Learning to Listen: Positive Approaches and People with Difficult Behavior.
By Herbert Lovett.
Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996. ISBN: 1-55766-164-2

Reviewed for OAARSN by Heidi Klaming of Guelph.

In 1989, Herb Lovett, a clinical psychologist and research associate with the Institute of Disability at the University of New Hampshire, traveled across the United States to give talks on managing difficult behaviour.

This book is an expansion of Herb’s talks. Reading it we also become actively involved in his presentation.

Those of us familiar with difficult behaviour may feel that we will walk away with tangible goods, i.e., concrete methods and technologies to handle behaviour. We do indeed walk away with something, less tangible perhaps than the package we expected, but far more powerful.

By following the exchange of shared personal experiences between Herb and the service providers for the disabled, we begin for the first time to listen to the issues surrounding behaviours. In doing so, our focus moves away from a need to manage behaviours to learning more about them. As the discussions progress, we find ourselves evolving with the participants to embrace behaviour in a totally new manner. Our thinking continues to shift and expand, to accommodate our new way of perceiving behaviour long after the discussions are over and the book is read.

Herb admits that behaviours challenge and confuse us. However the case studies that he uses to support his talks clearly demonstrate that new methods for managing difficult behaviours are not the answer.

With Herb as our guide, we begin to examine the lives of the vulnerable “the ones we have labeled retarded and disabled” to understand that these individuals are known primarily for their behaviours. The interesting side effect of our examination is the unique opportunity it affords us to witness our own behaviour.

Herb’s openness to explore fosters the interactive dialogue by which the participants can illustrate the negative impact of our “control and correct” methodology for managing difficult behaviour.

The familiar scenario unfolds as follows:

A client exhibits an unwanted behaviour;
A method is found or created to be effectively applied to change, deflect or ignore the undesired behaviour;
The prized goal, “a change of behaviour” has not happened and neither side is satisfied;
The failed attempt to get a client to comply with the chosen method of control frustrates the service provider;
Depending on the situation and the degree of distress, those responsible for maintaining order feel compelled to increase their efforts of control by resorting to more drastic and at times even more dangerous methods;
The good intentions to help have backfired. Through a need “to control and correct” we have successfully created the formidable barrier that separates, isolates and alienates us from those we are here to serve.
The picture is a grim one. However, participants have managed accurately to describe the context in which many of them are forced to function. The awareness of their own behaviour and how it contributes to this disturbing state of affairs shocks and horrifies them. At the same time they feel trapped by the dynamics of “control” which take on a life of their own.
To recognize that we are in trap of our own making is integral to understanding what the trap really is in order to find our way out. Herb elaborates to give us clarity.

Our initial response to an unwanted behaviour, he says, is to react, to correct what we perceive to be unacceptable, inappropriate behaviour. The thinking behind this perception, he adds, is that the person exhibiting the behaviour has lost control and that those who are in charge “in control” are responsible for regaining it through the application of methods and technologies specifically designed for this purpose.

Is it any wonder then, Herb asks, that the idea that those who are vulnerable might need help in other significant ways never occurs to us? This realization prompts an appreciation of the fact that these individuals are paying for the help they need with their freedom, their dignity and a general loss of control over their own lives.

Through Herb’s passionate caring, clear insights and positive approaches, we have firmly established a basis for the continuation of this interactive dialogue. Together we continue an exploration of finding a way of life that moves from control to collaboration.

To work with people rather than on people is the step we need to take as our positive approach to helping them. With this attitude we learn to look beyond the behaviour to learn more about an individual as a person. The behaviour then recedes into the background as we discover more about it to realize that it is often the only form of communication available for many individuals. As we learn to listen to the messages behind behaviour, we learn to help the vulnerable live the quality of life they deserve.

Herb Lovett, who died in an auto accident in March 1998,
would have been 53 last August 27.