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Last edited: September 14, 2012

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This section focuses primarily on the provision of supportive counseling. It is based on work with domestic violence survivors, though it may have components relevant to other forms of violence (Grealy, C., et. al., 2008).  

Although methods may vary, supportive counseling involves:

  • Validating a woman’s experiences and helping her to recognize her strengths and survival skills.
  • Advocating for a woman’s needs, ensuring access to resources, protection and services.
  • Assisting women to understand the dynamics of gender-based violence (e.g. relationship and power dynamics) and the reality of their rights (Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2010).

Shelter staff should adhere to guiding principles and counseling techniques which demonstrate:

  • Attentiveness and seeking to understand, through active listening techniques which communicate their understanding by carefully watching and listening to the woman, clarifying her feelings, and responding verbally.
  • Acceptance and showing respect for the opinions and feelings of the woman. This refers to demonstrating a non-judgmental attitude, either through culturally-appropriate physical actions (e.g. nodding, maintaining a neutral facial expression); verbal responses (e.g. restating what the woman has said; encouraging her to express her feelings) or other means (e.g. listenting attentively; allowing the woman to take her time) (Office for the Victims of Crime, 2007). 
  • Empowerment of the survivor, which includes promoting women’s sense of self-worth; choices and ability to make her own decisions about those choices; access to opportunities and resources; power to control her own life, both within and outside the home; and ability to influence the direction of social change (including to create a more just social and economic order) (United Nations Population Information Network).
  • Awareness, which involves attention to both the verbal (what is said or stated) and non -verbal parts of communication (how things are said and other behaviours). 

Being Aware, Means Paying Attention to...

>Word choices may give clues about the values and feelings of the woman.

>Silences may indicate that the woman is thinking, uncomfortable with the situation or what has been said, or too upset to speak.

>Facial expressions may suggest what is felt or differences between the stated words and what is felt.

>Eye contact may indicate how comfortable the woman is with a topic or the person they are talking to.

>Body position and gestures may indicate feelings, value or comfort level.

  • Making observations, related to the information the woman is sharing or feelings being expressed.
  • Clarifying and summarizing, which involves asking what was meant by a particular statement or term, in order to ensure the counselor understands the woman’s message. This prevents assumptions which can lead to misinterpretation of information and interests.
  • Accepting feedback, by listening what the woman has to say in a non-defensive manner.
  • Freedom from roles, by relating to the woman as a peer and avoiding the use of titles and power-based descriptions that put the counselor in the role of “expert” or “judge”.
  • Exploring and supporting mobilization of resources (e.g. referral services) as needed.
  • Using silences, by recognizing when it is helpful to sit quietly and give the woman time to collect her thoughts, process what was said, cry, breathe deeply, etc.
  • Speaking a common language, by adapting the language used in the session to reflect the age, education, background, and personal style of the woman to promote her comfort.
  • Empathy involves being able to see the world from the woman’s frame of reference and to communicate and clarify concerns from that perspective. This involves:
    • Listening to what the person is saying and how she is saying it.
    • Processing what has been heard.
    • Observing how the woman is feeling.
    • Seeking to understand what make this event, issue or story important.
    • Responding to what was said using brief statements that reflect understanding of the relevant feeling and situation (e.g. "I understand"; "That must be difficult for you").
  • Communicating support, with encouraging messages.
    • Positively reinforce the woman's efforts (e.g. "That's good"; "Congratulations").
    • Seek to identify the woman's need and concerns (e.g. "What would you like to see happen?").
    • Reassure the woman or girl that change is possible.
    • Look for opportunities to affirm her strengths, achievements and efforts (Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2010).