The first step in offering help is to talk to those affected by domestic violence. You need to find out more about what is going on, seeing the situation through their eyes and finding out what type of support they need from you. Yet talking about these situations can be tricky. Here are some guidelines to follow when talking to those impacted by domestic violence:
Starting the conversation about domestic violence
1. Choose your timing and setting wisely. Pick a quiet time that isn’t too hectic, and a location that is relaxed and safe where you can talk in privacy without being interrupted. Take a walk. Go on a drive together. Invite them in for a cup of coffee. Go out for brunch.
2. Start by stating your concerns matter of factly: “I heard yelling last night and I want to make sure you’re okay” or “I noticed bruises on your arm the other day, and it has me concerned.”
3. Try to get in some reassurances that will put them more at ease: “I’m not here to judge and I don’t want to stir up a ruckus. Everything you say to me is confidential. I won’t disclose it to anyone else or take any actions without your permission. I just want to make sure you’re okay and offer support in whatever way I can, even if that’s just listening to whatever problems you’re going through.”
4. Be aware that they may be inclined to deny anything is happening at first. This could be because there +really isn’t+ anything going on. Or it could be because they’ve rationalized the abuse as no big deal, are used to covering for their abuser, are scared of what might happen if they talk about it, or don’t want to talk because it’s shameful and embarrassing. In any case, you shouldn’t try to argue the point. Just let them know that you’re there for tem if they ever need you, and that they can call you anytime to discuss things without judgment.
How To Talk About Domestic Violence
1. Never demonize or dehumanize the offender in your discussions. It isn’t accurate, and it does nothing productive while alienating the victim and making them feel worse about the situation. It’s likely they loved this person at one time or another, and possibly still do. There’s also such a thing as shame by association, so you can’t attack or diminish the offender without making the victim feel worse in the process.
People are not monsters. They are complicated individuals with a mixture of both good and bad qualities, behaving as best they know how according to the often unconscious scripts that are guiding them. Treat them as such. We don’t solve problems by picking and choosing the “proper” people to destroy. The only way we make the world a better place is by extending humanity to all involved, being the source of that one thing in our world that is sorely lacking: compassion. We certainly aren’t suffering from a shortage of shame and judgment.
2. To this end, avoid using loaded words like “abuse” or “victim” or “abuser” as much as possible. All these terms imply judgment, and stir up a collection of learned associations that aren’t helpful. Such terms may be unavoidable at times, but refer to people by their names, not labels; and actions according to a description of what occurred.
3. Try not to act shocked and surprised by anything disclosed. Talk about these things matter of factly, as if you were discussing the weather. Their world may be shocking compared to yours, but to them it’s only the reality they’ve been living in. People tend to hedge their conversations and save the truly disturbing stuff for when they’ve come to trust you. So if you act shocked at what they say, they may stay guarded and refuse to open up fully.
4. On a similar note, try not to +elevate the significance+ of these experiences through what you say. You don’t need to make these experiences into a bigger psychological monster than they already are by adding significance that isn’t already there. Again, the best way to accomplish this is to avoid labels and speak matter of factly without adding your own judgment.
5. In offering advice, try not to take a forceful, hard-nosed, either/or stance. As discussed on our interventions into domestic violence page, there are other possible solutions besides “leave him and uproot your entire life.” The more flexible and accommodating you are in offering advice, the more they’ll trust you, which will come in handy if leaving does prove to be the only reasonable option.
6. Be patient. Try not to nag. Just like those struggling with addiction, victims of domestic violence need to come to the realization that something has to change on their own. You can’t force them into change. You can nudge them in this direction and offer perspectives they might not have thought about, but it’s ultimately up to them. Gentle advice works better than a forceful tone anyway. After all, who might they know that attempts to force their will on others, and always claims to know what’s best for them?