Topic 2: Responding to a disclosure of gender based violence

When someone discloses to you that they have experienced gender based violence, whether recently or some time ago, it is important to recognize that a great deal of trust has been placed in you by the individual. As discussed earlier, there are many barriers to disclosure and the following section will help provide some elements of best practice as to how to respond. Again, if you work in an environment where responding to disclosure is a regular part of your job, please defer to the guidelines and protocols outlined by your place of work. 

  • Respect. If a disclosure comes from somebody you know, it can be difficult to avoid treating someone differently or taking a “softer” approach after you hear about a traumatic experience they have been through, out of fear of doing more harm. However, the most helpful thing to do is to continue to interact with them the way you always have, to show that their experience hasn’t changed or diminished your opinion of them in any way. Disclosures can also happen at any time, under any circumstances, and may also come from someone you have not encountered before. Being kind and empathetic without infantilizing is the best course of action, regardless of your relationship with the person who is disclosing to you. 
  • Safety. It is of utmost importance that a survivor of gender-based violence be given a safe space in which to disclose and seek care and support. Let the person know that you can have the discussion in a more private, quiet space if they wish. Make sure others know not to disturb you, without revealing details. If possible, a comfortable space where you can sit side by side with the person, such as a counseling room or sitting room, will make the interaction feel less daunting to the survivor (as opposed to sitting across from each other at a desk, for example.) Body language is also an important factor to consider. Make sure you are physically engaged in the conversation, facing towards the person without bearing down on them, and not providing any physical barrier such as folded arms or leaning away. Active listening, which is outlined in further detail below, is also something that should be practiced.
  • Confidentiality. Make a point of letting the person know that you will not share anything they have told you. This extends to not taking notes while they’re talking; it may also be a good idea to keep electronics such as phones and laptops out of the room for their peace of mind. 
  • Non-discrimination. Examine your internal biases and work to overcome them. Avoid stereotyping people based on what you already know about them. As we’ve discussed, gender based violence is a common and complex issue and it can affect anyone. 

What do you say when somebody comes to you with a disclosure? You need to use a trauma-based approach. When someone discloses violence to you, it can feel very overwhelming; we’re often afraid of saying the wrong thing. Try to stay calm, especially if you know the people involved. Some examples of how to respond to a disclosure include:

  • “I believe you.”
  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “You can tell me as much or as little as you like.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “It’s safe to tell me about this if you feel comfortable.”
  • “Thank you for telling me.”
  • “I’m sorry this has happened to you. I’m glad you told me.”