What do you do when someone comes to you with their problems? Most people, including myself, would answer that their first instinct would be to fix the problem, which makes complete sense. After all, that’s what our society tells us to do and holds in high regard the ability to problem solve and have an answer.
We are taught to do this early on, to solve for x, to have that perfect witty comeback, and to approach problems with an endgame, a solution in mind. This is why I think we feel a constant pressure to have the right words; the right words to say, the right words to write, and the right words to heal. But, in getting caught up with wanting to have the right words, we forget that sometimes, the best words aren’t really words at all, a fact that becomes especially clear when working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence, where the right words are learning how to listen.
I consider myself as a fairly rational and practical person, especially when it comes to giving relationship advice to my friends, which is why I find myself trying to fix their problems, and approach these problems with the intent of finding a solution. My advice usually runs along the lines of, “if they suck, drop them” or “if they aren’t treating you right, tell them BYE.” I tell my friends to see their relationships as good or bad, right or wrong, based on certain standards that I hope they have for themselves. While this solution-driven approach can work in fairly casual settings, and for certain types of problems, I’ve learned that this kind of thinking cannot always work in the real world, especially when it comes to complicated issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse, where a solution isn’t so cut and dry.
Don’t get me wrong, using reason and being rational is important, however, it isn’t always the best strategy especially when dealing with something as complex and oftentimes messy as relationships. To go a step further, this binary way of thinking can only take you so far, sometimes being counterproductive and even dangerous when it comes to working with victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Why is it counterproductive?
When you are telling a victim of domestic violence what they “ought” to do, what the “smart and right” thing to do, what they are actually hearing is judgment, and you imposing your opinions and decisions on them. You may be doing it with the best of intentions only to help solve a problem, but the victim might be hearing something completely different when being communicated to this way. Although we may not realize it, the victims are used to dealing with a variation of this type of control every single day, constantly being talked at by their abuser who might be using multiple ways to manipulate and control them–not just physical violence. In addition, when a victim is talking to you, it’s important to realize that they may have finally mustered up the courage to speak out, so the last thing they would want to hear is the judgment about their situation.
This is why I cannot emphasize enough, the importance of listening; completely and actively. There is a difference between listening so the other person can feel heard, and listening just to respond to the other person–and all too often, I find myself and many others doing too much of the latter and not enough of the former. Listening to respond, often goes along with approaching a problem with the presupposition of a solution, whereas listening so the other person can feel heard, is tied to empowerment, which is what’s needed. This distinction is small, and is a skill which is difficult to master but is vital when communicating with survivors of abuse, where sometimes the best “solution” you can provide is to listen.
Keeping this in mind, what has been shown to work is something called “options counseling.” As a volunteer client advocate my role is to first and foremost, listen, and only then provide options for a client if needed. I am in no way qualified to give professional advice, just options, support, accompaniment (to places like the courthouse or hospital), and most importantly, loads of empowerment. In my client advocate volunteer training, I learned about some of these options in more detail, which ranged anywhere from legal action in the form of a Preliminary Protective Order, to seeking an emergency shelter or medical help, to suggesting the victim’s abuser enroll in a Batterer Intervention Program (BIP), if appropriate. Options can be a client and an advocate’s best friend because they fall in the middle ground between providing a cut and dry solution while also allowing for the freedom of choice for the victim based on their situation. Ultimately, what makes this approach powerful is that the client has power and control handed back to them.
Why is it dangerous?
According to studies, victims have the highest level of danger as they are leaving their situation because it was observed that during the precise moment of leaving was when the tension between them and their abuser has the potential to escalate severely. This is why telling someone to “just get out” or “just leave” without getting a complete understanding of their situation, can sometimes be the most dangerous thing you can do, even though in theory it may seem logical. And keep in mind that leaving isn’t the easiest thing to do either, especially when there are a host of other factors at play like if there are children involved, societal/cultural pressures, immigration status, finances, or even just still having deep feelings for the other person.
Anyone can be a Client Advocate
Being a good listener is not the easiest thing but the good news is we can all learn. We all know how hard it is to take logical advice ourselves; it’s why our own breakups can take weeks and months to get over and we find ourselves going back to toxic and damaging relationships again and again. And suddenly all that rationality with which we normally use to give advice goes flying out the window. So ultimately, being a good client advocate comes down to actively listening, empathizing, and being patient.
I wanted to be trained as a client advocate because I felt like I wasn’t informed of resources for domestic violence victims or even knew the right things to do or say if I ever encountered or was approached by someone going through DV/abuse. But I know if I’m going to be a medical professional one day, I need to know how to navigate the complex situations of patients who have undergone abuse, if it were ever to arise.
Beyond my own reasons for wanting to be a volunteer client advocate, I think the best reason for being one is that literally anyone can be an advocate if they are willing to learn. In the training sessions run by the country which I live in, I was surrounded by men and women of different ages, nationalities, and professional backgrounds who showed up early on Saturday mornings just so they could learn to become more active members of the community. Now imagine if we had entire communities that were similarly informed, and members who were not only equipped to be responsible bystanders, but also advocates. That has the potential to be a whole different community entirely.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger please call 911. If you are not sure that your situation constitutes an emergency, you can seek counsel from either the ASHA for Women Helpline at 1-888-417-2742 which serves South Asian victims of abuse or the National Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 in total confidence.
Sruveera Sathi is a recent graduate of William & Mary where she majored in Neuroscience and minored in Public Health. Before medical school, she is pursuing a master’s degree from Georgetown and a fellowship through SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) where she will be working with ASHA for Women as a community partner to ensure justice for South Asian victims of domestic violence. With community engagement as a driving force throughout her life, she hopes to one day combine her background in medicine, love of public service, and strong advocacy to enact systemic changes in the healthcare system and beyond.