Last night, during the #Sexabusechat on Twitter the topic was on disclosing, the fear, the struggle, and the results.
Obviously, that’s a huge subject with a ton of nuance around it, and sure enough, it inspired a lot of good conversation. Toward the end of it, however, a thought occurred to me in response to a tweet from another chatter about practicing telling someone in the mirror. It reminded me of some of the advice I had learned about when it comes to public speaking, and I realized that all those years of being a trainer, studying and practicing public speaking, actually did make it easier for me to have some difficult conversations, like disclosing sexual abuse.
And as scary as this probably is to most people, learn some public speaking skills, learning how to talk in public about anything, is a skill that comes in handy in so many ways when dealing with tough conversations. #sexabusechat
— Child Abuse Survivor (@SurvivorNetwork) January 29, 2020
Let me reiterate what I said in the tweet. Public speaking is terrifying for many, many people. I get that. I used to be that. I suspect though, that for many people, if they spent some time learning about the skills, and how to be a good presenter, that fear would be lessened significantly. That’s because we typical fear not doing it well, in front of a bunch of people. That’s where the advice about practicing, in the mirror, or recording yourself comes into play. But for the topic at hand, having that first conversation with someone about your past abuse, let me focus on a couple of things that doing a form of public speaking for a living like I did, has taught me, and how it relates.
- It’s not about you, it’s about the message.
I have come to count on this little mantra when it comes to planning a class, a speech, or even a difficult conversation. What it reminds me is that one, my presentation doesn’t need to be flawless, if I’m providing good, solid, information, and that two, I need to focus more on what I really want the listeners to take away from my talk, and plan on how to make that happen. Often it’s by sharing less, but more important details, instead of everything. On the contrary, the first few times I disclosed to someone about being abused, I had no plan. I didn’t know what I wanted them to know, what I wanted them to take away, etc. I was simply scared to even say it out loud. That’s understandable, but it might have helped me a whole lot to have a plan about what I wanted to say, what I wanted them to take away, etc. so that I could focus on that, and resisted the urge to either run away and not have to see them react, or completely overwhelm them with everything I remember at once.
Which brings us to:
- Focus on the listener
As a trainer, there was one goal, and no matter how flawless your presentation skills are, or how charming and charismatic you are in front of the group, if you didn’t teach them what they came to learn, you have failed. When you are having a difficult conversation like disclosing abuse, your goal might be different every time you do it. You may be doing it for the first time and want a trusted friend to help you find a therapist, or you may be talking to a new relationship and want that information out front, or you may be telling your family about abuse that occurred in the past under their noses. Those situations are all different, for sure. Again though, I go back to defining what message you want to leave them with, because that is the important thing. If you want help, or support, communicate that. If you need someone to know, communicate why you want them to know and what you need from them. Be aware of their reaction. Give them a minute to digest the news. It is a lot to take in! Let the conversation pause while they do so. (This is something that takes a lot of practice, we are so inclined to be uncomfortable during pauses, but the best speakers will tell you how important it is to pause, and let the audience take in an important bit of information before moving on.) Answer questions if they have them, and you are comfortable doing so. If they want more details than you are willing to share right now, let them know that too. If they don’t seem to know what to do, let them know they can ask questions, or can come back later and talk more about it.
Most importantly though, do not be taken aback by their reaction, but remain strong in getting your message across, unless they act completely inappropriately. Which brings us to the last public speaking tidbit:
- Understand that everyone comes in with a bias
In a public speaking situation, you may not know much about your audience, and what bias they may come into the room with, but usually you pick them up pretty quickly. In a conversation about abuse, spend some time thinking about what sort of bias someone may bring into the conversation, and be prepared for it to rear it’s ugly little head during the conversation. If you know your family is going to have a hard time believing that another family member, someone they know and love, abused someone, be prepared for that. (Maybe even tell them last) You are about to send a shock wave through their beliefs about their own family. If your friend holds a worldview that the world is fair, and sunny, and good things always work out for good people, you’re about to challenge that belief system in a huge way. If you’re telling someone who loves and cares about you, be prepared for them to feel some serious anger about it, and so on.
Their immediate reaction, try as they might, is going to reflect some of that bias. Expect it, let it, but continue on so that you are still getting your message across.
Again, this assumes a natural, shocked, reaction that can take some time to sink in for people. This does not include people who simply refuse to believe you, laugh, dismiss it, or gossip about you. That’s an audience you need to simply walk away from, they will not be able to learn anything from you, or help you in any way.
Outside of that, however, understand where the shock comes in, and let them have that. Don’t go in expecting everything to be great and ready to go after one short conversation. Much like I used to wrap up training sessions telling students that this isn’t the end all, be all, of learning. This was enough to get you started. The rest will take some time and practice. Encourage them to research on their own, to come back to you after they’ve had some time to digest it, to talk to other survivors if they need to. But, eventually, that you’d like them to do whatever it is you need from them, as defined earlier, right?
Lastly, a word about the listener. When someone came to one of my classes, I had certain expectations from them. When someone approaches you to disclose their past abuse, I think these would be good ground rules for you as well. Come in seeking to learn, with an open mind. Avoid distractions and focus on the discussion while it’s on-going. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you need a minute to digest something, say so. If you feel overwhelmed, say so. Keep the lines of communication open so that we can all go on together instead of losing you. Most of all, make the best effort to leave here understanding why we are doing this, and what to do with this information going forward.
When I think about conversations I’ve had around disclosure, I do wish I had this kind of training and background before. It would have helped so much, I think, to have set goals and decided on the message, considered how it was coming across to the listener, and understood where their reactions were coming from. Instead, I made it all about me, and telling my story, and not in making sure the other person heard my story. Some of them were good listeners anyway, some of them were overwhelmed and I failed to recognize that, instead feeling like they shut down because they didn’t care.
I do not want to minimize how difficult these discussions can be. The decision to share your story is a terribly difficult, and very personal, one. Who you tell, when you tell, how you tell, is your choice to make. This post is about “tough” conversations and this is absolutely one of the toughest you can have. That’s why I want you to consider taking it seriously enough to go in with a plan, to be aware of how tough it is on both sides, and allow for the other person to struggle a bit with it. I also want anyone who has been disclosed to, to understand how much effort it took that survivor to come to you, and take your role seriously.
Most of all, I want all of you who’ve been involved in these conversations, to keep it going. Don’t let a poor initial reaction, or the shock of hearing, cause a permanent end to the conversation. Figure out how to move on from that and keep supporting one another. We all need it.