Each Week, a New Skill On a recent Tuesday night in Brentwood, Whatley the jaywalker, Yakota the college student and Helmy the shouter sat in a circle holding their workbooks, “Gaining Control of Ourselves.” Each week, George Anderson or one of his fellow teachers covers a new skill: Active listening. Identifying high-risk situations. Controlling negative emotions. This week: Communicating effectively. The participants took turns introducing themselves, telling why they got referred to the class and what they could have done differently to prevent getting arrested. Then they watched a video about communication styles and practiced ways to express anger and frustration without provoking a fight.
Anderson described the pretend situation: You’ve cooked a nice meal and your partner comes home two hours late and the food is ruined. His students’ responses–though a bit formal–hit the mark: I feel hurt when you come home late for dinner because it makes me feel like you don’t value our time together. Moheb Helmy, 22, said his rage consumes him and he is constantly slamming doors, cursing and fighting with his family. “I have so much anger,” he said. “I would love to change because it hurts everybody around me.” Helmy, who has been ordered by a judge to attend 12 weeks of classes, said the skills he is learning seem logical. “But when it comes time to do it, I forget it all,” he said. Anderson, a clinical social worker and former UCLA lecturer, has been teaching anger management for three years and currently has about 200 students at four Los Angeles locations. “I don’t know if it works or not,” he said. “But anger management teaches practical skills. I think if they come for a long period of time, they’ll benefit.”
Some clients come voluntarily, but most are required to attend and aren’t happy about it. Inevitably, a few bring along an attitude: I don’t have a problem. I don’t need to be here. Sandra Whatley, a native Texan with a self-described temper problem, had those exact feelings when she first started the class. She thought the police officer needed anger management more than she did. But during a year of classes, Whatley said, she has realized that she has to take take some responsibility for getting arrested. Now, she leaves her workbook open on her dresser to remind her to take a deep breath when she is about to explode. “I’ve had an aggressive personality my whole life,” said Whatley, 40. “It’s in my blood. I need this. But I cannot even begin to tell you I have toned myself down.”