Many survivors share about their experience with people in their lives, including friends, family, partners, teachers, coworkers, and supervisors. How we respond to a survivor sharing their experience can impact our relationship with them, as well as whether they may share their experience with others or seek help from a professional. It can be hard to know what to say when someone tells us they’ve experienced interpersonal violence because we understand how hard that can be and don’t want to say the wrong thing. We created the list below to provide some general strategies and examples of language to use when talking to survivors in your life. Remember, SHARPP is also available to those who are supporting survivors. Please contact us if you have more questions about how to support the survivors in your life.
Survivors may be afraid to share out of worry that they won’t be believed or will be blamed for their experience. When someone in your life tells you they experienced interpersonal violence, start by believing them. People rarely lie about or make up their experiences of violence. It is not your role to decide whether their experience was or was not assault or abuse, or to get all of the details about what happened. Your role in those moments is to support and listen to the survivor. If we respond by doubting, disbelieving, or asking questions about what happened, that tells the survivor we don’t believe them, and can reinforce any feelings of self-doubt or guilt they may already be experiencing. While it may sound simple, it is important to tell survivors that we believe them instead of assuming they know our feelings or intent. We cannot change what happened to them, but we can give them space to talk about their experience and their feelings free from judgment. What this can sound like:
- “I’m so sorry that happened to you, it wasn’t your fault.”
- “I believe you.”
Find ways to give them choice
There is no one “right” way to respond to interpersonal violence. Every person deserves to make the decisions that are the best for them, prioritizing their own needs and being supported in making those choices. Often, experiencing interpersonal violence means that survivors have experienced a significant loss of control and agency. Because of this, it is critical to find opportunities to re-introduce control of their life and their actions. When we hear that someone in our lives has been harmed, we can want to “fix” or help what happened by telling them they must go to the hospital, call the police, or something else. Taking the time to ask what they need lets them know that you recognize the importance of them making the choices that are best for them. When someone shares that they have experienced interpersonal violence, avoid telling them what to do or offering your opinion. Instead, ask open-ended questions about what they want or need in that moment.
- “Thank you for trusting me with that information. What do you need right now?”
- “How can I be helpful in this moment?”
- “Are you interested in talking to a professional about this? If you want, we can walk to SHARPP together.”
- Letting them decide who and when to share their story with. Not telling others what happened to them without their permission.
Continue to offer support
How you respond in the moment someone shares their experience with you is important, and it is also critical to be mindful of how you are continuing to support them after that initial conversation. There is no set timeframe for when someone will be healed or recovered after they experience interpersonal violence. If someone experienced violence 6 months—or even many years—ago, it may still affect them and they may need support. If they’ve shared their experience with you, it is likely because they see you as a safe and trusted person. It is important to continue to offer them support beyond that first conversation, and remember that while this may affect them, they are more than what happened to them.
- Avoid saying things like they should be “over it by now”, or asking how long they’ll feel that way.
- Check in with them periodically, ask how you can be helpful moving forward.
- Familiarize yourself with the resources in their community, including SHARPP, so you can provide them with this information if they want it at any time.
- “I’m here to talk about this whenever you want, but I don’t want you to feel like that’s all we have to talk about.”
Take care of yourself
Learning that someone you care about has experienced violence can be hard to manage. It is okay to recognize that you are also impacted by hearing their story. In order to continue to be there to support them it is important to take care of your own needs.
- Reach out to your own supports, including friends, family, partners or others.
- Connect with SHARPP or other community resources to talk about how you are impacted by learning this information and how to help.
- Engage in activities that bring you joy.