The “Open Hands” approach

The “Open Hands” approach to counselling work with Assaultive Men is not a radically new perspective in the counsellor-client relationship. But it does represent a dramatic shift for some in the way that professionals working in “Batterer Intervention Programs” orient themselves to men who have been abusive.

The history of work with assaultive men has seen an appropriate emphasis on the safety of women and children evolve into a sometimes strident or controlling approach with the men. Practitioners struggle for tools to implement the oft-described balance between being “critical of the behaviour and caring for the person”.

While we should feel pleased with the relative success of efforts to date in Batterer Intervention Programs (BIP) there are many challenges and questions remaining including; how to deal with drop-out rates in group programs, our relationships with the Criminal Justice System and “burn-out, cynicism and frustration among counsellors in BIP’s.

In recent years counsellors in Canada, in particular, have been exploring a variety of approaches to the work that expand our practice beyond its pro-feminist origins without dismissing that important foundation. These approaches have included Narrative Therapy influenced programs, specific programs for distinct cultural groups (First Nations, Indo-Canadian etc.), and “advocacy” approaches wherein men are invited to become socially pro-active on woman abuse as they work on their own attitudes and behaviours. This might include involving formerly abusive men in charity fundraising work for a local shelter or public education talks in schools.

The “Open Hands” approach currently being used in several programs in Canada is a recent addition to this evolving discussion. Not a closed fist, pointing finger, silencing palm in the face or lecturing gesture; the Open Hands approach joins with a belief that men who have been abusive to women are:

  1. Capable of change
  2. Interested in change
  3. Used to/ enured to coercive attempts to change
  4. Entitled to dignity as they are challenged to change

Using the “Open Hands” orientation the counsellor or group leader listens to group members with the palms open and facing the speaker. The hands represent attending, gentleness and inclusion. Obviously the use of the hands is purely symbolic but for some it is an important aspect of the practice as the hands held open serves as an ongoing reminder to the counsellor and the client both. This external manifestation of the “Open Hands” philosophy is, in actuality, representative of what lies beneath.

My experience with the “Open Hands” approach that I have been using for the last 10 years is that men are less likely to leave counseling and are generally more engaged in their own change process when the “Open Hands” are used. This fits with the belief that men must assume responsibility for their own change.  Rigidly directive (or educative) programming and reliance on criminal justice sanctioning may produce surface change but respectful intervention is more likely to facilitate lasting change.

History and Description

The “Open Hands” approach was adapted from techniques and a philosophy that originated in the “Indian Shaker” movement. The “Indian Shaker” movement is an amalgam of Christian and traditional west-coast native shamanic beliefs and practices. It was first described by John Slocum of the Squaxin First nation in the 1880’s and evolved over time to a faith movement that includes thousands of primarily west coast native peoples, tens of churches and a rich legacy of song and stories.


The “Open Hands” approach offers a number of benefits to the practitioner and the client. They include:

  1. An invitation to the man who has used abuse and violence to join with others in changing his behaviour and thoughts.
  2. A letting-go of the excess expense of energy by the counsellor who may have strained to effect change using “closed fist” and “shaking finger” approaches and interventions.
  3. Approaches like the “Open Hands” may help deal with the cynicism and negativity that develop among some experienced professionals in this field of work.
  4. Demonstrating a non-violent and non-threatening approach to challenge, confrontation and change. Gentle and respectful. This is particularly significant in working with men – many of who have been acculturated to view their hands as sometime tools for violence and control.
  5. A physical demonstration of the counsellors willingness to listen
  6. May offer grounding to counsellors who are feeling afraid or uncertain in their work.
  7. May address some of the reasons why men drop out of programs when they feel disrespected, labeled, lectured at etc.

Open Hands is not;

  1. Forgiveness or absolution
  2. A religious practice
  3. Empty hands, without  offering challenge, new skills or ideas
  4. Intended to symbolize healing power residing in the counsellor/leader
  5. An abandonment of  accountability or attendance to safety issues
  6. Silence by the group leader or counsellor
  7. Another counselling or intervention “trick” but rather reflects a more significant change of approach to men’s work from inside of the counsellor or educator.

As you are reading this abbreviated article you might wonder if this practice of “Open Hands” may be the right approach for you. Perhaps you are a man who deeply desires to change the abusive ways that he expresses himself to those closest to him but you are afraid that the counselor will shame you. Or, perhaps you are a counselor who cannot accept the exaggerated power differentials built into some BIP programs - that this was not how you envisioned any sort of therapeutic relationship.

Contact Bruce at the Change of Seasons Consultancy if you want to learn more.

Bruce Wood, 2003

For more information about the “Open Hands” approach please contact Bruce Wood at Change of Seasons Consulting



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Other Resources & Links

The White Ribbon campaign: A Canadian led campaign inviting men and boys to speak out against male violence to women - Visit

The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence: Canada’s national resource centre for information and education on family violence - Visit

Men's Resource Centre - Visit

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