One of the questions most frequently asked in HAVEN training is “How do you make survivors of interpersonal violence feel better?” or “What do you do to fix a survivor’s situation?” It is a difficult to help people understand that our job as allies is not to tell survivors what to do or make their choices for them, but rather to support, listen and empower survivors to make their own decisions and have faith in their own ability for creating positive change. We try do this by active listening.
Active listening functions as one of the most valuable tools each of us has, whether we work with survivors or not. Active listening is a structured way of listening which focuses entirely on the speaker. We use active listening skills if a survivor discloses an instance of interpersonal violence in order to help that survivor focus and feel understood. It is non-judgmental and accepting while conveying the desire to understand what the survivor is feeling and saying. Active listening helps the speaker clarify their thoughts, vent if they need to and better understand their feelings. Often people come to us with problems to be heard and validated, not necessarily to get a solution.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to become a better listener:
1. Who is doing the majority of the talking- the person with the problem or me?
2. Am I asking questions based on my own curiosity or are the questions that I’m asking relevant to the issue that they are struggling with?
3. Am I listening or making to do lists in my head?
4. How does he/she know I am listening? Am I reflecting feeling and content back to him/her?
5. Am I empowering him/her or trying to “fix” the problem?
6. Am I asking open ended questions or am I asking close ended questions to get a specific response? For example, asking “How did that make your feel.” as opposed to “So, you must have been pretty angry about that?”
It can be difficult to hear a survivor’s story and not want to jump into action mode to “fix” what’s happening. Even though these feelings are rooted in the very best intentions of caring about a survivor they are problematic. Many survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence or stalking are trying to regain control in their lives after their assault. If you as a friend or ally jump in to “fix” a survivor, you send the message that they still aren’t in control of their own lives. By believing and active listening to a survivor’s story, you give them the power and control back.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to support survivors of interpersonal violence check out safe.unc.edu to sign up for an upcoming HAVEN training!