How to Listen Actively, Love Openly, and Share Courageously

Every October, we honor Domestic Violence Awareness Month. DVAM is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of these issues, share resources, and most importantly, support survivors.

This post is by guest author Kalimah Johnson, founder and chair of SASHA Center, a sexual assault service, prevention, and educational agency designed to provide educational and support groups to survivors of sexual assault.

As a domestic violence survivor advocate for many years, I have had the opportunity to learn basic skills in listening. To be helpful to a survivor, it is imperative to listen without bias, scrutiny, or judgments. When a survivor is dealing with a violent partner, leaving a violent relationship, seeking safety, or determining the next steps to take for their own survival, it is absolutely paramount for someone in their corner to practice active listening skills.

Listening may sound like an easy task. However, effective listening is active, participatory, and deliberate. It takes practice to get comfortable and good at it. We must be sure that we are not just listening to respond, but listening to understand. We must communicate that the story being shared with us is appreciated, honored, and revered.

Moreover, listening requires more than just ears. Our facial expressions, nonverbal cues, eye contact, and body posture all can affect how our listening impacts and is positive for the person sharing their story. It is helpful to check in with yourself before you listen to someone else.

Ask yourself: Am I centered and concentrating only on the person who is sharing? Am I attentive in my body language? Am I breathing at a comfortable pace? Am I open? Am I using words to identify and echo what the person is saying to me so I can reflect a deeper understanding? Am I keeping it real without interrupting? Am I paying close attention to what they want and need right now?

We must be aware that the person may be sharing the details for the very first time. We don’t want to complicate things by interrupting or asking too many questions at once. Sometimes, just being there and being completely silent—but still present—can go a long way for the survivor’s confidence and security.

Listening also requires cultural competency. At SASHA Center, a nonprofit sexual assault peer education support group service agency in Detroit, Michigan, we serve survivors from various backgrounds. We are very aware issues of violence may be multilayered. Factors to consider include the survivor’s socioeconomic status, understanding of urban folklore, environmental factors around them, and/or religious beliefs.

Some survivors who have experienced trauma may share their stories using satire, irony, and humor. They may signify, or apply a double meaning, to a word, phrase, or sentence. They may quote from holy readings or recite a song lyric. They may laugh, cry, or have no emotion at all when sharing their story. No matter what, it is our responsibility as family members, friends, co-workers, associates, acquaintances, and conduits to listen, assist, and support.

We are here to help survivors on their healing journey. Together, we can help to diminish isolation, promote safe love, and encourage healing for survivors of domestic violence. This month, I challenge us to listen actively, love openly, and share courageously. Practice active listening and be an inspiration to those who need you. The act of breaking silence is only as good as the listener who can hear it without judgment.

What are your tips for active listening? Tweet us at @TheJHF using the hashtag #SupportSurvivors.

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