With this experience in mind, I would become irritated with the way in which the notion of challenge appeared to be understood in the probation service. ‘Challenging offending behaviour’ was the watchword, as a counter to what was seen as a sentimental ‘help for the unfortunate offender’ approach. ‘Challenge’ seemed to be understood as something that involved the worker ‘confronting’ the client with the errors of their ways and the consequences of their behaviour. I could never believe that this was how change in attitudes and behaviour worked, nor did it seem very confrontational especially with offenders who would have spent most of their lives feeling disapproved of and bad about themselves. A silently attentive expectation that they speak about themselves, and reflect on how they felt and the choices they could see – this seemed a much more creative use of the tension between worker and client, and one more likely to convey that the client was worth listening to, and therefore might have the potential to live differently. So often, the tension in the silence seemed to get the client to say things that had otherwise remained hidden or private.
With more experience, this sense of irritation with the apparently conventional approach to confronting the offender has evolved. The client led definition of a problem in any event had to contend with some practical realities. I recall that when as a student I prepared my first court report, I had to go back to the offender to ask questions that had not occurred to me until my work was subject to the attention of my supervisor. Checklists of areas to be covered / questions to ask were useful. Whatever the offender understands about his/her problem, the understanding of the magistrates had to be another factor – the questions they would ask had to be important. It is also the case that active listening to the client’s view of their own problem means that the worker has to raise factors that the client might unconsciously or deliberately miss. None of us always tells the truth to ourselves about our behaviour, and a probation officer has only to compare many an offender’s actual behaviour at 11pm under the influence of drink and being arrested with their subsequent account of the events.