We’ve all felt apprehension in that situation: having to listen to a friend or loved one who has suffered as a victim of sexual assault. How do we then respond to that trust? What can we do to help the victim feel supported and accepted?
1. Understand your role
We’re fortunate to not be police officers; they have the added responsibility of extracting information in an empathetic manner, figuring out what really happened, and collecting evidence for a case. As a friend or loved one, you’re not there to investigate, but to help the victim feel that they’re not going through this alone.
2. Don’t solve the problem
We tend to bring in our own solutions and preconceptions in an effort to be helpful. There is a time for this, but be sensitive that it should always be about the person you’re listening to. First of all, attend to the emotions of the victim. What they need from you are words and responses of affirmation, to lighten the burden on their shoulders by offloading negative emotions.
3. Mirror their emotions
Respond appropriately to the victim’s emotions. Don’t laugh if the victim is not laughing; it doesn’t matter if you think it’s funny. What’s most important to them at this time is solidarity, knowing that they’re not going through this alone. Mirroring involves body language more than speech, which is also why some things are best done face to face, silence over the phone can be misconstrued.
4. Show your full attention
Sometimes the information can be very heavy, and you’re tempted to distract, and or change the topic. It’s important to not let your discomfort in the situation show, as the victim might feel dismissed or trivialised. If you’re not in the correct frame of mind or you can’t afford the time, apologise and set up an appointment at a later time. If you do feel discomfort…
5. Don’t take what he/ she says too personally
This isn’t the time to measure who is more right and who is more wrong. Even when the victim expresses unfair criticisms on other parties, keep in mind that a person’s recollection of a situation is always coloured with strong emotion and that the process of sharing this emotion is helpful at that point of time. For example, if the victim says “I hate all men” and you’re a man, take note that this is the emotions talking, don’t feel blamed, pay attention to the frustration and difficulties the victim is going through.
6. Be very sensitive to preserving the confidentiality of the victim
When someone confides in you, they’ve taken a huge step of faith to be able to trust you with their story. Even when you need to tell someone else about it, be very careful to keep all the identities secret. The last thing you want is to have betrayed the victim’s trust and instigated gossip and slander in the process.
Remember, that listening is a privilege, an act of deep trust on the part of the victim. Listening empathetically is not just limited to sexual assault; it will help your relationship grow, no matter the context. Empty yourself of preconceptions, judgements, and just go along for the ride.