How to respond with compassion when someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted

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How to respond with compassion when someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted

  • What to do when someone tells you they are experiencing or have experienced sexual, domestic or family violence;
  • Where to go for information;
  • How to look after your own and your team's well-being after a hearing about violence.

Having a staff member experiencing domestic or family violence and/or sexual assault is a whole-of-team issue.

It's essential that managers and team members have a good idea of how to respond appropriately and compassionately if they become aware a worker is experiencing violence. This includes looking after their own well-being.

Workplaces and work teams can play a vital role in supporting someone experiencing violence. For many, work might be the only place they are free of violence. So it's vital that each workplace promotes a culture of trust and awareness around this type of violence.

Getting informed

It's important to understand the correct meanings of 'domestic and family violence', 'sexual assault', sexual harassment and 'sexual violence'. The meaning of these terms differs between states and territories and they are sometimes used interchangeably.

Many myths and misconceptions exist around sexual, domestic and family violence. The first stage in providing a trusted, safe space for staff members who may be experiencing this violence is to make sure the workforce understands the difference between these myths and the truth.

These pages have more information:

What might a disclosure sound like?

People who perpetrate violence use a wide range of tactics to try to control and undermine the person they are abusing. They aim to make them doubt themselves, or to think that they themselves are to blame.

Someone experiencing violence might also be experiencing the impacts of trauma. Among many common impacts are nervous body language, lack of eye contact or an inability to remember key facts.

Bear in mind that these two factors might affect how your colleague sounds and looks when telling you about the violence they have experienced.

How to respond to a disclosure

Do

  • Listen;
  • Let them express how they feel;
  • Let them cry if they want to;
  • Encourage them;
  • Explain what you can do;
  • Ask them what they want to do, and accept their decisions.

Don't

  • Tell them what to do and 'take over';
  • Ask 'why' questions like 'why don't you leave?';
  • Get angry on their behalf;
  • Assume you know how they feel;
  • Dismiss them if their story 'doesn't add up'.

What your colleague needs

  • A compassionate response where they are heard and believed;
  • To have control over the process as far as possible;
  • Not to have to repeat their story to multiple people;
  • Transparent information about the processes that will be followed when they disclose it;
  • Information about whether their information will be kept confidential. If this isn't possible, information about who will it be shared with.

Look after yourself

Looking after someone who is experiencing violence or its impacts is difficult. Their story may be challenging and have an impact on your own well-being. This is called vicarious trauma (VT). There are various strategies you can use to manage the impacts of VT, and support is available.

Other useful tips for managing your own role in a disclosure might be:

  • Make sure you have up to date information on support services including counselling, police, local sexual assault services and women's shelters;
  • Let the person experiencing the violence know your own role and its boundaries;
  • Write it down. Consider where you will store it, and make sure you let the person know you will be keeping a record and how it will be kept confidential;
  • Find out your duty of care. Certain roles have mandatory reporting obligations.

How we can help

Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia can assist by:

  • Providing free 24/7 online and phone counselling by specialist trauma counsellors. This is available both for those experiencing violence and those supporting them;
  • Running a training workshop for your workplace on responding to disclosures of sexual, domestic and family violence;
  • Consulting with management on policies and best practices around violence.


Speak to our counsellors:

Get in touch:

NSW Rape Crisis
Available 24/7.
Sexual Assault Counselling Australia
For those affected by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Available 24/7.
Online counselling
Online counselling is also available 24/7.