What should I say to a survivor who seeks my assistance?
Times exist in all of our lives when we must face a problem that seems too difficult to face alone. We may feel powerless because of a lack of knowledge of our rights, options, and resources, or simply overwhelmed emotionally by the experience we have undergone. Frequently, agencies and institutions originally developed to provide assistance have become so bureaucratized we need assistance from someone familiar with them and who has power within the system. An advocate can provide that assistance.
Advocacy is a term and process taken from the legal model. It is defined as “one who pleads the cause for another,” as in individual advocacy, or “one who argues for, defends, maintains, or recommends a cause or proposal,” as in the case of political advocacy.
Being an advocate is not the same as being a counselor. Professional counselors typically have advanced degrees and professional licensure in counseling, social work, or psychology. The role of a counselor or therapist is to help the client, or in this case the survivor, process their trauma; this can be very important for many survivors during their healing process.
Advocates receive specialized training, but there is typically not a requirement to have an advanced degree or professional licensure. The role of an advocate is to provide information and support so survivors can access resources and systems to help them in their healing process.
Your role as an advocate is to provide in-the-moment emotional support, psycho-education, and appropriate referrals. Your role as an advocate is not to provide therapy nor to have someone fully process their sexual trauma with you, as this could leave the person in a vulnerable state. Therefore, it is useful to use a crisis management process when interacting with a survivor. A crisis management process includes the following steps:
Identify the problem
Resources and Referrals
Summarize and Close
Building rapport is central to establishing a strong, trusting, and productive advocacy relationship:
- Offer comfort
- Use survivor’s chosen pronouns and name
- Speak in a calm voice
- Adjust your tone to the survivor’s tone
- Be okay with silence. Communication includes allowing silences and/or long pauses. Often survivors need time to think, reflect, or just get in touch with their feelings. The advocate may need to clarify by saying statements like, “It’s alright not to talk. Take your time.”
- Let the survivor know that it is okay to go slow, to cry, or to repeat themselves, etc.
- You can also use “door openers” when you are establishing rapport or if the interaction feels “stuck” later. These are invitations to the survivor to talk or say more:
- “If you would like to talk, I am here.”
- “I’d be interested in what you are able to say.”
- “I’d really like to hear what you’re thinking and interested in sharing.”
- “How would you feel talking about it?”
- “Sounds like you have some feelings/thoughts about this.”
- “How do you feel about that?”
To learn more about suggested language to use, phrasing suggestions and question framing, refer to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s (CCASA’s) Sexual Assault Advocacy and Crisis Line Training Guide, chapter 5, pp. 16-24