In times of distress, individuals are most likely to turn to friends, family, and trusted mentors for support. How friends, family, and trusted mentors respond impacts what if any resources someone will seek out moving forward. When someone you care about comes to you and discloses that they have experienced sexual violence, sexual harassment, dating violence or any form of discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex or gender, it is important to listen first, let your mentee, advisee, friend, or family member know that you care, and that you are here to help and to support. Below are some things that friends, family and responsible employees can keep in mind.

How to Help: A Guide for Family, Friends, Mentors, and Responsible Employees

Listen. This is definitely a time when putting away the phone or finding a quiet corner to focus is important. You want to be all there and fully present for this conversation. Remember that even though listening involves silence it communicates a great deal of respect to the speaker. If you are truly listening and truly immersing yourself in the speaker’s words then you also will not be worrying about what you should say.

A word about listening for responsible employees: The best way to assure that the person who is about to disclose information to you about sexual misconduct knows that you are a responsible employee is to make it evident as far in advance of any potential disclosures as possible. Some faculty put information on their syllabi about being responsible employees. Some offices make sure that information is apparent on their website and other materials available to students and colleagues. However even with all of that if you want to be assured the individual knows you are a responsible employee before they make a disclosure we recommend gently interrupting.

Gently interrupting is not an art or science:  It never goes as smoothly as planned and it will feel awkward. The bottom line though is that in a caring and respectful community where we want to honor choice, gentle interruption is crucial.  Often in a conversation you can pick up on signals that someone is getting ready to disclose something important:

  • They may pause and start to say something and then stop before continuing on.
  • They may look down or away and begin to talk more slowly.
  • They may also begin to speak more rapidly.
  • They may also provide an introduction to you such as, “I have been wanting to talk to you” or “I feel like I can trust you with this” or “I want you to know why I have been missing class or work” or “This is really hard to say and I don’t know how to say it.”

Honor confidentiality means don't share information about the disclosure except with those you may be responsible for reporting the information to. It is their story to tell when they want and in the way they want. 

A word about confidentiality for responsible employees: Even though responsible employees can’t keep secrets when they learn of sexual misconduct involving JMU community members, they can honor confidentiality by doing the following when talking to someone who experienced harm.

  • Tell them exactly what you are going to disclose and who you are going to disclose it to.
  • Let them know that they will likely receive some sort of communication from Title IX with information about resources and options and that they are not obligated to respond to Title IX.
  • Let them know that other than the people you listed who you are telling that you will not be telling anyone else.
  • Tell them how you are going to share the information and ask if they have a preference for how you do that. Remember you can report to Title IX in person, over the phone, online, or via email.

Validate their feelings about the experience by acknowledging the distress they must feel. It’s ok to use the words they used or to use words that you commonly use when talking with each other.  Resist the temptation to encourage the person to look on the bright side or make a comment about how things could be worse. Right now and in this moment this is the worst, and it deserves your time and full attention. By the same token, also make sure to acknowledge the strength you are seeing by acknowledging how tough it must have been to share this information and how much strength it takes.

Offer support. You don’t need to catalog all the ways you will offer support over the days and weeks to come. At that moment just say that you are here and that you are here to discuss resources and options. Suggest that you are even willing to go with them to check out different options, if they would like.

Discuss resources available to them. It is definitely recommended that you encourage someone to seek assistance and support. Dictating and cataloging which resource and how someone should use them is not helpful. Instead say something like, “I seem to recall that when we were freshmen we learned about all those resources available to students. I don’t know what they are off hand but if you want I can find that information and we can discuss it, if you would like.”

Safety is very important. Ask your friend or family member if they are feeling safe and if they would like you to stay with them or if they would like to stay with you. If someone is in imminent danger, call the police and get help right away. If you have a feeling someone is in danger but aren’t sure, you can also consult with either campus or community police by calling the non-emergency line.

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