On my way in to work this morning, a song by Justin Timberlake came on the radio. I’d heard it before, but being stuck in traffic allowed me to pay more attention to the lyrics, and one line in the chorus really stood out to me: “Sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all.” That lyric stayed with me, as I later supported someone who called with concern for their colleague whom he fears is in an abusive relationship. What I hear time and time again from survivors is that one of the most powerful things someone can do is to simply listen and believe them. As one survivor shared after giving a speech at our annual Gala, “I wanted to thank everyone in the room for validating my experience after it had been invalidated (by my abuser) for so long.”
Listening can mean so much, especially to someone who has felt silenced and belittled by their abuser. And how we listen matters. During our training for new volunteers and staff, we spend a lot of time working on active listening skills. We all know what it feels like to be talking to someone who constantly interrupts us, or isn’t really paying attention when we are talking. Survivors have often had their abusers, and others in their life, talk at them rather than listen to where they are coming from. If someone you care about is talking to you about their experience with abuse, here are five tips on how to listen actively and show your support.
Follow their lead
- The conversation should be driven by the survivor. While it is natural to be curious, don’t force the survivor to talk about something that you want to hear about. Focus on the issues that seem important to the survivor. Reflect their language
- Use the same words and/or emotions that you have heard. While repeating back the exact words may feel silly or repetitive, it can feel really validating for the other person.
- If the survivor says “I’ve just been feeling so exhausted.” You could respond with, “It sounds like you’ve been feeling really exhausted.”
- Try to avoid labels. Listen for the language that the survivor feels most comfortable with
- Terms like survivor, victim, abuser, or domestic violence may or may not feel comfortable for them. Clarify
- Don’t assume you know what they meant by something.
- Ask questions in a supportive way to help clarify or deepen your understanding
- “So how did you feel when that happened?”
- “Let’s go back for a minute so I can make sure that I fully understand”
- If they say “I’ve had a rough week” you can respond with “Oh? Tell me about what is going on for you” Check in
- Find out if your understanding and perceptions are accurate.
- Ask, “Does that sound right to you?” Offer options rather than advice
- Simple shifts in language, like using “could” instead of “should” can make a big difference to illustrate that it’s the survivor’s choice what to do, not yours.
- “It sounds like you’ve been going through a lot. I know that REACH has a hotline that is confidential and available 24/7. I’d be happy to give you the number if that would be helpful. It’s totally up to you if you want to call, I just want you to know that there’s a resource available if you ever want to use it.” Whether the survivor calls our hotline or not, they are making a choice and taking control over their process.
Supporting a loved one who has or is experiencing abuse can be really difficult. While simply listening to someone’s experience can mean a lot to them, it often doesn’t feel like we’re doing enough to help them. REACH is here to help. We encourage friends and family to call REACH’s hotline at 1.800.899.4000 to talk through how to support your loved one. In the coming months, REACH will be holding “What to Do/What to Say” trainings. These trainings provide an opportunity to learn more about domestic violence and to practice how to support someone who may be experiencing abuse. Often in these workshops, we ask participants to think about someone who has supported them in the past. After you read this blog, I encourage you to think about who in your life has been a major support to you. What qualities of that person(s) do you want to emulate when you support others?