Every day now in the news, we learn of various cases of rape and sexual abuse. On the one hand is the incident and on the other is how perpetrators respond when accused, and how it is handled by the authorities. Both the response and outcome are crucially important. A good response, in addition to a satisfactory resolution in court can at least do some good (seeing perpetrators get a full conviction for what they did, can be healing). But when nothing happens, it not only exacerbates the harm of the first injury, it also inflicts new injury, and makes it difficult for the victim to recover.
It is very important to be a good listener when a friend or loved one discloses a difficult or upsetting experience like sexual assault or harassment, it is called giving the gift of presence. We know that respectful, compassionate, attentive, and authentic listening can bring healing, while a controlling, blaming, and/or invalidating response can cause harm.
Below are tips on how to listen when someone you know discloses sexual assault:
- Do Not “DARVO” and Call It Out When You See It
DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” The perpetrator or offender may:
- Deny the behavior,
- Attack the individual doing the confronting, and
- Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender.
DARVO is a particularly pernicious response to disclosure and can cause harm. For more on DARVO see this page.
- Be a Well-Intentioned and Respectful Listener
Many people want to respond well to a disclosure but may not know how. Here are some guidelines to help people and institutions respond well to disclosures of violence and distressing events:
- Respect the survivor’s autonomy and strength
- Validate the survivor and indicate that the responsibility for the violence is with the perpetrator(s)
- Stay engaged and focused on the survivor’s needs and validate the survivor’s strength
- When it is possible and appropriate, sincerely apologize
- Don’t invalidate, blame or pathologize the survivor
- Don’t take away the survivor’s autonomy
- Be a Compassionate Listener
These suggestions are drawn from instructions that address listening skills in the moment.
First, it is important to use attentive body language.
- Don’t make inappropriate facial expressions (e.g., smiling when someone is discussing a sad topic, rolling your eyes, raising your eyebrows when hearing how someone coped) and do not move your body too much (e.g., excessive fidgeting, playing with your cell phone).
- Sit in a posture (e.g., leaning forward or upright) and use gestures that convey engagement (e.g., nodding).
- Maintain consistent, not constant or darting, eye contact (look directly at the person for brief periods of 3-6 seconds, then look away briefly before reconnecting).
Second, it is important to use verbal skills that encourage the speaker to continue.
- Don’t change the topic or ask questions that are off-topic. This may seem like a way to decrease your anxiety or make the other person more comfortable, but it often has the opposite effect.
- Allow silence and convey that you are listening by using encouraging words like “hmm” and “uh-huh” periodically.
- State/name/reflect back the emotion being described. It might also help you to imagine yourself in the speaker’s place and look at the situation from his/her perspective.
“Wow – sounds like it was scary for you.”
“It seems like you feel really sad about that.”
“I feel like that must’ve made you angry.”
- Ask questions if you are confused and try to ask questions that require more than one word.
“Was that scary?”
“Do you mean it wasn’t that bad?”
Ask questions like:
“Could you tell me a little bit more about that?”
“What was that like for you?”
“What do you mean when you say ____?”
Third, it is important to use words in a way that convey support.
- Don’t reassure the person in a way that might minimize their experience
“That happened so long ago, maybe it would help to try move on.”
“It’s not worth the energy to keep thinking about it.”
“Don’t be scared.”
- Don’t make judgments or evaluations about their responses or decisions
“Couldn’t you do/say ______ instead?”
“I don’t think you should worry about it anymore.”
“I think it’d be better for you to _____.”
“Why don’t you ____?”
- Validate the person’s emotions in a genuine tone
(Examples: “If that happened to me, I can imagine I’d feel really overwhelmed too.” “Given that experience, it makes sense you’d feel/say/do ________.” “I think many people with that experience would have felt similarly.”)
- Point out the person’s strengths
“I’m amazed at how much courage that took.”
“You’ve done a great job at keeping everything in perspective.”
“I really admire your strength.”
“I’m impressed with how you’ve dealt with this.”
- Focus on their experience rather than your own and only give advice when it is requested.
“We are called at certain moments to comfort people who are enduring some trauma. Many of us don’t know how to react in such situations, but others do. In the first place, they just show up. They provide a ministry of presence. Next, they don’t compare. The sensitive person understands that each person’s ordeal is unique and should not be compared to anyone else’s. Next, they do the practical things – making lunch, dusting the room, washing the towels. Finally, they don’t try to minimize what is going on. They don’t attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments. They don’t say that the pain is all for the best. They don’t search for silver linings. They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma. They practice a passive activism. They don’t bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved. The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of their own process. S/he lets the sufferer define the meaning of what is going on. They just sit simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct.” – David Brooks, The Road to Character.
When family and friends listen with respect and compassion they can help survivors on their paths to healing.