helping a survivor

A few things to remember:

There is no "right" or "wrong" way to act in the aftermath of an assault.

Experiences vary as much as the people who experience them. We may have an idea of how we think someone should respond to a traumatic incident, but different people will react in different ways. Just because someone doesn’t react in a way that you anticipate them to doesn’t mean that what they have gone through is any less painful. A key part of being a supportive person to a survivor is affirming their experience, however they may express it.

As you support someone close to you through a traumatic experience, it is very important for you to be aware of your own feelings and stay attentive to your needs.

When someone you care about is hurting, it can be a natural reaction to want to put their needs above your own in order to be there for them as much as possible. However, after a while this can start to take a toll on you physically and/or emotionally. Taking the time to take care of yourself—whatever that looks like for you—is critical to remaining a healthy, reliable source of support for the survivor in your life.  

There is no formula for healing.

What each person will want and need in the aftermath of an assault is unique to that person. This is important to remember, because there are things that you may want for that person or feel would be helpful, but it is important that each survivor have the ability to decide what the best next steps are for him/herself. Experiencing sexual violence inherently involves denying someone their sense of power/control over themselves, so it is important to allow the survivor to regain as much control as possible during the healing process.

THINGS TO SAY TO A SURVIVOR:

  • Nothing! Focusing on just being a listening ear can take the pressure off of knowing the “right” thing to say. Silence is also a great technique to show the survivor that you’re comfortable allowing them time to process their thoughts or feelings without pressure to put them into words.
  • Thank you for sharing this with me.
  • I believe you.
  • I am here for you and I care about you.
  • You are not alone.
  • You are still the same person to me.
  • I’m here to listen, and it’s up to you if/how much you want to talk.
  • What do you need right now?
  • How can I best support you?
  • I can’t say what’s best for you to do—only you know the answer to that. But I can support you as you explore your options.
  • No one deserves to have this happen to them.
  • I’m glad you chose to tell me.
  • You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, and either way I am here for you.
  • Please take your time.

Why are these good things to say?

Making the decision to disclose an experience with sexual violence is one that takes a lot of courage. Survivors may be scared or nervous to talk about what they’ve been through because they are afraid of being judged, accused of lying, or rejected by the person they have chosen to tell. A survivor might also be experiencing self-blame for what happened, and it is important to not reinforce that. To learn more about victim-blaming and how to avoid it, click here. 

NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

  • Remember that non-verbal communication also speaks volumes. When listening to a survivor, your posture, body language, and tone of voice are also ways to convey genuine care. The physical location of your conversations can also play a role in helping the survivor feel safe and comfortable. Here are examples of non-verbal communication that can help a survivor feel supported:
    • Making appropriate eye contact
    • Keeping an open, relaxed body posture (arms/legs not crossed)
    • Staying at eye-level with the survivor (if they sit on the floor, sit on the floor with them rather than in a chair looking down at them)
    • Nodding and other signs of listening
    • Allow for silence in the conversation
    • Appropriate physical touch that you have asked the survivor for their permission to do beforehand, such as a hug or holding their hand

Why is non-verbal communication important?

Only a small part of how we communicate with people has to do with the actual words we say. Staying aware of your overall posture and demeanor can also help you keep a pulse on your own comfort level during a conversation. For example, if you notice your shoulders starting to tense or your breath quickening during a conversation, perhaps those are signs that you might need to take a break. Additionally, there is a big difference between the intent behind which we say something and the impact that our words have. Non-verbal communication is one way to help the impact of your words match your intended message.

THINGS TO AVOID SAYING TO A SURVIVOR:

  • I understand
  • I know how you feel
  • You should…
  • Tell me what happened
  • Are you sure?
  • What did you learn from this that you might do differently in the future?
  • Everything will be okay.
  • Had you been drinking?
  • What were you wearing?
  • Why didn’t you fight them off?
  • Why won’t you report it to the police?

Why are these things to avoid saying?

Many times, when someone we care about is facing a problem, our gut reaction is to try to find a solution by relating it to similar problems that we’ve faced. This is normal, but should be intentionally avoided when talking with a survivor of sexual violence. Comparing their experience to past struggles or traumas that you may have faced can make it feel like the focus of the conversation is shifting away from the survivor and back to you. Make a conscious effort to keep the focus of the conversation on the survivor to show that they are important and worthy of support.

 

Statements like “I know just how you feel” can lead a person to become defensive about their feelings, since no two people experience things in the same way.

 

Furthermore, asking questions that suggest that the assault was their fault can be critically damaging to a survivor’s healing process and reinforce feelings of self-blame that the survivor may be experiencing. No one asks or deserves to experience sexual violence. What happened during the assault is also something you may not need or want to know. (It certainly may not be something the survivor wishes to share.) Try to focus the conversation around the immediate present and what the survivor is feeling or experiencing as a result of the incident, rather than what happened before or during the incident.

 

Another point to consider is to resist the urge to problem-solve for the survivor. Sometimes people will want to recommend next steps based on what they think they would do if they were in a similar situation. Sometimes people want “justice” for their loved one and feel strongly about pursuing it through law enforcement. However, what constitutes “justice” or “healing” differs for each survivor. For some, it may involve contacting law enforcement or seeking formal therapy. For others, it may not. Both routes are acceptable as long as it is truly reflective of what the survivor wants.

 

Saying that a survivor “should” do something can lead them to feel uncomfortable or judged if they do not follow your suggestion. More importantly, it takes away the opportunity for them to decide for themselves what they want their next steps to be. Even if the survivor asks you directly what you think they should do, we recommend that you pose that question back to the survivor as “well, what do you think you want to do?” or “what do you feel ready for?” or “what would be helpful for you right now?” This shows the survivor that you are a safe person with whom they can weigh their options.

What if I don't feel comfortable with having this type of conversation?

It is very normal to feel nervous about having this type of serious conversation with a survivor. That type of anxiousness likely comes from a place of care for the survivor, because you might be worried about unintentionally hurting their feelings or being unsupportive in some way.  You could even feel mentally prepared to have a conversation like this but not feel like you have the emotional space to give. Whatever your reason for not wanting to be the person to support a survivor through conversation, acknowledging that fact is actually supporting the survivor! How so, you might ask? Thinking through how you don’t want to support them allows you to gain clarity about the ways in which you do want to support them. This sets you up to support them in ways that you are comfortable with and that won’t leave you feeling burned out, uncomfortable, or even resentful towards the survivor.

 

For example, perhaps you’re not in a place to sit down and have a deep conversation about where they’re at emotionally. Instead, maybe you’re a great cook and you want to make them their favorite dish as a sign of caring. There are many ways to support a survivor that don’t have to involve talking. Just as different people have different love languages, so are there many different ways to give and receive support during a difficult time. Communicating openly with the survivor in your life about how you feel you can best support them sets a healthy boundary between you that shows the survivor you care about both them and yourself. Some ways to phrase these types of statements could be:

  • Thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. I would love to help connect you with someone who’s better equipped to help you think through your options at this point. Can I help you do that?
  • I appreciate you opening yourself up to me—I don’t think I’m in a place right now to talk about this further, but are there other ways that I can support you through this?
  • Do you have someone with whom you’re comfortable talking about this? If not, do you want my help finding someone?
  • If you ever want a break from talking about this, I’d love to help you take your mind off of things by going for a walk or grabbing a movie.
  • Besides talking, are there other ways that I can help? (Asking about their basic needs could be a great follow-up question here. It can help ground a person back into a place of thinking about their immediate needs. For example, have you eaten recently? Do you need a place to nap or relax? Do you need a ride somewhere?)

There’s no black and white answer for how to best support a survivor since everyone is different, but here are some places to start:

What to do:

  • Utilize active listening and reflective responding communication techniques.
  • Listen without judgment. Display empathy.
  • Concentrate on understanding the survivor’s feelings rather than interjecting your own.
  • Express your concern sincerely.
  • Allow the survivor to determine the pace and focus of the conversation.
  • Remain attentive to the survivor’s non-verbal cues. If you are sensing that they are uncomfortable in the conversation, ask to clarify.
  • Protect the person’s privacy—it is their story to tell.
  • Ask the survivor what they feel they want/need in order to feel safe.
  • Show compassion for the survivor and affirm their feelings.
  • Periodically take a “pulse” of how you’re feeling. If you are having intensifying feelings of grief, anger, or shock, it could be time to get some space for yourself where you can process your feelings away from the survivor. Do not process these feelings with the survivor. You can certainly show emotion when talking with the survivor (you’re not a robot, and these are challenging conversations to have!) but if you find your own emotions taking over and keeping you from focusing on the survivor, that’s probably a sign that you are in need of your own time to process. Find a third party with whom to do that, possibly a therapist or even organizations like RAINN who have telephone and internet-based helplines. See “Finding Outside Help”.

Active Listening

  • Active listening involves:
    • Setting aside your own agenda while someone else is speaking.
    • Hearing what people mean, not just what they say (while being sure to reflect your interpretations back to them and not making assumptions).
    • Responding to a speaker’s feelings.
    • Attentiveness to verbal and nonverbal cues for communication.
  • An active listener:
    • Looks and sounds interested in the speaker.
      • Look into the other person’s eyes much, though not all, of the time.
      • Maintain a body position and facial expression that indicate attentiveness, not boredom.
      • Nod encouragingly to show understanding and interest.
      • Use vocalizations such as “uh-huh” and “yes” to encourage the person to continue.
    • Adopts the speaker’s point of view.
      • Try to listen, not to interrupt, finish sentences, or rush the speaker.
      • Allow for silence; some need more time than others to vocalize thoughts/feelings.
      • Try to suppress your initial reactions and to hear and understand the speaker’s perspective.
      • Try to listen and respond from the speaker’s frame of reference, not your own.
      • Listen for feelings, not just words.
    • Clarifies the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.
      • Limit your talking to things that will contribute to getting the fullest informational and emotional content from the speaker.
      • Avoid inserting your own experiences, however similar they may seem, and minimize interruptions; remained focused on the speaker.
      • Avoid saying, “I understand” with a tone that conveys you’ve experienced the exact same situation; no one truly understands another’s experience.
      • When the speaker pauses, ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Those questions usually begin with “Is,” “Are,” “Do,” and “Did.” Some examples of opening statements are:
        • Feel free to say more if you’d like.
        • Can you elaborate on…
        • I’m interested in hearing more about…
        • How did it make you feel when…
      • Use reflective response techniques to check the accuracy of your understanding of the speaker’s ideas and especially feelings.
    • Reflects the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.
      • Restate what you believe the speaker has said to check for the accuracy of your understanding.
      • Reflect back the speaker’s feelings as you heard or inferred them.
      • Use wording or voice tone to make your inferences into questions, rather than statements.
    • Responds rather than leads the conversation.
      • Don’t guide the conversation by asking questions or interjecting ideas or suggestions that take the speaker into new areas of interest to you.
      • Respond to and reflect back what the speaker actually said or what you sense he/she implied.
      • Try to stay within the speaker’s frame of reference, rather than asking questions that could make the person feel defensive (such as “Why?”) or making suggestions that come from your own frame of reference.
    • Respond to feelings, rather than content.

What not to do:

  • Do not ask “why” questions such as “Why did you go there?” or “Why didn’t you fight back?”
  • Do not tell the survivor what you would have done or thing he/she should have done.
  • Do not criticize, express disappointment or show shock regarding any action or non-action taken before, during, or after the incident.
  • Do not make assumptions.
  • Do not cross your arms or avoid eye contact.
  • Do not make physical contact with the survivor without first asking their permission.
  • Do not take control of the conversation or make it about you or your feelings—those should be processed with someone other than the survivor.
  • Do not tell the survivor how to feel or what to do next, even if they ask you directly what you think they should do. Use that question as an opportunity to reinforce that the survivor is the only one who knows that they want or need to do.
  • Blame the survivor by saying things like, “well you were drunk” or “haven’t you hooked up a few times already”.
  • Over-simplify what has happened by acting dismissive or saying something like, “this isn’t very bad”.
  • Insist the survivor recounts the details of the assault.
  • Minimize their feelings. For example, if a survivor says that they are feeling “terrified,” don’t reflect back by saying “it sounds like you’re kind of scared”.

Reflective Responding

  • This involves listening for a feeling, relating to that feeling, and then reflecting or restating that feeling back to the person who is speaking.
    • Reflective statements consist of three parts: the prefix, the feeling word, and the source of the feeling.
      • Prefix: a phrase that communicates the listener’s impression or interpretation of what the speaker is feeling. Some examples to use are:
        • It sounds like you feel…
        • I’m wondering if…
        • I sense that you feel…
        • I hear what you’re saying, and…
        • What I hear you saying is…
        • It seems like you feel…
      • Feeling Words: The feelings are usually the reason a person is approaching you. Sometimes a person will not be certain what he or she is feeling, but will know what is causing them distress or anxiety. Some keys to naming feelings are:
        • Be precise (use their own words if necessary).
        • Do not back away from stating a feeling that is heightened or intense (i.e. if someone states that he/she is furious about something, don’t diminish that feeling and say, “It sounds like you’re a little frustrated”).
        • Do not use minimizers or maximizers (a little angry, kind of mad).
        • Trust your perceptions.
        • Incorporate the word “feeling” before you state the feeling word. (For example, “It sounds like you’re feeling angry.” rather than “You are angry.” People are more than their feelings and it can be helpful to hear that you are not defined by whatever feeling you may be experiencing at any given moment).
      • Source of the Feeling: The source completes the empathetic response. Whatever the problem may be, some part of the problem is in the source of the feeling. Always focus on the person, not a third person. For example:
        • It seems to me that you’re feeling betrayed by your friend.
        • It sounds like you’re feeling confused about what to do next.
        • You sound like you’re feeling really angry about what has happened.
        • I’m hearing that you’re feeling disappointed about how [so-and-so] responded when you told them what happened.