for working with some of the most marginalized people in our society.


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"People Don’t Just Wake Up One Day and Become Violent'

Victor Yalom: Dr. Christian Conte, we’re here today to talk with you about your work with violent offenders, with anger management, and so on. You’ve chosen to work with a rather unusual and, most therapists might think, a difficult, challenging population. What got you interested in this kind of work in the first place?
Christian Conte: When I was an intern in a master’s program, I had an opportunity to co-run a group for sex offenders. The first group I ran was an adolescent sex offender group, and the way the person who was running the group started each group was that everybody had to introduce themselves by saying what they had done to offend on someone else. And then they had to follow it up with anything had ever been done to them.

So at the time I went in, my energy was pretty high because this was my first experience. I didn’t know what to expect. The guy who was training me said, “Look. They’re going to tell you about raping little kids. You’re going to hear all kinds of stuff.” So I sat down and the person to my left started. And, he talked about what he had done to someone else and then he said, “I, myself, have been physically, mentally, and sexually abused.”

So I thought, “Okay. I can see that.”

So then the next person goes, and same thing. “I, myself, have been physically, mentally, sexually abused.” As they went around the group, my energy started to calm down as I realized that everybody had had something happen to them. And over the last 14 or 15 years since then, I found that to be true for everybody I’m working with. People just don’t wake up one day and become violent. They don’t just wake up one day and hurt somebody. They’ve had past history that leads them to do what they’ve done. So that really got me interested.
VY: Other than your energy going down, can you recall what other kind of initial reactions you had, thrust into that group for the first time?
CC: I was studying CBT heavily at the time, so one thing I was doing was recognizing what my thoughts were. I think I was fairly judgmental in my thoughts when I started. And then my thoughts started to shift into thinking, “What would it be like to have to introduce yourself and say, ‘This is what I’ve done’?” Because that was the very first thing that struck me, is that someone would talk about their offenses so freely.
When you live in shame, you act out of shame.

I thought, “Well this is interesting. I’ve never had this experience before.” So I think my thoughts ranged from, “How could you?” to “Wow. How difficult would it be to actually be saying this?” That was my initial experience and I left feeling like I wanted to do more work with sex offenders. I worked at a mental health institution and I volunteered extra days of the week, so I was there 40 hours a week and it was just a practicum. I was doing that much time because I was so invested in it and I had the opportunity to do it.
VY: You said you were aware of some judgmental thoughts—which, of course, is natural. But how did you handle that? What did you do with that?
CC: Well I still look back on that very first session and I was really struck by the moment—I think it was the third person that went and I remember his face getting really red as he talked about what he did. This kid was about 15 and had forced his brother to give him oral sex and his brother was very, very young, like 5. And I thought, “My gosh. What would that be like to have to sit and tell these people that? How much shame must be coming up for him?” And I still reflect on that when I think about how I’ve tried to make getting beyond shame central to my work. Because when you live in shame, you act out of shame. 

"Oh Yeah? I’m Dr. Conte Too"

VY: How did your work progress over the years, in terms of the type of population and your ideas about it?
CC: I remember a guy came in who was straight out of prison, much bigger than I was, solid as a rock. And I just had a really good connection with this guy, I could really relate to him. When I talked to my colleague about how well things were going, he said, “Well look at you.” This might be a silly thing but I had just recently shaved my head—you know, I was losing my hair anyways so I started shaving my head—and I guess I didn’t even see myself in that way, but I think other people could see me in that way. 
VY: It’s not just your hair but you’re a big, muscular, stocky guy, and you sport tattoos to boot!
CC: All of that. I think I realized my persona fits, so I started running a group to see if my approach could be effective, which it turned out to be, and I ended up running groups for violent offenders.

On my first day there the guys were in line to sign in and, as they were getting in line to sign in, a guy said, “Hey go ahead, man.” I just had a t-shirt on so I had tattoos out and everything, and he said, “Go ahead, man.”

I said, “No, you go ahead. I’m Dr. Conte.”

He said, “Oh, yeah? I’m Dr. Conte, too. Go ahead.”

I said, “No. I really am. Go ahead and get in line.” So I learned early on that my persona does help. It certainly helps me to connect with people. And I don’t feel the same types of judgments that I hear other people feel about these guys. I really don’t. I look at people and I realize, “How do I know that I wouldn’t have been different if I didn’t grow up in their world and see the things that they saw and have their cognitive functioning?” I’ve thought that for a long time. And when I started to integrate into my personal life what I believed about counseling and psychology, and I really started to integrate it through meditation, it just became a part of who I am.

One thing that my clients have always reported is that they don’t feel judgment from me. I’m going to accept you. I’m not going to accept the behavior. I mean, guys knew I was not for violence. I wasn’t even a proponent of spanking. I don’t even spank my daughter. I’m not for violence in any way. But I’ll accept you as who you are. You may have messed up. That behavior is not acceptable, we’ve got to work to change it, but I accept the essence of who you are.

Yield Theory

VY: That speaks to the central theory you’ve developed—you refer to as “Yield Theory.” Can you describe that in a nutshell?
CC: In a nutshell the essence of Yield Theory is based on the fundamental assumption that if I lived every day as the other person, with that person’s cognitive functioning, with that person’s ability to experience emotions, and with that person’s life experiences, I believe I would have made every single decision that that person made in life. My experience is, when I throw that on the classroom, that causes a discussion right there.

People tend to respond with, “Well I had a hard life, but I didn’t do that,” but that is not what I’m talking about. You had a hard life, but you also had your cognitive functioning and your life experiences. You had your whole perspective. So it’s just a hypothetical assumption but what it helps me see is, I don’t know that I would have done this differently. That’s just radical empathy, I think, but what it allows me to do is if a person comes in and says, “That’s it. I’m going to kill that guy“—I don’t know how many tapes I’ve watched through the years of training counselors, the first thing they’ll say is, “Let’s just calm down. Let’s not do that.” Or somehow try to stop the person.

Where I go with the person, no matter how intense it is—if they’re saying, “I’m going to kill him,” I’ll respond in kind: “You kill him then. You need to kill him. All we need to do is sit here and talk. We’ll talk for a minute, then you go kill him.” And I really let them get out everything that they’re going to get out.

The analogy is like you’re driving down the road and you come to a merge sign and you yield with somebody, and your car’s driving along next to their car. After a while in this little hypothetical experiment, they say, “You know, we’re driving the same direction. I’m going to invite you into my car.” So you get into the other car with them and now you’re a passenger, but you’re starting to see things out of their window. And after you drive on a trip long enough with someone, they start to trust you and allow you to drive, then you can steer them down a different path.
VY: So that’s where the name “Yield Theory” comes from?
CC: That’s where the name Yield Theory came from. You give it up to join them.
VY: So philosophically you could get into a debate about free will and whether you would make the exact same choices they do, but what I hear you saying is, it’s a useful assumption in really deeply being empathic, understanding, and trying to see things from their point of view.
CC: Exactly. The very first time—this is just coming to me right now—the very first time I ever used it, after I really thought about it and wrote about it in a little journal exercise in a master’s program, I went into this group home to work and this adolescent female came down and she talked about how she stole this other girl’s shorts. And she was laughing about how she got away with it. So I completely went with it and even laughed with her: “that’s hilarious, and she didn’t even see that coming!”

And she said, “She’s so stupid.”

And I just kept joining with her: “I can’t believe how dumb she would be to let that happen.” And it went on like this for a while. By the end of the time that we were together, she said, “You know what? That was kind of messed up what I did.” And she gave the girl her shorts back. I went with her so much and then I would pose a questions like, “You know, I wonder though, as funny as it is, if there’s a point where, if she sees that, or if somebody finds out you’re stealing from them, if people aren’t going to start stealing from you? And I wonder what that’s going to be like?” And then she started to think about it.

So the point is that once people really believe and feel that you’re with them, then they don’t have to fight any more. So it’s a work around—getting around people’s fight-or-flight responses. That’s huge.
VY: Whose fight-or flight-response?
CC: The client’s. I know that’s a question for people because I think that’s what happens with violent offenders. Every time I’ve ever had an intern come in and sit with me doing my groups with violent offenders, they say, “Well that wasn’t anything like I thought it would be.” 

"I Picture These Giant Guys Sitting There with Knives"

VY: In what way was it different than they expected?
CC: They say, “Well some of these guys were like normal people. They just got really angry.”

And I say, “What did you expect them to look like?” I work with some gang members who have tattoos on their heads and everything else and on their faces and in that sense, that might be a little different for some people who go to school and train to become counselors. But for the most part, you see normal human beings who have issues. And I always say, [quote“There are two kinds of people in the world: people with issues and dead people.”] So if you’re alive, you got issues.

When people would walk out of the group, they’d say, “Wow, that guy was a normal guy,” or, “I could relate to that guy.” So I started to survey my interns before they went into a group for the first time, to see what they were expecting. They’d say, “I just picture these giant guys who are all like sitting there with knives.” That’s what their projections would be. And they’d get in there and say, “Well this is totally different.” I think if you’re not checking those assumptions, if you’re not checking those fears and projections, then you’re going to spew them all over your clients.
VY: You were saying earlier that you became aware that your physicality, your presence, helped you connect with the clients and helped them relate with you, but what about your more typical counselor, who might be rather bookish, and probably not at all physically imposing—can they do this work just as well?
CC: Anybody can do this work. Think of Aikido. You can take someone who weighs 80 pounds and they can throw me, because basically you’re taking the person’s own body weight and throwing them. If I push, they pull. If I pull, they push. I was trained in Akido, so I thought, well, this is the same thing mentally. I’m aware I’m 6 feet, 260lbs—I’d like to say 250 for the interview, but I’m at 260…
VY: Well, it’s right after New Year’s so hope springs eternal…
CC: Right, but I know I’m a big guy and that I can take care of myself physically, but I don’t put that out there. You can watch former cops come in and they’ll run groups or work with other cops and they talk in a tough way—I don’t do that. My intention is not to say, “Look at me. Look how tough I am. If it really comes down to it, I could kick your ass.” I always maintain that “you guys are tougher than I am.” I have no attachment to that.
VY: But have you noticed any differences or any particular struggles female therapists have working with violent or sexual offenders?
CC: The person I co-founded “Balanced Life” with in South Lake Tahoe, Lacey Noonan, was amazing. What she would do is she would handle herself extraordinarily well and then in supervision, she’d come in and say, “You know what? When so and so was standing over me, I felt all kinds of fear but I pushed through it.” She would step back and look at the person and say,
“You know, I wonder if you’re aware that you’re standing over me in an aggressive way?”
“You know, I wonder if you’re aware that you’re standing over me in an aggressive way?” She said that internally she had fear but realized that, through the years, she could trust the process, that she had to stay open and genuinely compassionate.

I would kind of stand in front of people and say, “Look. It’s me. I’m the person that’s stopping you from trying to get yourself locked up. So what I say to you when I give you this direct feedback, this is to help you.” And Lacey took on that approach, too. She’d say, “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m simply telling you the stuff that’s a little bit more direct because I want to help you.” She is a smaller female and she was tremendous at this. 
VY: But she did feel fear.
CC: Sure.
VY: So how do you help therapists that are new to working with this population handle that fear and not let it get in the way of being compassionate?
CC: Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, said, “ If you treat the people as though they are trustworthy, then they will be trustworthy.” If I look at you and I’m exuding peace and I’m trying to talk to that center in you that I know that you can exude peace as well, I think a transformation happens. I realize as I say it out loud, it can sound out there. 
VY: Well, it can, yeah. Just to play devil’s advocate, I have not worked with that population so I don’t have that direct experience, but it can certainly sound naive. These are people that have done some terrible things and just by being compassionate, you’re going to change that?
CC: I totally agree. I think it does sound naive. Except that I’ve seen it for thousands and thousands of hours of working with people. So it’s a matter of saying, “Look, I’m validating why you’re angry at something. You’re angry at something. You have a right to be angry. Just because you grew up in a certain area, because you look a certain way, because you look physically tough, I’m validating—hey, this is what you’ve done. But the question is, do you want the results of what you’re going to do?”

I mean, there are certainly moments when things get really intense. I had a guy one time—about 6’7”, 270 lbs—and he came his fourth time late to group. He was late by two minutes. And guess what? If you’re late by one minute, I’m calling your parole officer. I wasn’t attached to that. I didn’t have emotion around it.

But I remember going up, thinking to myself, “This guy’s bigger than I am. This could be interesting.” I went up to him and I said, “Look. I can understand you’re going to be really frustrated and will probably direct some of this anger at me, but you recognize that this is your fourth time late, and that your PO has to be contacted, and you’re likely going to go back to jail.” And he turned, and for a moment when he turned, and put his head off to the side, I thought, “Okay. Well he could turn around and swing right here. I’m aware of that.” But I said, “Look, I understand. I can understand you’re fired up. If you’re pissed off, you’re pissed off.”

And, he said, “No. I know. I want to be pissed at you guys but the truth is, I know I did it. I knew I did it.”

And I just jumped on it. I was like, “That’s huge. That’s huge for you to have that realization.” I just kind of praised that part before anything happened.

Avert Your Eyes

VY: Have you or anyone you’ve worked with or supervised ever been physically attacked?
CC: No. No, we have not. And we’ve have worked with a lot of people who have struggled with anger. One thing I’ll do is I also teach students about turning your body so that your body language isn’t inviting that. You know, if males sustain eye contact for too long, their testosterone actually increases, so I tell people to avert their eyes. You don’t have act tough and be like, “Let me stare you down.”
If males sustain eye contact for too long, their testosterone actually increases.

I turn to the side and make sure that I’m not in a threatening pose. I’ll put my hands in my pockets. I’ll do something to make somebody feel secure, that I’m not trying to threaten them in any way. The closest I think I’ve ever come—I had a guy who came in really high. He was really high on drugs and he wasn’t necessarily that big but he was just an angry guy and he was really high. So I was just very careful with how I approached him in regard to my body language and was very respectful that he was very pissed off and said, “You have a right to be pissed off.”
VY: We’ve been talking about underlying assumptions, the spirit of your work, you know, countertransference—if you want to put it in that language—but let’s back up a bit and get into some nuts and bolts. Have you worked with this population mainly in a group setting?
CC: Mainly in a group setting, yes.
VY: So how do these groups work? How are they structured? Are they mandated clients primarily?
CC: For the groups that I ran out there in California for six years, they were mandated by the State of California. If you committed a violent crime, you would be mandated to 52 weeks of anger management.
VY: And this is people that have gone to prison? Or doing this in lieu of going to prison?
CC: The majority of them went to prison. Every once in a while, you get somebody who, if they had no priors and depending on the nature of what they did, they would just get mandated to group therapy. That was few and far between.
VY: So they come out of jail and….
CC: They come out of jail or prison, and they’re mandated to spend 52 weeks in this two-hour anger management group. There were specific rules, obviously, that they had to follow for our program to maintain certification. So they had to be there at a certain time, they had to be two-hour groups, you get a 10-minute break. It was an open group so people were coming in all the time.
VY: About how many members?
CC: We would have 25 people in groups, which is way over the standard recommendation for group counseling which is eight to ten group members. But even though the groups were open and really big, we would get people sharing as though it was a closed group. I thought that was profound, the way that people would share, and I believe it was due to the atmosphere that was created for them. They were going to be accepted no matter what. I always said, “Whatever thoughts about what you want to do, talk about them. I don’t care what you want to do, let’s talk about it. I’d rather you talk about it then pretend like you’re not having these thoughts.”

So over the course of my career I developed over 100 exercises I would do with these groups at various times and I’m actually about to publish a workbook on anger management that includes all of them. So I’d take something like Gestalt therapy, the five phases of psychopathology—the phony, the phobic, the impasse, the implosive and the explosive—and I’d turn that into an exercise.

The Phony Phase

VY: What would an exercise look like, for example?
CC: So I’d start out by describing what the idea was—I’d tell them about what each layer was, but I would try to use the language that worked for them. So instead of saying, “there’s a phony layer,” I might say, “This guy, Fritz, called it a phony layer. It just kind of means that we’re superficial, we’re fake sometimes.” So then I’d teach this idea to them, and then I would give them a worksheet where they would detail, “How have I been phony in the past? How have I been phobic in the past?” I always asked, “How have you been this way in the past?” Rather than, “Were you this way?” Because if we say, “Were you?” they’re going to say, “No. Not me. I was never that way.”

Or I might take a Johari Window—I would take that and then I’d make a worksheet out of it. “So how are you in each one of those blocks?”
VY: So you do exercises like that where people would do some reflection, share with the group as a whole?
CC: Everyone would have something written down and then we would process what was going on. So I would give whatever topic I was going to do, and I’d talk about it for a little bit, and then they’d fill it out. If I had a particularly quiet member for a long enough period of time, and I wanted to draw that person out I could say, “What did you have there for that one?” And they’d feel confident to have something to look at. But basically we’d morph it into a process group at that point. Very powerful. Then I’d always end groups by asking them what they were taking away from the session.
VY: So when you say “a process group,” would you do much interpersonal here-and-now work, where people would give each other feedback in the moment?
CC: Absolutely. Right there in the moment, what was going on then, what was happening inside of them. Sometimes I would let things get heated, because I felt confident I could handle it. And there were one or two times where I would step in and say, “Okay. Now we’re going to step back for a minute and let’s talk about what just happened.” But again, it wouldn’t be judging them or scared or “break it up.” It would just be, “Okay. Let’s talk about this. Let’s stop right here for a second. Let’s hold on.” I tried to create an atmosphere of respect for one another by giving them respect, so they would listen when each other talked. There were 25 people in the room, so if somebody started a side conversation, I would say, “Hey, let’s stay focused right here. We’re always giving somebody respect, whoever’s speaking.” And they would. It was a very respectful atmosphere.
VY: Do any examples pop into your mind? Any recollections of heated moments that kind of stand out to you that you were able to use in a therapeutic manner?
CC: Well one time this guy was talking about how he beat this guy up, which ended with him kicking the guy in the head. He wasn’t proud of this moment, and his face started to get flushed as he told it. He said,
“I was kicking him in the head and I just, when they pulled me off, I was just, like, ‘What’s wrong with me? What did I just do?
“I was kicking him in the head and I just, when they pulled me off, I was just, like, ‘What’s wrong with me? What did I just do? I don’t understand what I just did.’”

And then, in the back of the room—boom, boom—this guy just started pounding on the floor, really loudly, with his foot, stomping on it. And it kind of echoed through you. And he said, “What the fuck is wrong with a human being that would step on somebody’s face?” He didn’t realize that, not only was he putting that guy down who finally owned up to what he did, but he was intimidating everybody in the room because he was getting so fired up, his testosterone’s flowing, as he’s pounding his foot.

I let it get heated and then somebody else defended the other guy: “Man, he just said he felt so bad about it, he couldn’t believe he did it. And look at you!” And he responded, “Look at me? I can’t believe you would do something like this.” Meanwhile, this guy himself had done some horrific stuff, so it was shadow projection.

And that was one of those times when I stepped in and I said, “Alright, now listen. Let me say something. Let me just say something. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but as you were pounding your foot on the floor, the rest of the group members—and even me, I was feeling, ‘Whoa, this is some heavy energy.” He didn’t get it at first, so I switched it over to the other guy and said, “That was huge for you. I think he misheard what you were saying, because I saw your face and I saw how you finally had that feeling of, ‘Wow. I can’t believe I did that.’ And I really appreciate that you even got to that spot or that you would share that with us.”

So I’m trying to validate him. And then I said, “Now what else happened here? Do you notice how the group divided? Some people who happened to be sitting by him were were agreeing with him—let me ask you guys, were you really in agreement with him or was it because of where you were sitting?” So then we started to talk about how they would just naturally come to somebody’s defense just because they’re sitting right next to them.

It ended up being super powerful. We took a break—and I didn’t take a break until we had moved the energy in a different direction—but when we came back, I used humor to get it going at first, which was very helpful. And then we started to talk about it again, and the guy who had been pounding his foot said, “Man, I’m sorry, I just got so into that story.” And then he admitted, “I’m having a bad day.” So he was able to kind of work through it. That was one of the most powerful experiences; it was intense.
VY: Do you ever physically stand up?
CC: Most of the time I was standing already, but there were times that I would walk forward, just use my energy to cut somebody off or to say, “Okay, let me stop you right there for a second.” I definitely have used that energy in that way. I get that from being a professor. If somebody started to have a side conversation in class, I just walked over to that direction and, all of a sudden, there’s no side conversation.
VY: It sounds like to be effective, you need to feel in control.
CC: I think so.

Motivating Mandated Clients

VY: Would there be voluntary clients and mandated clients in the same group?
CC: Yes.
VY: So what was the difference? A lot of therapists think it’s hard to do treatment with mandated clients, that they don’t have the motivation. What are your thoughts?
CC: I’ve made a career out of working with mandated clients, so I don’t believe that at all. I think it’s our job to find out what their motivation is, and a lot of times people’s motivation, especially with this population, is, “I don’t want to be in prison. I don’t want to be sitting in this cell.” At the end of the day,
I’ve sat down with enough big, strong, tough people, who one-on-one will break down and cry and tell me how they don’t want to be sitting in that cell.
I’ve sat down with enough big, strong, tough people, who one-on-one will break down and cry and tell me how they don’t want to be sitting in that cell. That is a huge motivator.

I’ll say, “I’m going to make a wild guess that you don’t like rules. So why are you going to make decisions to put yourself in a place where they have tons of rules for you?” So I use that as a motivator for any mandated client, from adolescents all the way up. I had a new adolescent male in my practice the other day, it was my first time seeing him. His mother made him come, and I said, “Well that’s pretty shitty. She’s making you come sit across from this dude, a crazy bald-headed dude.”

And he kind of smiled and looked away. And I was like, “Man, I can’t believe she’s making you do that. It’s messed up. What do you need to do to not have to come here anymore?” And then we kind of worked through the goals that way.
VY: Any other general strategies, principles, to work with violent offenders, sexual offenders, that differ from standard therapeutic practice?
CC: Something that was a typical approach for anger management for the longest time was that people would have to write letters and read them out loud to the group about what they did and why they felt so bad. I strongly disagree with this type of perspective, forcing people to take accountability when they’re not ready to. All they do is learn how to say whatever needs to be said in front of the official people, without actually working to change.

So I never force people to take accountability. I never say, “You need to say this,” or “You need to feel shame about what you did.” Never. Because if you shame people, they’re just going to act out again. If you think you’re a no-good son-of-a-whatever, you’re going to keep doing it.

No More Letters of Apology

VY: So that first group that you led, where people had to start out saying what they had done, really made an impact on you.
CC: It did, but even more than that when I started to work with violent offenders because they had to read letters of apology for what they did, and the very first time I sat in on a group with violent offenders, I listened to what people really said: “No this is horse shit.” “You’re supposed to say this in it.” “No, no, hurry up, man, get an eraser. You’ve got to say this.” “Just say this word right here, you’ll make that dude happy.” They just said what they were supposed to say.

Since that time, all these years later, I’ve visited people in prisons and talked to people, and that’s still what they do. They’ll say in their writings whatever the therapist tells them they’re supposed to say so they can check the box and say they took accountability, but it’s not actually happening. So I threw that out before I started. There was no way I was doing that.

The first week I took over the groups I said, “No more of those letters. Those are out the window. We’re not doing that anymore.” Of course people would come in and think, “I did nothing. I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have to be experiencing this.” But over time, in accepting them and showing them and teaching them…Look if you meet one asshole in a day—what is the saying?
“You meet one asshole a day, that person might be an asshole. But if you meet five in the same day, you’re probably the asshole.”
“You meet one asshole a day, that person might be an asshole. But if you meet five in the same day, you’re probably the asshole.”

If you keep going to jail over and over again, you’ve got to be doing something wrong. So maybe everybody in the world’s messed up, or maybe it’s you. Maybe you need to start working on yourself. A statement I often said was, “Look, we’re all human beings. If a human being does it, it’s human nature. So if you do it, let’s just explain it. Let’s figure it out.” A lot of guys would comment that it helped them when I talked about it that way, “That’s just human behavior. So you got pissed off. So you hit somebody that you wish you hadn’t hit. Let’s learn from it; let’s move from here.”
VY: You’re passionate about what you do, and you take an optimistic and hopeful approach, which is certainly a good thing. I mean, if we can’t be hopeful about the clients we’re working with then probably we shouldn’t be doing it. But there’s certainly some thought in the field that there are certain people—we often label them “sociopaths”—that are just untreatable, unreachable. What are your thoughts on that?
CC: In all my years, I had only one person who I said was not right for the group setting. He was really locked into his worldview. He was intimidating physically and would get people to kind of join. I thought he was detrimental to the group setting, so I recommended him for individual treatment. I remember talking to his probation officer and he said, “In 30 years, he’s the only person who, when he goes to the bathroom, I have my hand on my holster on my gun.” He said, “My hairs on the back of my neck stand up.” The guy was an imposing figure, for sure. And I do think that some people probably need to stay locked up. I understand that that probably is that way for some people.

But I believe everyone can change. I still think human beings are worth it.
What I don’t see is how we’re not spending more time and more effort on trying to genuinely rehabilitate people.
What I don’t see is how we’re not spending more time and more effort on trying to genuinely rehabilitate people. Not make people write accountability letters that they’re faking, but genuinely change. Because if they’re going to come back out in society, why not have more intense programs that are really life-changing and affecting their whole psychology? Not just saying, “you’re angry,” but looking at their whole being. There are people that probably have a much more limited chance to change than others but I still want to remain hopeful that it’s possible for anybody to change
VY: Are there major mistakes or pitfalls that you’ve made or that you would caution other therapists about who are new to this population?
CC: Hmmm. Which ones do I want in print is the question?

I made a huge mistake one time with an adolescent male who told me about his drinking. I used Yield Theory, kind of went with him, validated him. I was a school counselor at the time and I ran out of time to talk to him, so all he got was validated about his drinking. He left and that was it. And I thought, “What the hell did I just do?” I validated his perspective, let him think it was okay, and I didn’t give myself enough time to actually complete what I was going to do.”

You Can Definitely Kill This Person, but…

VY: Yeah, you mentioned before that you validated this person’s desire to want to kill someone. So once you validate that, what do you do after that?
CC: You have to have the time to know that you’re going to finish the interaction. But what I can do faster now is I can move more quickly into options for people. So what I wasn’t able to do back then and what I can do now is within a statement or two, get into the options. “You can definitely kill this person but let’s think, let’s play it out real quick: If you do it, what’s going to happen?”

I’m kind of like a coach and I’ll use that metaphor a lot with men I work with—“You’re the pro. I’m just here to run some options by you. You can run this play and here’s the likely results; you run this play, here’s your results.”
VY: This reminds me a bit of Motivational Interviewing. We just did a video series and an interview on Motivational Interviewing, and I know that was an approach originally developed for addictions. It’s now been applied to healthcare and criminal justice. And it’s ultimately about respecting that the client—it’s their life and they’re ultimately going to make their own decisions. But given the challenges of your clients, when you’re discussing options with them do you really stay neutral? Because there’s a risk of just telling them what to do, which they’ve heard all their life; but it seems that there is also a risk of supporting, empathizing, validating them, and not taking a stand about, “Hey, maybe it’s not a good idea to kill someone.” What are your thoughts about that?
CC: That’s a really good question. It’s tough, especially when you watch yourself on tape, to say that your voice doesn’t go a certain way when you provide the option that you hope they’ll choose.
VY: Right.
CC: So I can say that I stay neutral, but I’m sure if I saw myself on tape, I make some options sound a bit more enticing than others. And not killing somebody—I want to make that sound good, so I probably end with it. I start with the option that they’ve been thinking of and I go with it. But I really play it out. “So you go kill him. Let’s play it out. So, you get arrested, or maybe you’re on the run for a little bit. What’s that like, when you’re on the run? Tell me about that.” My experience has been that when people do that, it’s almost like learning from experience in the future—now—by playing out their options.
VY: So your hope is that by doing that, they’ll make the right decision, but without pounding them over the head with it.
CC: Right.

Yield Theory for All

VY: So you’ve been talking mainly about your work in groups. What pointers would you have for a therapist who doesn’t have a particular focus or experience with this, but encounters in their private practice, a patient—maybe you’d call them “borderline” or whatever—but who really struggles with rage, aggression, acting impulsively and self-destructively. What advice would you have for them?
CC: Let’s say you’re struggling with someone with a borderline personality disorder, and you want to teach them a new skill, and you’re getting wound up in so much resistance and feeling stuck. That’s the moment to implement Yield Theory and really get into their worldview, and watch—just try it on, something as simple as that and watch how that will shift things for you.

And then it’s a matter of skill, of teaching the options. So for somebody struggling with borderline personality disorder, it would be about helping them become aware of what they’re doing, with mindfulness, and kind of going with them, yielding with them in a way that allows them to feel safe enough to become aware of themselves, and then helping them become aware of what’s happening in interactions between them and others.
VY: What would you advise students or beginning or experienced therapists who are wanting to work with this population or have the opportunity to work with them?
CC: As you said, I’m super passionate. I’m really an intense person and I’m really passionate about what I do. I was really passionate about students looking at their own lives, just like I’m passionate about looking at my own life and looking at mistakes I’ve made. I’m pretty effective at not repeating mistakes, but I’m really creative at making new mistakes every day. So I really try to look at my own life every day and ask myself, “Am I living according to what I’m trying to preach and what I’m teaching?”

But the reality is, as a supervisor for the last decade in this field, watching people’s tapes, listening to students, the bottom line is, the majority of people in our field are fairly judgmental. They’re opinionated, they try to get their opinions across in therapy sessions, and I see that a ton.
The bottom line is, the majority of people in our field are fairly judgmental.

One exercise I would do in class is, I would draw a normal bell curve, and I’d say, “This bell curve says that the majority of you, in this room right now, are going to fall right here. You’re going to be average counselors. That means when people come see you with their emotions, trusting you with their lives and telling you about their life, you’re going to give them an average response. You tell me where you want to be.”

Of course, every student would go and mark the top and say, “I’m going to be this elite counselor.” And I’d say, “Well what’s it going to take to be there? You have to read incessantly. You have to learn about your life incessantly. You have to be passionate about saying ‘What am I doing in my personal life?’ You can’t be super judgmental in your personal life and then walk into a session and just think all of a sudden you’re not going to be super judgmental.” So I really try to get people to practice what they preach. 

Let’s learn more. What are our biases? What do we think? What do we really believe? What are we attached to? I teach a lot about confirmation bias and the idea that people get so locked into, “This is my religion. This is my politics,” that kind of stuff. They hate the other side or don’t like the other side and then go into a counseling session and can’t separate themselves from that.

VY: Really attending to our own growth, our own biases, is a refreshing perspective, especially in this day of “empirically validated treatments,” where it’s all about the technique and not about the therapist. So I really appreciate your passion about that.
CC: I like the way you’ve rephrased it. That’s much more concisely said than what I said. I like the idea of counseling as an art, and it’s never which martial art can win, it’s which artist, as a counselor, can be effective? And so we’ve really got to learn about ourselves. I think we’re charged with doing that. I think we have an oath with saying that we’ll do that in our personal lives. People who do that become very effective counselors.
VY: Right. Well I think that’s a wonderful note to end on, so I want to thank you for taking the time to share this with us. For readers who want to get more of a sense of who you are and the spirit of your approach, we’re delighted that we’ll be releasing a video of you coinciding with the publication of this interview. I would urge people to take a look at that, as well.

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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
Victor Yalom Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder and resident cartoonist of He maintained a busy private practice in San Francisco for over 25 years, but now sees only a few clients, devoting the bulk of his time to creating new training videos for He has produced over 100 videos, conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and currently leads consultation groups for therapists.  More info on Victor and his artwork and sculpture at

CE credits: 2

Learning Objectives:

  • List the key components of Conte's anger management model
  • Explain the difference between traditional and Conte's approaches to rehabilitation of violent offenders
  • Describe how new therapists might reduce their fear and judgment with this population

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here