Most people want to help a friend or loved one when they have experienced trauma, but many times don’t know what to say. Below are some things to consider when listening/talking to a survivor of interpersonal violence:
- Listen. Often a person in crisis just needs someone to hear their story. You can show you’re really listening to your friend or loved one by nodding, looking them in the eye, saying “uh-huh”, etc. Don’t try to fix the problem unless explicitly asked to do so.
- Believe. One of the most important things you can do is to communicate that you believe what your friend is telling you. Survivors often worry that they will not be believed or have been told by the perpetrator that no one will believe them. When someone shares their story or experience with you, you have the ability to influence how they will proceed. If you express disbelief, they may not feel comfortable reaching out for any other kind of help.
- Help to clarify what you think they are saying. Listen carefully to your friend or loved one and then tell them what you think they said about their feelings. They may be talking about their emotions in a way that seems jumbled. You can help by sorting out and repeating back what was said. Say things like: “It sounds like…” or “What I hear you saying is…” or “I think I’m hearing you say…” If you have questions about what they’re feeling (not the details of the situation) feel free to ask them to help you understand.
- Let your friend decide what they want to talk about. Don’t push them to talk about something if they are not comfortable. If you feel you need to ask questions ask gently, so they don’t feel that you’re prying. Ask general questions, e.g., “Do you want to talk about what happened?” rather than, “How were you raped?”
- Avoid asking accusatory questions.The perpetrator is to blame for what happened. You may feel angry and frustrated about what happened, but don’t take it out on your friend or loved one. Don’t ask questions about why they did (or didn’t do) a certain thing. Survivors do the best they can in confusing, terrifying, or life-threatening situations. If you want or need to understand the mechanisms of trauma, please call our office.
- Don’t make decisions for them. The experience of an incident of interpersonal violence is one of a forced absence of control. You can help them regain power and control over their own life by letting them make their own decisions about what to do next. Help them get information on what all of the options are, but let them make the decisions. You may think that you know the best thing to do, but they are truly the experts on themselves and their experience.
- Show that you care. Remind them that you care for them and this crisis hasn’t changed that fact. You can show your affection by hugging (check your friend is okay to be hugged even if they previously have been), telling your friend that you love them, or even just sitting quietly together. You may not feel that you are doing much, but your presence can mean a great deal.
- Remind them to have self-compassion and self-care. Your friend or loved one has been through a very difficult experience. Remind them to be good to themselves. If they have trouble identifying ways to take care of themselves, help them brainstorm ways they have enjoyed themselves or felt relaxed in the past.
- Take care of yourself. It can be very upsetting and traumatic when a friend or loved one is victimized. You may feel powerless, guilty, shocked, angry, scared, or any number of other emotions. These feelings are normal, natural responses. Be sure to be kind to yourself and get help managing these emotions. Our office offers support services to people supporting survivors as well.
What to say to someone who has survived interpersonal violence…
- “No one deserves to be treated that way. This was not your fault. You did not deserve to be ___________(hit, assaulted, treated that way)”
- “Whatever you did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.”
- “I believe you. It was not your fault. This was something that someone did TO you.”
- “Regardless of ____________, (how you were dressed, how much you drank, if you were flirting, what you did prior to the sexual assault, etc) there is no excuse for sexual assault, violence, stalking etc. You did not deserve this.”
- “That must have been a very unsettling /scary /confusing /uncomfortable /frightening experience.”
- “You are not crazy. You are reacting normally to a difficult situation.”
- “It doesn’t make a difference if you consented to do other things sexually with this person. You said “no” to this part, and that person did not respect you. You have the right to change your mind at anytime when you are with someone.”
What to avoid saying to someone who has survived interpersonal violence…
- Why didn’t you/You should have/You shouldn’t have/I told you to/I told you not to… | Survivors already experience an immense amount of self-blame. Try to focus on how they can stay or be safe going forward.
- You have to… | It’s very important that survivors are allowed to make their own choices and decisions. You don’t know how your plan of action may turn out and you don’t want to harm your relationship by pushing a suggestion they are uncomfortable with.
- I would…| Any time you share what you would or would not theoretically do in a situation, a person hears a suggestion for what they should do even if you don’t mean it that way.
- I’m sorry | This is very culturally ingrained in our community. It’s a natural first response! However, almost everyone answers hearing “I’m sorry” with “It’s ok” which interpersonal violence certainly is not.
- I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding.
- Everything will be ok. | As much as you might want to tell them this to make them feel better, it’s not a guarantee. Interpersonal violence can be a life changing situation and their definition of “ok” may be that everything will go back to the way it was. Try not to promise things you can’t personally deliver on.
- I just can’t see them doing that. | Perpetrators are often very charismatic, funny, “normal” seeming individuals. The face they show to you may very well not be the face they show at home or to your friend or loved one.
- What were you wearing? | What a person is wearing or not wearing does not have any bearing on someone else’s choice to harm them.
- How much did you/they have to drink? | Alcohol does not cause interpersonal violence and blame should never be placed on the survivor.
- I’m gonna kill/hurt them | This may feel like a protective statement to say, but it incites violence and potentially feelings of fear or obligation to slow you down. When a survivor shares their story, their experience and emotions need to be most important.
Referring someone to the Phoenix Center at Auraria
- “We’re really fortunate to have a center on the Auraria campus to help students/staff/faculty with this kind of concern. They can assist you in accessing resources, determining your next steps. What do you think about calling them?”
- “We have a center here on campus called the Phoenix Center at Auraria. They are trained to understand the reactions that you may experience. Have you thought about calling them? Would you like me to get you the number or call for you?”
- “The Phoenix Center at Auraria can assist you in getting connected with other services on and off campus to make sure you are getting what you need after this serious situation.”
- “Do you want me to call the Phoenix Center at Auraria for you?”
- “Here is their 24/7 helpline phone number – 303-556-CALL (2255)”
Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. 2007. “How can I help my friend?”. Harvard University: Boston, MA