It is not easy to know how to respond when someone discloses an experience of sexual violence. You may be the first person to whom a survivor discloses and by listening, believing, and validating their feelings, can have a significant positive impact on their healing process and their access to resources.
You don't have to be a trained professional to help a survivor. Survivors often first disclose to a person they trust. Remember that you don't need to have all the answers and that you also have your own limits. It is okay to set boundaries. Responding to a disclosure can be an emotionally and physically demanding experience. It can have an impact on your well-being and your sense of safety. Taking care of yourself is essential and it will help you help others. Practice self-care and know that it is okay for you to ask for help. We are here for you.
What to do or say
Acknowledge the courage it takes to talk about difficult experiences. Consider privacy. Be aware of your non-verbal communication. Ask if they have a safe space to stay and if they need or want medical attention. e.g. “It takes a lot of courage and strength to talk about this.”
Let them speak freely. Be patient and respect their boundaries. e.g. “Thank you for sharing this with me”, “What I hear you saying is…”
Let them know that their feelings and reactions are valid and that what happened was not their fault. Respect the language they use. e.g. “I believe you”, “It is not your fault”
Be non-directional and support them in taking charge of their own healing process. e.g. “What’s your biggest concern right now?, “How can I best support you?”
If the person is seeking emotional, medical, and/or legal support, offer to contact the service and/or accompany them to their appointment. Consult our list of resources to help the person identify which ones are right for them.
Recognize your own boundaries and limits. We are also available to help you.
What to avoid
Judging statements often based on common misconceptions about sexual violence can have a negative impact on the person’s healing process. Avoid why questions. e.g. “Why did you do that/go there/take drugs/sext? Why would (the accused) do that to you?
You are there to provide support and not to conduct an investigation. Let the person choose what they wish to share. e.g. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? “It sounds like it was a miscommunication”
Avoid should/must/ought/never statements. They imply that there is one right way to feel about, deal with and respond to sexual violence. You probably do not have all the information. Remember that they are the experts of their lives. e.g. “You shouldn’t feel that way.” “If you do___, you will feel better”
The decision to report is entirely that of the survivor. All too often survivors are blamed for their experience, are not believed, or are not taken seriously. They may fear retaliation from the perpetrator. All these factors can influence survivors’ decision to report or not. e.g. “You should report this to make sure it doesn’t happen again”
e.g. “You have nothing to worry about.” “I will do anything you need me to do.”
You may have certains obligations depending on your role and your responsibilities that will limit your ability to maintain confidentiality. Be transparent and clear about your obligations and what you will be doing with the information you receive. You may also be in a position to provide academic and workplace accommodations if the survivor’s experience and reactions result in limitations to their ability to function at school and/or at work.
- What to keep in mind
- What to expect when someone discloses
- Common reactions to a disclosure
- How can I be better prepared as a support person?
- How can I help someone experiencing interpersonal violence?
- What can I do if I witness sexual harassment?
- How can I be an active bystander?
What to keep in mind
When responding to a disclosure, consider how your own identity and the potential power you hold can impact the process. Who you are, the connections you have, your social position or what you represent can influence whether a person trusts you and what they feel comfortable disclosing.
In order to build trust and reduce power imbalances, consider the following tips:
- Believe the person and what they are telling you.
- Acknowledge your position and how this may influence the process.
- Use active listening techniques such as paraphrasing and restating both the feeling and the words of the speaker to let them know that they are being heard.
- Acknowledge possible barriers to accessing supports, offer assistance with trying to reduce these barriers and/or accessing resources.
When providing support to a survivor, consider their socio-cultural context to better assist them in finding the appropriate support, one that facilitates recovery and helps them build a sense of empowerment and self-worth.The reality is that most support services are based on the experiences of white, middle-class women. These services are not always tailored to the specific cultural needs of the survivor.
What to expect when someone discloses
Know that there is no one way to react to experiences of sexual violence. Each individual has their own coping mechanisms and path to recovery. Reactions are also shaped by culture, race, gender, age, class, ability and other aspects of identity. A survivor may be very sad or upset, they may be stoic and calm, or they may exhibit anxiety and experience panic attacks. They may remember the incident vividly or they may have trouble remembering and focusing. All of these are natural reactions.
Common reactions to a disclosure
As a support person, it is important for you to be aware of your own reactions to someone’s experience. Being aware of your own reactions can help you identify and manage the effects that the information is having on you and allow you to maintain your ability to be a support person for the people in your life.
- You may be confused, surprised, or shocked, especially if you know the person who committed the act of sexual violence. You may feel a sense of disbelief and denial that the violence occurred.
- You may feel anger towards yourself for not being able to protect the disclosing person, and towards the perpetrator for hurting someone you care about. It can be difficult to keep anger from affecting the way you communicate. Let yourself acknowledge this emotion and find another outlet to express it.
- You may feel sad, hopeless, worried or powerless. If you know the person who committed the act of sexual violence, you may feel sad about how this has changed your relationship to them as well.
- You may feel guilty that you could not prevent the assault or harassment from happening or that the survivor didn’t feel comfortable telling you about it right way. It can be helpful to refocus your energy on making the survivor feel supported as they move forward.
- You may feel anxious about responding the 'right' way or worried about how this event will impact your relationship with the person who is disclosing to you. Reassure them that the assault or harassment was not their fault and that you believe them. These can be the most powerful and helpful statements for a survivor to hear.
- You may feel triggered if the disclosure reminds you of a similar situation in your own life.
Remember to “comfort in and dump out”. We are here for you as a support person if you want to debrief, need more resources, or just want to check-in.
How can I be better prepared as a support person?
- Learn more about sexual violence and consent.
- Know the major misconceptions about sexual violence and, etc. to be aware of and start challenging your own biases.
- Learn more about discrimination and critically reflect about messages you have received and/or integrated about gender norms, sexuality, (dis)ability and more (Consider joining the Safer Spaces Workshops offered by SEDE.)
- Inform yourself on trauma, and possible reactions.
- Educate yourself about the warning signs of suicide and offer to help access supports (Suicide Action Montreal has a 24/7 help line: 514.723.4000).
- Learn more about the issue (Ensure that you are aware of the common misconceptions about sexual assault and harassment and contact us to organize a workshop for you and your peers on how to respond to disclosures.)
- Be aware of your own reactions to receiving a disclosure and how these impact your ability to support the person.
- Brush up on your active listening skills (Counselling McGill and the Peer Programs Network offer punctual workshops on active listening and communication. Check their websites and/or MyInvolvement to register!)
- Familiarize yourself with on and off campus resources.
svoffice [at] mcgill.ca (Contact us) to organize a workshop for you and your peers, department, or unit on how to respond to disclosures.
How can I help someone experiencing interpersonal violence?
As a support person, it is important to be aware of the many barriers one can experience when deciding to leave an unhealthy relationship. Reasons a person may choose to stay in an abusive relationship include but are not limited to: fear of their partner, fear of their partner retaliating, financial constraints, not being believed, lack of access to support resources, love for their partner and family concerns. The affected person is faced with taking action that will completely change their life and those of their families. Leaving a relationship can be difficult and often takes several attempts. If friends and family believe and support the person coming forward, it may make it easier for them to leave.
To learn more about interpersonal violence, the warning signs, and how to help someone in an abusive relationship, check out the Government of Québec's Domestic Violence website.
What can I do if I witness sexual harassment?
Witnessing harassment of any kind can be upsetting. Know that there are support and reporting resources available to you and the person being harassed.
If you witness harassment you may want to consider the following courses of actions:
- If possible, interrupt the behavior by being an active bystander. Only go forward if you feel safe doing so.
- Speak to the person who was being harassed in a confidential space. Let them know what you witnessed and offer your support.
- If the person is willing to discuss, provide a space where the person can speak freely and at their own pace without interruption. Be respectful of the person’s privacy and confidentiality.
- If you are comfortable doing so, offer to be a support person if they choose to file a complaint. If a formal complaint is made, you may be called upon to describe what you saw.
- If you feel comfortable, and if it will not jeopardize you or the person being harassed, tell the harasser that you are aware of what happened and to stop.
- Record any incidents of sexual harassment that you witness.
- If you are a faculty member or a supervisor, you are obligated to seek advice and help if you witness conduct that may violate the University's regulations and policies.
How can I be an active bystander?
- Learn about consent, including how to recognize non-consent, so that you may identify a potentially harmful situation.
- Assess the situation. Be aware of your surroundings and decide if and how you might intervene, by assessing the options and risks for taking action. If you or others are in immediate danger, you can call 911.
- Interrupt the potentially harmful situation in one of the following ways:
- Be Direct: Approach the person you are concerned about. Do anything to give that person a way out of the situation, if you have judged that they are looking for one. Ignore the initiator when appropriate. Alternately, approach the initiator. Use “I” statements : “I feel_____when you___. Please stop.” Use humour when appropriate.
- Delegate: Find another person to intervene on your behalf. This may be a friend of the person you are concerned about, a supervisor, or someone responsible for an event.
- Distract: Do anything that distracts those involved. Providing a three second window is often all that is needed to give someone a chance to get out of a situation.
Always try to act consensually, and always take your own safety into consideration. If you were unable to interrupt a situation, follow-up with the person you are concerned about if you can.
svoffice [at] mcgill.ca (Contact us) to organize a workshop for you and your peers, department, or unit on how to be an active bystander. The workshop can be tailored to the realities and needs of your group.