Violence prevention initiatives in settings like workplaces, schools and early childhood services can often prompt disclosures of family violence or sexual assault. This page covers how to provide a supportive and helpful response.
Who should know how to respond to disclosures?
In Australia, family and gender-based violence is common. It is likely that people will encounter victim survivors or perpetrators of violence in both their personal and professional lives. For this reason, it is important that people know how to respond when someone discloses their experiences of violence, particularly in a workplace context.
People will confide in someone they trust. This could be a manager, colleague, teacher or other staff member. It’s therefore important that all staff understand how to respond to a disclosure in a safe and supportive way.
This is also true for those working in primary prevention. Violence prevention initiatives raise awareness around issues of family and gender-based violence, and this often creates a safe environment that can make people feel more comfortable talking about their experiences of these forms of violence.
The importance of specialist professional development
All workplaces, including organisations undertaking prevention activities, have a responsibility to ensure staff are trained and confident to respond to disclosures. This includes talking to colleagues, young people and children – as well as their families and other staff – about family and gender-based violence. Staff should also know the referral pathways for both victim survivors and perpetrators.
Listening to and supporting someone through a disclosure can be confronting and potentially distressing. People responding to disclosures may need internal or external support to debrief after their experience of working with a victim survivor or perpetrator of family violence.
Specialist family violence and sexual assault services can provide expert training on how to respond when someone discloses an experience of violence. They can also provide further support to those who disclose.
Learn more about our courses and tailored in-house training packages.
Providing a sensitive and supportive response to a disclosure validates the person’s experience and can impact their willingness to seek further help. However, it’s important to be aware of the responsibilities and limitations of your role.
The three most important things you can do are to:
- listen, without interruption or judgement
- believe and validate their experiences
- provide information that will support them to make their own choices (as much as possible) in what happens next.
You do not need to ‘fix’ the problem for them, give them solutions or provide counselling. But, depending on your role, you may be legally required to share the disclosure with other people if you believe there is an immediate risk of harm.
Practical tips for responding to disclosures
Undertaking specialist training is the best way to learn the skills to respond safely to a disclosure.
These are some suggestions of what to do – and what not to do – if a colleague, student or client discloses an experience of family or gender-based violence.
What to do when responding to a disclosure
- Actively listen, without interruption, giving the person time to share their experience.
- Show that you believe what they are saying to you.
- Affirm that they have done the right thing in disclosing their experience.
- When responding to disclosures from children and young people, let them know how courageous they have been in coming forward and highlight their strengths.
- Take their fears or concerns seriously.
- Emphasise that they are not to blame for their experience.
- Be clear about the limits (if any) to confidentiality. For example, you may have a legal obligation to share some of this information with other people if you believe that there is an immediate risk of harm.
- Provide information about what you will do in response to the disclosure and that you will continue to support them in your role.
- Provide information about internal and external support services (including websites and phone numbers).
What not to do when responding to a disclosure
- Talk about your own experiences of violence.
- Ask a lot of questions to try and find out details.
- Judge or criticise their choices.
- Make comments that imply there’s something they could have done to ‘protect themselves’
- Promise you will keep their confidence (if you’re not able to do so as a mandated professional).
- Get angry or frustrated at the person or their experience.
- Try to ‘fix’ the problem for them.
- Tell them what to do.
- Talk negatively about the perpetrator.
- Try to force them to disclose information – let them guide what they tell you.
- Provide counselling.
For further information and tips, download Our Watch’s guide to responding to disclosures.
Responding to disclosures in a group setting
Prevention work often involves discussing violence in group settings online or in person. This can sometimes lead to participants disclosing experiences of past abuse.
While a participant might feel safe disclosing in that moment, ultimately it is a public space and may not be safe in the long term, especially if shared in front of peers. It may also be triggering for other participants.
Tips for managing disclosures in a group setting:
- Where possible, include in your group agreement that this will be a learning, rather than a therapeutic space, and emphasise safe self-disclosure.
- If someone begins to disclose, validate them and contain the disclosure. For example, “Thank you for sharing, that sounds really difficult” or “I’d like to talk to you about that in the break”.
- Check in with the person at your next opportunity and provide them with support and referral services as required.
Referral and support services
For information and referral details for specialist family violence services in Victoria visit our service directory.
Community agencies working in partnership with schools also need to ensure that they are aware of departmental policy around mandatory reporting and the Child Safe Standards. PROTECT is the Department of Education and Training’s primary response to the implementation of the Child Safe Standards. Advice for schools about mandatory reporting can be found in the department’s Policy and Advisory Library.