Characteristics of VOD Facilitators

Not everyone attracted to facilitating the VOD preparation and dialogue process in crimes of severe violence is appropriately suited to it. Although there is enormous promise in Victim Offender Dialogue, there are risks and hazards to survivors, and to offenders, in the long-term aftermath of crimes of severe violence and violation. There are also hazards for facilitators with inappropriate experience or uninformed objectives. VOD is not the same as mediation; it is not the same as conflict resolution. Mediation training and experience are not, per se, directly applicable to facilitating preparation and dialogue in crimes of severe violence and violation — unless they’re informed by specific training in this delicate work, and by sufficient understanding of the victim/survivor and the offender experiences.

With survivors, we are working with the most raw and vulnerable elements of the human experience – areas of devastating violence and the most intimate and personal violation and loss. We’re working around severely traumatizing events that, in addition to the physical destruction and wounding, may have totally shattered the most fundamental belief systems and world views of victims, and their deepest sense of safety and trust. If we have not experienced something directly comparable, or spent long hours working very closely with such victims/survivors, we cannot begin to comprehend what they feel like, and what they live with, every day. Indeed, survivors often become reluctant to believe that they can trust anyone else — even close friends and family — to understand what they continue to endure, even years and years after the event itself, and long after the offender has been convicted and incarcerated. Thus, it can be easy for a facilitator to misunderstand or inadvertently misjudge the more fragile aspects of a survivor’s experience, and to fail needs in subtle ways. We all make mistakes in this work. Our job is to ensure that the mistakes we make are small and forgivable enough that we do not endanger the relationship and trust that are so essential.

With many offenders, we’re also working around raw and vulnerable aspects of experience, and around some of the most emotionally “shut-down” areas, as well. We often work with individuals who are, at best, accustomed to acting impulsively, not thinking about their feelings, or articulating them. Indeed, some offenders wonder if they even have feelings, when we  begin working together. Additionally, the world they live in while imprisoned is both highly controlled and dangerously volatile. The threat of violence, exploitation, and betrayal of trust by other inmates is a constant in their daily lives, and they survive, in part, by trusting virtually no one at all. To a certain extent, they also survive by becoming adroit at taking advantage of whatever situations they can, to greater or lesser degrees, in circumstances they encounter. Thus, well-meaning but inexperienced attitudes in facilitators unaccustomed to working with offenders can leave them vulnerable to subtle — or not-so-subtle — manipulation. This can create a cascade of unintended effects not only upon the facilitator and the victim/survivor, but within the prison itself. And this is why prison facilities operate with such great care and caution, and why facilitators must be accountable to these facilities as well as to the offices of Victim Services through which they are assigned cases. For all these reasons, facilitators must be not only sensitive and empathic, but knowledgeable and careful, and clear about the objectives of VOD. They must be at once strong enough to support and to “hold” — especially on behalf of the survivor, but also the offender — the excruciating details and the effects of the most despicable and horrific of behaviors. They must also be able to suspend inclinations to be harshly judgmental of offenders, and to recognize and take in stride the normal tendencies of denial, minimization, and self-absorption among certain of them. (Of course, offenders who are severely psychopathic, sadistic, and/or predatory — even “softly” predatory — imply a much more complex dynamic altogether, and require a much more sophisticated level of training and experience in the facilitator.)

In any case, facilitators are not required to be neutral. After all, in the work of Victim-Centered VOD, they are needed because someone has been victimized and/or violated. Victimization is not a mere misunderstanding to be reconciled. The persistent effects of victimization are the very reason the VOD preparation and dialogue process exists. But the “bias” arising from this situation does not mean that facilitators need be judgmental. They need only be capable of anchoring their facilitation work in meeting the needs of the victim/survivor, which typically means enabling them, first and foremost, to be able to feel heard. But this anchoring is not at odds with helping offenders to better understand the effects of what they’ve done, and to express and embody an authentic and genuine degree of accountability. On the other hand, it is not the facilitator’s job to scold them into understanding, as some might believe. If scolding turns out to be part of what the victim/survivor needs to express, it is the job of the victim/survivor to do that, not the facilitator. The facilitator’s job is to help the victim/survivor find the words s/he wants or needs to be able to say, and to prepare the offender to be able to hear and receive these words with respect and understanding. Ironically, helping survivors feel fully heard in such ways is so powerful because it is this hearing of survivors that almost always awakens a deeper and more personal sense of accountability in offenders. And deep down, most offenders tell us, they want to be held to account in this way by the survivor. Only in this way can they feel that they have, at last, faced the very person (or the loved one of the very person) they actually harmed. This is very different from the “detached” punishment of incarceration. As offenders often say, “doing time” is a lot easier than facing their victims/survivors directly. And yet, facing their victims/survivors directly is what certain offenders know they “need to do” — it’s just not easy for them. But skilled, sensitive, and effective facilitators can help enable offenders to do this with trust and commitment, despite the uneasiness they feel about losing “control” in this way. For many survivors, finally having a sense of control, however limited, through the VOD, enables them to feel a greater sense of “justice.”

To do this work well on behalf of survivors, facilitators must, above all, be extremely sensitive and compassionate listeners, capable of hearing and understanding both text and subtext — what is spoken and what is unspoken. They must also be capable of both leading and following the needs of survivors and offenders, anticipating and responding to the subtle and changing needs in each, and helping them move toward the dialogue the survivor seeks. Facilitators must be able to both bear witness to their experiences and guide their intentions with sensitivity, humanity, understanding, and purpose during the preparation process. It is not enough to simply bring survivors and offenders together. If the two are insufficiently prepared for the wide range of deep feelings that will naturally arise, the VOD will fail its healing potential for the survivor and its accountability potential for the offender, and it will very likely do more harm than good. Preparation requires patience.

Ultimately, every VOD case requires considerable emotional intelligence and sensitivity and a sophisticated set of effective and compassionate listening skills. Each case also requires an understanding of the complexity of the victim/survivor experience and an understanding of the issues with which most offenders wrestle.  And each case requires considerable patience and considerable time. Most facilitators conduct this work as unpaid volunteers, a commitment they make because it is so deeply gratifying, transforming, and privileged an endeavor.

JUST Alternatives Victim-Centered VOD Facilitator Trainings for crimes of severe violence and violation are available only through corrections-based Victim Service and allied agencies. Open facilitator/mediator trainings are sometimes available through other organizations.