Tips in Working with Men for Helping Professionals: Creating Male-Friendly Services

16/03/20

Dr Nathan Beel PhD is a full-time lecturer in counselling at the University of Southern Queensland. He is a Clinical Member and registered Clinical Supervisor with the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA). His professional interest is in the common factors of what works in counselling across modalities, feedback informed therapy, and counselling men.

It is relatively rare in Australia for helping professionals to receive training on how to work with men as a diversity group. Most training for practice might be regarded as gender blind. Yet if we take a multicultural lens to gender, we can gain insights for how to better adapt services for both men (and women).  In this article, I focus on men, and specifically those who hold more traditional male values. The reason for focusing on this group is that these men can be more difficult to understand and adapt to.  

There are three main domains to consider in becoming more male-friendly in practice:

  1.  Becoming aware of one’s biases and prejudices towards males that may negatively impact treatment
  2. Becoming more aware of male norms as a means of enhancing empathic understanding
  3. Sensitively adapting one’s service to accommodate the norms when they are evident   

1. Biases and Prejudices:

Practitioners can hold a range of biases towards men. Practitioners may have personal histories that are triggered by certain male clients. If working with heterosexual couples, some practitioners can prioritise the welfare and feelings of female partners, and attribute responsibility for problems solely to the male partners. Some practitioners may regard common male behaviours and interactional styles as signs of deficiency, or alternatively, may see males who do not align with traditional male norms as more problematic. Treatment providers need to consider if they hold any prejudices or biases towards men that might interfere with how they treat their clients.   

2. Male Norms: 

Service providers need to understand traditional male norms and the potential impact these may have on service engagement. While men vary widely both individually and in subgroups (age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc), those who ascribe to more traditional male norms can fit less easily into helping services.  In addition, they can also be more reluctant to seek and accept help.  Traditional masculine norms include concealing weakness, projecting strength, prizing independence, avoiding emotions and ignoring pain, seeking status, taking risks, taking charge, and avoiding being potentially viewed as feminine. It is interesting to note that counselling often threatens many of these norms, such as expecting clients to reveal weaknesses and to express feelings. These requirements are contradictory to the ‘rules’ of being a man, and can invoke shame and humiliation.  

The norms can also be directly related to problems. For instance, a common male norm is a prioritisation of work over other domains of life such as relationship and domestic spheres. This can mean losing a work/life balance and the problems associated with this. Likewise, if a male loses his job, this may impact his view of himself and his worth as a man, and trigger depression, shame, and a range of other issues.   

3. Adapting Your Service:

The third and final area is adapting treatment for men with due regard to their norms and preferences.  Check the service environment itself to see whether it considers male customers.  In the waiting room, does it have magazines that interest different types of men, such as sports, vehicles, investing, computing, or men’s health? Is the décor overtly feminine or more neutral? Waiting rooms and practice offices provide opportunities to show men that their preferences have been considered.  

Men often appreciate being properly oriented to the service so they can determine what they might like from it and also to reduce ambiguity.  Give an orientation about the service, about the processes involved, length of time, costs, and anything else that might be relevant. Given many men prioritise their work over other domains, ensure to have some appointment time slots available outside of office hours.  

Men often don’t like to expose vulnerabilities but want to be respected as competent.  Adopt an attitude of assuming client competence and identifying strengths early on. Treat men as equals and adopt a collaborative approach.  Speak in plain language avoiding jargon the client may not know. Avoid asking about feelings, or focusing too soon on problems if not initiated by the man as this can trigger defensiveness, shame, and humiliation.  Even empathically reflecting feelings can be experienced as being patronising for some men.   

Use language that doesn’t imply failure or weakness or fault on behalf of the male.  For instance, destigmatise by using the terminology of him having a concern instead of having a problem, or that he is engaged in consulting (rather than counselling).  Compliment him for taking steps to be proactive in addressing concerns and seeking out information, and highlight that lots of people in his situation may simply get stuck and refuse to take the courage to ask for a hand. These are but small examples of strategies that send signals that the client is regarded as competent.   

Men often prefer more educational and behavioural approaches.  This enables them to feel active in the process, supports their desire for independence, and does not require levels of intimacy and connection that may be uncomfortable for them.  Men typically do not see much value in exploring feelings or in their mind, ‘passive naval gazing’.  They often see challenges as problems to be solved and they may want instructions on how to solve them.    

When men feel as though their practitioners genuinely positively regard them, they often start to lower barriers and become more open to their own emotions, acknowledging problems, and revealing things that they keep hidden. Men often also appreciate practitioners being able to be ‘straight’ with them and may welcome direct confrontation as needed. In my experience, men often become very committed and hardworking clients who go over and above what is agreed upon.  

Men are not always easy to work with, as the process of needing help can imply that they have failed as a man. This reluctance and defensiveness can be further amplified when practitioners fail to show sensitivity to the potential contradictions of male norms with helping processes.  When practitioners better empathically understand men, they can adapt their practice in ways that better align with men’s preferences. Understanding these norms does not replace the importance of understanding individual clients, but provides conceptual maps that assist practitioners to interpret men’s cues, and adjust accordingly. When meaningful connections are built, men often engage well with the helping processes.   

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