Converting statements into questions – a skill for bystanders who want to help victims of abuse
[February 22, 2023: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Those who seek to help survivors of abuse often find their well-intentioned remarks fall like lead balloons. The survivors don’t respond with alacrity, gratitude or even (sometimes) civility. What causes this mismatch? Why are so many well-intentioned comments received so poorly? What’s the static on the line causing this interference?
Being a survivor myself and having experienced many well-intentioned comments that hurt me, and now being in a place where I seek to support other survivors, I can perhaps make a few suggestions for those who want to support survivors. I believe would-be-supporters stand a better chance of helping survivors if they humbly listen to the person who’s been abused. Following the precept “be quick to listen; slow to speak” (James 1:19) we need also to train ourselves to refrain from jumping down survivors’ throats with advice. If we are burning to give advice, we need to learn how to carefully re-frame the advice into gentle, open-ended questions, allowing the survivors dignity, honouring their responses to the abuse, and keeping the dialogue open.
Can you think of more examples to the ones below? What are some well-meaning statements that can be converted into questions, or can be recast into a non-judgmental statement conveying information, followed by a question.
(When reading this table, reverse the genders if necessary.)
|If you are longing to say||Re-frame it into a question like this|
|Just leave him!||Have you ever thought about leaving him?|
|He’s a selfish person!||Do you ever think he is selfish?|
|Why don’t you just leave?||What are your reasons for staying in the relationship? What might be your reasons for going?|
|You need to submit more.||If you submit more, what does that lead to?|
|You need to stand up to him.||If you object to how he treats you, what does he do?|
|You’re being abused!||The experts would call this domestic abuse. Have you ever thought he is abusing you? Are you afraid of him? Are you walking on eggshells?|
|Why did you marry him?||Was he like that before you married?
When did you first notice him being unkind to you? What he’s doing is not normal behavior; do you know that there is help available?
|You should go to a doctor.||Have you ever told a doctor about this kind of thing? Would you consider doing so? If not, what is holding you back?|
|He’s such a nice man!||Does he have a “private face” and a “public face”?|
|But he’s such a good father.||How does he treat the kids? How do they feel about him?|
[February 22, 2023: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to February 22, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to February 22, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to February 22, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (February 22, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
- Posted in: Supporting victims
- Tagged: Barbara Roberts, getting free, protecting victims, recovery, resources for supporters
Thank you, Barbara. Even though I have been there and done that it is good to be reminded of these things for when I talk to others about their abusers. Also it will help me when others say things to me that are less than useful.
Ah! This is VERY helpful, Barb! Thank you for this!
Yay! Just what I needed! 🙂
Thanks all who’ve commented. I’m glad you find it helpful. I’m hoping people will add more examples of statements that can be converted into questions.
What about, “What do you think would happen if you….?” (left, etc.)
Or, “What is a typical day like for you? Do you think that’s normal?”
Or, “Do you ever ______? How does he respond when you do that? How does that make you feel? Do you think that’s normal / OK? Why / why not?”
Or, “What kind of counsel have you been getting? Do you find it helpful? / How do you feel when someone suggests things like that?” (Whatever has been suggested by a counselor.)
There might be better wording for some of those….
Those are all GREAT questions, BIT!
The only thing I might suggest is that to ask the survivor “Do you think that’s normal?” may be a little confronting. She might think you are putting her down for having weird / wrong ideas of what normal is. A better way might be to just ask her: “What is a typical day like for you?”, or “Do you ever ______? How does he respond when you do that?”, and let her give her answer.
If anything she says in her answer indicates to you that her husband’s behaviour is not normal behaviour, you can then reply like this: “You said he did ________. Do you know that’s not normal behaviour?”
This way, you are still putting it as a question, but you are giving her really important INFORMATION in the form of a question. You are telling her that her husband’s behaviour is not normal, but you are doing it by asking “Do you know that his behaviour is not normal?”
Many survivors are immensely relieved to be told that their spouse’s behaviour is not normal behaviour. And telling them by asking them “Did you know it’s not normal behaviour?” preserves the survivor’s dignity and keeps your relationship one of mutual equality, not one where you are the “patronising superior helper” and she is the “abject, dependent, pathetic helpee”.
Not that I’ve ever thought that you were patronising or superior, BIT! Never in a million years have I thought that about you. 🙂
Oh no, Barbara! I appreciate your suggestion. That is exactly what I wanted when I mentioned better wording. 🙂 Thanks! I like your idea much better. 🙂
Amen! Thank you! I have often received the wrong kind of comments and not really understood why I found them so offensive. They robbed me of my dignity. Often, I feel like people think I’m stupid and need to be told the most mundane things because anyone who has “taken” what I have can’t be that bright. Very patronizing. Often, too, these types of statements are followed up with laughably simple solutions for our complex problems.
Just tonight a dear friend turned to one of my sons and gently asked, “Do you know that your father’s behavior isn’t normal?” And, earlier in the day another friend asked me, “Do you think R gets away with what he does to you and the kids because he is such a private person? Do you think that people can’t hardly believe he does that because he’s so hard to get to know but comes off nice initially?” Several years ago another friend didn’t even look up from filing her fingernails when she asked, “Do you know that is considered abuse?” Of course, any one of these could have come off wrong….”Your father’s behavior isn’t normal!” “I don’t think people believe R would do that because he comes off like such a nice guy!” “He’s abusing you!” One way makes us feel cared for and supported; the other way makes us feel condemned.
My local DV advocate is great at this. Women will jump from one abusive relationship into another, but she never ridicules them for it. Instead, she’ll ask, “How long have you known him? Do you feel it’s healthy for your children to see you with him? Do you feel that you’ve healed enough to be ready for another relationship?”
Thank you so much, Barb, for addressing such an important topic!
Awesome. Love these suggestions and thoughts!
My sister met her husband when she was 13, married him at 18….was beaten and abused ’til she was 26. I begged her to leave him. Then one day she did….3 weeks later he lured her out of my other sister’s home at 3 a.m….at 4 my family and I were awakened by police and told my sister was dead. Shot under the chin with his 9 millimeter handgun. He was indicted of murder. After my family was put through his horrible trial, only to hear the verdict he was acquitted and set free….she was only 26 years old….
[For safety and protection, the commenter’s screen name was modified to Frances. Editors.]
Frances – sadly these worst case scenarios happen rather often, don’t they? Very, very sorry. Could you share with us how he managed to be acquitted?
That is horrible, Frances, I am so sorry your family went through that. The acquittal was an injustice on top of injustice.
That is truly awful. I’m so sorry.
Frances, I am so sorry. What a terrible injustice, what a horrible grief for your family. Thank you for sharing.
Great post, Barbara. Now forcing myself to re-phrase my “advice” I was all set to dish out this week!
Thanks, Barbara, I know for me and several of my friends it can often be years before a clear answer to those questions comes through the fog. But just having supportive, loving people ask those questions is one of the things that helps clear the fog. I couldn’t admit to myself, let alone anyone else how bad it was for the longest time. Even now I really have to work at living in the reality of it and not minimizing it away, moving back into the fog. So thankful for the supportive questions that help me along the way. Blessings everyone, prayers for comfort and healing today. Especially for you, Frances, and your family.
Rather belatedly, I’m adding some more key expressions that I’ve found very helpful.
If you want to give advice, you can soften it by saying:
“You might like to consider….”
“I’d like to suggest that you….”
“Have you ever thought about….”
“What do you think would happen if you….”
“Have you tried….”
Opening phrases like this can stop your advice from coming across like an order or a directive, and turn it into a gentle suggestion. If the survivor wants to take up your suggestion, she can, but if she declines to take it up, you haven’t burned any bridges.
In fact, when a survivor declines your suggestion, she often gives you information to explain why your suggestion will not work. She might say, for example, “I tried that already and this is what happened….” Or she might say, “I couldn’t do that, because that would be un-Christian.” When she gives you information like this, it gives you a lot more to go on. Once you know, for example, that the survivor has difficulty with the idea of disclosing the abuse to anyone other than yourself, you can explore why that is so. Maybe there is an interdiction against “gossip” in her church that makes her think she would be disobeying God if she told her secrets. If you find that out, you can invite her to examine the Bible’s teaching about gossip, and explain to her how it has been distorted and misconstrued by many churches.
Thank you, Barbara, for your reference to gossip. I was shut down by 3 supposed friends when I tentatively reached out for help 8 years ago in our former church. The one comment I remember now was in response to a question, and all I said was “he needs to keep his promise.” That was considered “gossip” by the person I thought was my good Christian friend! I have spent 8 more years in bondage no thanks to my thwarted efforts and my silenced voice. (I did my own personal Bible study on gossip, however, and discovered that I was NOT gossiping!)
Thank you for pointing this out, the term “gossip” is misused terribly by churches and Christians alike today, to the detriment of us all.
Eight lost years! (hugs)
In my knowledge of the stories from many survivors, you are not the only one who stayed for many more years due to having received a bad response to their first disclosure.
The question that woke me up more than any other was “did she do xyz earlier in your marriage?” where “xyz” was abnormal behavior. It may have been the timing more than the question, but I can remember the exact place I was and the conversation that took place. My inner voice said “so wait, this isn’t normal behavior? And someone sees that?”
I felt a sense of relief and had a wake up call all at the same time.
What was most helpful to me was when I was asked if “I would suggest another wife say or do that in that situation?” I found that when I put myself as the outsider looking in on my marriage I could see it for what it really was and would never ask another woman to put up with all that abuse.
Good point, Bethany. I’ve heard that question asked quite a few times, and yes, it is a good one!
“Do you feel you are safe in your current situation?”
“What would need to happen for you to feel safe?”
Barnabasintraining, what do you do when you ask those questions and the answers are, “No, I am not safe” and “I will never abandon my covenant partner, and if I die, I die.”
I don’t know. I’d like to see what others would say though!
Anonymous – to the first answer I would say “would you like it if I helped you develop an escape plan?” and to the second answer I would give them a copy of Barbara’s book, ask them to read it, and let them know that I will always be there for them no matter what. Even if they never leave they need support and understanding. You can’t make someone leave all you can do is pray for them and make sure you are available to them so that if they do get the courage to leave they will know that you will be there. One of the scariest things about living is the thought that no one will be there when you leave. There abuser has skillfully trained them to not trust anyone but him (or her) and has isolated them.
Yes. And questions. If she says she doesn’t feel safe in her current situation, you could say “Feeling unsafe is really common for women in situations like yours. (That tells her she’s not alone.) Often if helps to develop a safety plan. Have you heard about safety plans? Would you like to know more about them?”
If she says “I am going to stay with my covenant partner no matter what,” you can respond: “Why do you believe you have to stay with your covenant partner no matter how he treats you?”
She will probably tell you she believes such and such….(“God hates divorce”; “divorce is only allowed for adultery”, “I vowed ’til death us do part”….). Whichever of the misunderstandings she brings up will give you a guide about how to take it from there. If you are not on top of all the various arguments in my book that refute each of those misunderstandings, you can go and re-read the relevant section in my book (use the index to help you) and then explain that argument to her. Or show it to her so she can read it herself. Reading a whole book such as mine, for a person in her position, is probably asking too much. And it may be very unsafe for her to have the book in her house. So feed her snippets bit by bit, if need be.
If you don’t have much time, you can offer this: “Did you know that there are very good biblical reasons why abuse IS grounds for divorce? There are books written that explain those reasons; I can tell you the authors if you wish.” If she asks for the authors’ names, you could suggest my name and Instone-Brewer’s.
Bethany, just a point. Unless the victim has mentioned that she “wants to escape”, I would suggest you avoid using the term “escape plan” because it is likely to sound too extreme to her; she’s probably not there yet, all the knows is that she feels unsafe, but she hasn’t yet decided she needs to escape. So the term “safety plan” is much better. A safety plan can be created and applied while the victim is still living with the abuser, and is not choosing to leave the abuser. Safety plans can be created and tailored according to whatever the victim’s circumstances are. And the best safety planning is an iterative (repeated) process, with adjustments being made as the victim’s circumstances change.
We as amateurs can point a victim to the idea of safety planning (there are good safety plans on the web you can find with a Google search) but the best safety planning is done with a professional DV support worker who has training and experience and is up to date with the latest “best practice” models of safety planning. So especially if a victim is at high risk, our aim is to encourage and assist her to get help from a professional DV support service.
Good point, Barbara. Thanks for the advice. 🙂
Thanks for all your input. For the sake of privacy, I cannot say too much about her situation, but it is chronic and severe. All I can do is be a support since she doesn’t see that it is right or possible to leave. Prayer works wonders too, as most of you would know!
Hmm, that’s interesting, Barbara. It puts my mother’s persistent questions about his selfishness into perspective now. I couldn’t quite figure out why she kept asking about it — when we were still on our honeymoon….
That makes me feel so sad for you, Anonymous. 😦
This is a great thread, Barbara. I’m so glad you rephrased the statements into empathic questions or statements. It makes a tremendous difference for me, and helps me to remember how to respond, too. Depending on the day, I can become defensive and mouth off when someone makes an ignorant….rather than think it through and give a solid answer. I’m still amazed how people in general have the mindset of “why don’t you just leave him?” Or the “forgive him and let him keep working on it” theory.
In the news last week was yet another story of an abuser who murdered his girlfriend. Football player Jovan Belcher, in Yahoo sports. The article talked about how the coaches and teammates “had his back” when they knew he was going through “off field” trouble. It sounds like no one reached out to the girlfriend. The follow-up comments under the article contained several statements from readers stating….”domestic violence isn’t that serious, and if it was so bad for her, why didn’t she just leave.” I had a few comments to say to that, and did.
In general, people still don’t get it, nor do they want to get it and be proactive rather than reactive after a tragedy. But as you are doing, and Jeff C, keep speaking the truth! This pattern will change eventually….I believe it will.