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How to have a conversation with someone who is experiencing domestic violence.

It’s one of the sad truths of our society, but chances are that you know someone who has suffered domestic violence.

An estimated 4.2 million Australian adults have been subjected to violence, emotional abuse, or economic abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15. That’s roughly one in every five people.

While the overwhelming majority of cases go unreported to police, many victim-survivors will turn to someone close to them, such as a friend, relative, or co-worker. Research suggests that positive responses by these informal support networks can not only improve the well-being of the victim-survivor but can also encourage them to seek more formal support.

Watch: Coercive control is a deliberate pattern of abuse. Post continues after video.

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So what should you do if you suspect someone in your life is in an abusive relationship? Should you raise it with them? What should you say?

Mamamia spoke to representatives from two major domestic violence organisations about how to provide effective support.

Dr Chelsea Tobin is the CEO of Safe Steps, Victoria’s 24-hour family violence crisis service. Safe Steps handles over 150,000 phone calls a year and helps Victorians experiencing domestic violence understand their risk and access appropriate services.


Tara Hunter is a social worker and Director of Client and Clinical Services for Full Stop Australia, a national organisation that provides counselling for people whose lives have been impacted by violence and abuse.

Both women said it’s important to keep two things front of mind when supporting a victim-survivor: safety, and respect.

Should I reach out to someone who may be experiencing domestic violence?

"I would always encourage people who suspect a friend or a loved one is at risk to reach out and offer support," Dr Tobin said.

"Many people worry about interfering or are scared of doing the wrong thing. I don't think you need to be an expert. I think simply listening and supporting can make a world of difference."

Tara Hunter agreed.

"Most people will reach out to a family member or a friend if they're feeling unsafe," she said. "So having these conversations, in a safe way, is absolutely critical because you might be the first person to listen to someone."

Again, both women stressed, "in a safe way".

What are the considerations to make before reaching out to a person experiencing domestic violence?

Safety. Safety. Safety. 

When approaching someone you suspect may be experiencing domestic violence or abuse, it’s vital to ensure the perpetrator isn’t aware of your concerns.

"When it comes to domestic and family violence, often there's a whole range of technology-facilitated surveillance, which means that a perpetrator might have access to things like text messages and emails, and they might be tracking where that person's going," Hunter said. "And so we need to be really careful that's not being monitored."


It’s best to have the conversation in person, in a quiet place, when the victim-survivor is alone.

How should I start the conversation with someone experiencing domestic violence?

Dr Tobin suggested that once you’re comfortable that the situation is safe, find a quiet moment and ask questions like, 'What does a normal day look like for you?' Or even more directly: 'Are you safe at home?'

Be prepared that the person may not be ready to answer. And be sure to respect that.

"If that person says, 'I'm fine', then we don't push it," added Hunter. "We just say, 'Okay, I just wanted to check in. I'm always here if you need to talk.'"

It’s likely the person is "testing" if you’re safe to speak to, Dr Tobin said.

"You should never expect that somebody is going to divulge everything at the start. You might ask the right question at the right time, and [they might divulge] two per cent of what's going on. Then you might get another two per cent the next time, and the next time, and the next time. So patience and time are important."

What should I say if someone tells me they are experiencing domestic violence?

If they do open up about experiencing abuse, your reaction is critical. The most important thing you can do is listen, and believe what they tell you.

"It’s so powerful to acknowledge someone," Hunter said. "Just taking the time to sit and listen — not interrupting, not judging. Just listening to what's happening to them and saying things like, 'Thank you for trusting me with that information. I'm sorry that this is happening to you. If you don't know this, I need you to know: this is not your fault. You are not responsible for someone else's behaviour.'"


It’s helpful to reinforce that they are not to blame. At all.

"People make a choice to be abusive, to use controlling behaviour, and there's actually never an excuse for it," Hunter said. "It’s never [the victim-survivor’s] fault."

Also, don’t tell them what to do next. Simply express your support and offer to help them explore their options.

Hunter advised saying something like, 'I want to help you the best way I can. What are some of the things that you feel like I could do? Or is it that you just wanted someone to listen to you today?'

Remember, said Dr Tobin: "Offering support is not [offering] an opinion. It's listening and believing."

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What should I do to support someone experiencing domestic violence?

When someone in your life shares that they aren’t safe, it’s only natural to want to rush in and protect them, to solve the problem, to remove them from harm’s way.

But there is no such thing as a simple, "quick fix" for someone experiencing abuse. The mechanisms by which abusers trap victim-survivors are myriad and deeply complex and leaving can actually be the most dangerous time for them. (Abuse is about power and control, and when that is threatened, abusers often retaliate.)

"There are economic considerations. There are child safety considerations. The abuser might be threatening that they’ll harm the person’s family members if they leave, or that they’ll harm their pets," said Hunter. "These are all the things that may be going on in the background that you're not aware of."


It’s also critical to respect the agency of the person being abused.

"When we come in and take control of these scenarios, then we're just disempowering people even further," Hunter said.

She stressed this message: "Women are the experts in their own safety."

"Every day they're making decisions and choices about keeping themselves safe. And so [it’s worth] acknowledging that and saying, 'I know you're doing a great job at keeping yourself safe, but I'm really concerned about you. And I’d really be pleased to help you when you feel ready.'"

Both Dr Tobin and Hunter stressed that it’s not up to loved ones to find solutions. Instead, be their ear, their shoulder to lean on and, most importantly, their bridge to formal help.

"When you speak to somebody, you always want to include support options," said Dr Tobin.

That could involve sharing the contact details of confidential support services like Safe Steps, Full Stop Australia or 1800 RESPECT. It could be offering to accompany them to a GP, a local hospital, or the police.

Each situation is unique and delicate. What might be helpful for one person, won’t necessarily suit the next.

"What I would suggest is that if you're concerned about somebody, ring us and we will talk you through how to provide the appropriate next-step support," Dr Tobin said.


In the meantime, she said, "Be kind. Be patient. And most of all, don’t judge."

Remember: Seek support yourself.

The reality is that being a supporter may be a long-term endeavour. It will involve watching someone you care about be tormented. Struggle. They may withdraw again and again. They may leave their abuser and return several times.

But you could become part of their path to safety, a source of solace and empowerment. You could walk alongside them as they save their own life.

To support your friend or loved one in the safest, most respectful way possible, lean on support services like Safe Steps, Full Stop Australia and 1800 RESPECT. They are there for you as well. They can offer practical advice, as well as counselling services to help you navigate all the emotions that come with this critical role.

If you or someone you know is at risk of violence, contact 1800 RESPECTSafe Steps (VIC): 1800 015 188, or Full Stop Australia: 1800 385 578.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a national organisation that helps women, children and families move on after the devastation of domestic and family violence. Their mission is to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most. If you would like to support their mission you can donate here.

For more information about supporting a loved one, see this resource developed by Full Stop Australia.

Feature image: Getty.