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Beyond sexual harassment training: Know how to respond when survivors open up to you


This month is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and while many businesses may have formal sexual harassment policies and trainings, there is less often discussion about empathetic language to use when someone is disclosing an assault or harassment. Whether it is at work or not, when a survivor of sexual violence discloses what’s happened to them, the response they receive will determine many things about how they move forward in pursuing justice, seeking help and even how they process what happened to them. Leaders, friends, family members and colleagues play an important role in ensuring survivors feel supported. 

If you haven’t experienced sexual violence, it’s likely someone you know has. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, according to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Here are some specific phrases RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline staff recommend to be supportive through a survivor’s healing process. The following is an excerpt from the organization’s resource page.

“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts — your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur — everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.

“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.

“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.

“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me” help to communicate empathy.

The Society for Human Resource Management offers tips on developing a sexual harassment training program. One of its recommendations is to speak with employees beyond legal compliance.

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