If a friend or someone you know tells you about their experience with sexual assault or relationship abuse, responding with compassion and empowerment can really make a difference in that person’s path toward healing.
Remember that you don’t have to be an expert or have all of the answers. The person who shared their experience with you just needs you to be a good listener and offer to help.
Tips for Responding
You are being invited into a very private and potentially painful place, so you should respect that by coming from a place of belief and support.
Think “Safety First”
Is the person physically safe? Is there an injury that needs immediate medical care? Are they in a place that is safe from the person who hurt them?
Listen, Be Calm, Empathize
Listen to whatever they want to tell you, but avoid asking a lot of fact-based questions. You may be trying to make sense of what happened in your own head, but this can come across as disbelieving. They also might not be ready to talk about the details of what happened. Communicate without judgment.
Provide calm and compassionate responses. Just being present, being calm, and allowing someone to talk can be very helpful. Chances are, you might be angry or scared or sad based on what you’ve just heard, but try to avoid letting your own emotions take charge. Your calm demeanor will help that person feel safe.
“Feel with,” or understand and share the feelings of another. Your response should be about helping the person identify what they are feeling and what they need, not what your own feelings or wishes might be in that situation. Be present with them on their journey.
You might not know what to say, and that’s okay. It’s better just to be there and even acknowledge that you don’t know the right words. You can communicate alliance and compassion through gestures, patience, and presence.
Sometimes in crisis it is tempting to take charge and try to fix things. A person who has experienced interpersonal violence has already had their control taken away from them. Help them regain a sense of control by choosing what comes next.
Ask them if they know what they need and talk about what other people in the situation have considered. At the right time, you can ask them if they are ready to talk about what some of their options are.
It’s important to know your limits and help the person transition to the next step of their recovery. Help the person figure out their most urgent needs and connect them to GW’s resources and support.
Things to Say
- Thank you for telling me.
- I wish I knew what to say. I am so sorry.
- I want to be here for you and help you.
- Do you know what you need most right now?
- I want to help, but feel a little over my head. Would you mind if we call GW’s Sexual Assault Response & Consultation (SARC) team (or another trusted resource) together?
- How are you feeling physically? Are you injured?
- Do you want to talk about some of the options you have? Or would you rather just sit here for awhile?
Things Not to Say
- Oh my god, that’s terrible!
- Who was it? Where are they? I will kill them!
- We have to go to the police (or the administration, or the hospital) RIGHT NOW.
- I can’t believe it-- he is such a nice guy!
- Are you sure?
- You were really drunk!
- I told you not to go to that bar (or walk home alone, or date that person).
Take Care of Yourself
You may experience a wide range of emotions after hearing about sexual assault or relationship violence. Remember to consider your own well being and take care of yourself.
Use the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)’s tips for self-care to manage your feelings and help you feel less overwhelmed. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization and provides a variety of resources, including tips for helping someone you care about.