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How to Help and Empathetic Responses

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How to Help and Empathetic Responses

Ask before touching or hugging a survivor: Because of the trauma of being physically assaulted by another, many survivors prefer not to be touched.  It is often simply human nature to want to touch or hug someone we love or care about who is hurting.  One way to help survivors feel their own power again is to ask them if it’s okay to touch or hug them.  Respect their choice to say no.

            “I am so sorry this happened to you. Is it OK for me to hug you?”


Listen: Do your best to give the survivor your undivided attention and let them know you’re hearing what they are saying.  It’s important to listen without judgement.  Focus on what they are sharing with you. Don’t  judge their decisions, the situation they are in, or ask “why” questions.  It’s also important to listen to the feelings, thoughts and experiences they are choosing to share rather than asking questions about information you would like to know. 

            “Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I’m hearing you say is… (sad, angry, hurt, betrayed)”

            See examples of listening with empathy below.


Use the survivors own words: Use the words the survivor is using to talk about their experiences. For example, if the survivor never uses the word “rape”, it may be jarring to hear the incident described like that.


Believe: Disclosing a sexual assault or abuse is a very difficult thing to do and takes a lot of courage and strength.  Let them know you believe them.

“I feel so honored that you shared this with me. It took a lot of courage to talk about this. I believe you. It is not your fault. I am so sorry this happened to you.”


It is OK if the survivor tells you well after the assault happened: A survivor may not disclose the assault or abuse for days, weeks, months or even years after it happened. Remember the decision not to disclose has nothing to do with you. Saying things like “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” are not helpful to the survivor.


Reinforce that the assault is NOT their fault: Survivors cannot hear this enough.  Often they feel a great deal of guilt and shame and may blame themselves for the assault.  Reinforcing for them that it is the perpetrator who is to blame can be very helpful to survivors and help them to heal more quickly.

“This is not your fault.  Another person made a choice to do this to you. You did not do anything to deserve this.”


Support their decision making: Perpetrators of sexual assault or abuse rob survivors of their own personal power.  For healing, it’s very important that survivors are able to regain their power.  Decision making is a big part of this.  Even if we think we know what’s best for our friend or family member, ultimately survivors must be supported in making the decisions that feel right to them.  Some ways this might come up are around reporting the assault to law enforcement, seeing a therapist, or moving out of an apartment, house, or dorm room.

“I want you to make decisions that feel right to you. I can help you think it through and give you my ideas. Let me know what would be helpful for me to do. I will support whatever decisions you make.”


Respect privacy: It takes a lot of courage, strength and trust to decide to disclose a sexual assault or abuse to a friend or family member.  In general, it’s important that you keep what they’ve shared with you private.  There are however, some circumstances that may require you to involve other people to best help the survivor.  Some of these circumstances include if the victim is a child who is being sexually abused or if you believe there is risk of suicide or homicide of anyone involved.


Provide helpful resource information: Check in with the survivor about whether they have information about 24 hour crisis lines, sexual assault service provider programs, helpful websites, or other resources.  If they do not, help them with resource information.   And finally, respect their decisions about whether to use these resources.


Know your limits as a helper:  If a perpetrator sexually assaulted or abused your friend or family member, it’s only natural to want to do all you can to help.  Be honest with yourself about what your limitations are as a helper. For example, there may be times when it might be more helpful for your friend or family member to talk with a trained therapist or sexual assault advocate rather than talk with you.  Using empathic language, it is possible to share your limitations with your friend or family member in a way that tells them you care about them. For example,

“You have been through so much and I want to do whatever I can to support you.  I’m feeling like what you may need right now is something I don’t know a lot about. I may not be the best person to help you.  What would you think of talking with an advocate at ___ program?  I’ve heard really good things about the program and I’d be happy to help you get connected.”


More Ideas for Empathic Responses

Using empathy is one of the most important ways you can support survivors and help them to heal.  Empathy means to identify with or share another's feelings, situation, or attitudes. Empathy helps survivors know that you’re listening to them. It lets them know that you are doing your best to support them and understand what they are saying.  Using empathy also helps to let survivors just talk about their feelings rather than focus on fixing the situation.  Here are a few examples of ways you can start sentences using empathy:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I’m hearing you say is…

It appears you are feeling…(sad, angry, confused, lost, betrayed, etc.)

It sounds like you’re feeling…

I hear you saying…

From what you say, I gather you are feeling…

What I think I’m hearing is…

I get the impression that…


Other Options for Help

Local Sexual Assault Services Programs
Many Michigan communities have local sexual assault services programs that provide free and confidential crisis support, legal advocacy, medical advocacy, counseling, groups and/or therapy. Some of these programs also operate sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs or refer to nearby SANE programs. You can search for services in your local community online with an interactive map or you can call the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline about these options in your community.