At the Anti-Violence Project, we like to use a model to remember some best practices for supporting someone who has experienced sexualized or gender-based violence. We call this the Listen – Believe – Refer – Care model.
If someone comes to you because they’ve been assaulted, it is likely they just want you to listen to them. Don’t rush them or cut them off. Let them tell you as much, or as little, as they feel comfortable with. Asking prying questions could make a survivor feel that you are disbelieving or doubting them. You don’t need to ask for specific details or offer advice, which are often our first reactions but can be unhelpful when someone is in crisis or just looking for emotional support. Being present for someone has so much power.
Active listening often involves suspending our own thought processes and making a conscious effort to understand another person’s position. This might look like open body language, echoing back what we are hearing, or asking for clarification about how someone feels. There are many ways to listen.
Things to say:
“I’m here for you.”
“Thank you for sharing this with me.”
Believing a survivor and reminding them that the violence they experienced was not their fault is so important in this world where survivors are often faced with disbelief. Many myths exist about sexualized violence in media and elsewhere in our society, which lead to widespread victim-blaming attitudes. Remember that everyone resists violence in different ways. Sometimes, not fighting back, or staying silent is a way to resist more violence. Let the survivor know that whatever they did was what they needed to at the time. No one asks for or deserves to experience violence.
Things to say:
“I believe you.”
“I’m so sorry this happened.”
“This was not your fault.”
If they sound interested, offer to help the person you are supporting find additional resources. It is crucial that you do not pressure them to take any further action. Key to this part of the model is that THEY choose what to do next. Practicing consent when giving advice or referrals is so important. This is one way that we can give back control at a time when they may feel that power and control has been taken away from or used against them. A survivor does not need to report, go to the police, sign up for counselling, or tell anyone else. These decisions are entirely up to them. There are many reasons why these services may not be an option for someone, such as previous violence from police, community organizations, or medical professionals.
Your role as a supporter is to listen to the survivor and their needs and then support them in getting their needs met. If they are interested in further resources, you can offer to search online for resources for them or even offer to come with them to the Anti-Violence Project or another community organization for support and information.
Things to say:
“It sounds like you might want some support right now. I know of some places that might be able to help.”
There are two important components of care in this model: showing care when supporting a survivor, and caring for yourself as a supporter.
First, it’s important to show empathy by not making judgements and honouring the emotions of the person you are supporting. Let them know that they are not alone in this. Many survivors feel that they are the only ones this has happened to and may feel their reactions are abnormal or mean that they are not coping well.
Second, setting your own boundaries and being realistic about the support you can provide is also an important part of taking care of yourself. Hearing about gender-based violence can be difficult for the supporter so be sure to access support for yourself too if you need it. At the Anti-Violence Project, we provide support to those who are supporting survivors and those impacted by violence, click here to find more details.
Things to say:
“Thank you for coming to me, I’m so sorry this happened. I don’t think I can support you right now but can I help you find someone else to talk to?”
Note: if the assault just occurred or the violence is ongoing…
It can be a good idea to offer to create a safety plan with someone you are supporting. Safety planning involves building a personalized, practical plan that can help someone to navigate dangerous situations and consider ways to react when experience danger. More information can be found on our page on safety planning. Make sure that even when prioritizing safety you follow the survivor’s lead.
Download printable PDFs of these two handouts here:
Workshop: Supporting a Survivor
We regularly run workshops to help folks learn the skills needed to support survivors. Throughout the workshop we discuss different approaches and tools that can be used when supporting someone, including active listening, believing survivors, busting myths, showing empathy and making referrals. We also cover the very important differences between support, disclosure and reporting.
This is just one model of support, check out these other resources on supporting survivors and support related skills:
- Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault (zine)
- Brene Brown on Empathy (video with closed captioning)
- How to Support a Friend or Loved One Who Has Been Sexually Abused (article)
- Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Reflecting (video with closed captioning)