What Should I Say…? Responding to Personal Accounts About a Traumatic Experience

Safeguarding Adults Training for Managers and DSLs

There can be a wide range of situations where you may find yourself listening to someone’s account of a traumatic event they have experienced.

You may find that this is a one-to-one conversation or that someone is sharing their account as part of a group. This could be coming from a friend or family member, someone at work or someone you are studying alongside in a classroom setting.

There is no single definition of what counts as a traumatic experience. This could relate to people sharing their experiences about a previous physical or mental illness, experiences of past abuse, or experience of criminalisation.

Whatever the situation, it can be challenging to know how to respond when someone shares their experience of trauma.

In this blog, we aim to provide practical advice to enable you to feel more confident in responding appropriately should you find yourself in a situation where someone shares their experience(s) of a distressing incident. If a person is disclosing their experience of harm or abuse for the first time and/or you think this is a safeguarding concern, you should consult our guide about making a safeguarding referral. If you believe a person is in immediate danger, you should call 999.

Listening is Key

Whether you are speaking to someone on an individual basis, or as part of a group, if someone shares a difficult experience, listen to what they have to say. If someone has felt comfortable enough to share something, it is likely that they feel safe with that person or within that organisational culture. Try to continue to reassure them that this is a safe space.

You can do this by thanking them for sharing their experience and recognising how difficult it must be to speak about these issues.

Try to avoid interrupting people as they talk. Simply nodding your head or making eye contact can show you are listening.

Avoid Curiosity

After you have listened to their experience, you may find you have lots of questions about what you have heard. Particularly if someone has shared an account of a topic that can be stigmatising, such as experience of abuse or criminal justice experience, it is often best to avoid asking lots of follow-up questions.

Similarly, if you are running a group session, try to minimise the extent to which others can verbalise their questions to the person. It is likely that just sharing this experience will have been difficult. It could be overwhelming to go into further detail at that time.

Instead, phrases such as ‘thank you for sharing that with me/us’, ‘I am sorry that happened to you’, ‘that must have been very difficult’ could be useful.

Confidentiality

Remember that if someone has shared their personal experience with you, it is not your experience to re-tell. Part of creating a safe culture is respecting what is shared and not disclosing sensitive information to others unnecessarily. If you are in a group setting, it is worth reminding others that they should not share the person’s account with others after the session is finished.

Once the person has shared their story, they cannot un-tell it. You may wish to confirm with someone that they are happy to share their account, or offer to speak to them one-to-one, particularly if you are in a group setting. This could prevent them from regretting sharing their experience later.

If you think you need to share information to make a safeguarding referral, the NCVO have a useful guide.

Signposting

If you are concerned about the person who has shared a traumatic experience, ask them if they have received support for this. If they haven’t, you might wish to encourage them to do so by signposting to an organisation that could help. See our directory of useful contacts. Alternatively, you could signpost them to your organisation’s safeguarding lead.  If you are in a group setting, asking these questions at the end of the session or following-up via email would be best.

If you are delivering a seminar or training session where you think incidents of trauma could be disclosed or discussed, it is good practice to provide a trigger warning. This could be, ‘we may discuss XXX topic this week. If you find this difficult, please contact me before the session or you can leave the room at any point’.

You can also signpost to organisations that could support at the end of the session if anyone has been impacted by the topics discussed and offer to speak to people one-to-one if relevant.  

Other Sources of Information

There are various guides providing information about how to respond to challenging topics and accounts of trauma and abuse.

  • Raiin have produced a guide about talking to survivors of sexual abuse.
  • Trauma Talk have produced a short video of how to respond if a partner discloses previous experience of abuse.
  • Ann Craft Trust have produced a guide about starting difficult conversations if you are concerned about someone.
  • Age UK have a guide about facilitating open conversations.