For those of us who are conflict-averse, situations involving harassment or discrimination may feel easier to avoid or ignore in hopes that the threat will go away or someone else will intervene. But whether it’s casual racism or micro-aggressions within your friend group, street harassment toward a stranger, or police brutality during a protest, there are plenty of opportunities for you, as a bystander, to speak up or step in.
“Bystanders have power,” says Lani Shotlow-Rincon, a board member at Stop Street Harassment. “And this power can be utilized to prevent harassment, defuse harassment when it occurs, and help victims of harassment ultimately cope and heal from the harassment experience.”
Here’s how to decide when—and how—to step in.
The first step to deciding whether and how to intervene in conflict is to notice what’s going on around you, says Jenna Templeton, assistant director of health education at the University of Utah’s Center for Student Wellness, adding that intervention depends on our ability and willingness to see potential harm.
Prioritize your own safety
Before you intervene, consider the risk to your physical and emotional well-being. For example, it’s not advisable to step directly into a violent altercation in which you could get hurt.
Similarly, avoid situations that would be triggering, unsafe, or simply exhausting—protect yourself first.
Become an active bystander
Shotlow-Rincon says that direct intervention using both words and body language can help diffuse conflict and censure unacceptable behavior. There is no “right” response for every situation, but there are a few basic tools you can use even if you don’t have formal active bystander training.
- Ask if help is wanted or needed. A simple “Do you need help?” informs the person being harassed that you see the situation they are facing and empowers them to communicate what they need.
- Respond verbally without escalating. Insulting a bully will likely make the situation worse. Call out the specific behavior rather than attacking the individual.
- Deflect, distract, or disrupt. If you’re a bystander, you can redirect attention from the person being harassed or disrupt the normalization of bad behavior. For example, respond to the harasser directly with something like “How’d you know I’m…” to redirect insults onto yourself. Or call out supportive comments to the person being targeted.
- Check in. If the conflict diffuses, check with the victim and ask if they’d like any additional support. Shotlow-Rincon says that simply acknowledging the experience can help people feel safer and less alone.
- Report if appropriate. Not every situation requires a report to law enforcement (more on that in a minute), but you can reach out to various anti-harassment organizations for support, such as RAINN, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and Stop Street Harassment. If you are considering calling the police, try the strategies in this guide to reporting.
Check your privilege
Both Shotlow-Rincon and Templeton say that privilege, such as race or gender, plays into every decision to intervene. If you are a white person, for example, you may be able to leverage your privilege on behalf of a person of color.
However, just because you benefit from various privileges doesn’t mean you get to decide the best course of action for someone who is being harassed or victimized.
“Avoid stepping into a savior role,” Templeton says. “Check in with those who may be experiencing harm and ask how you can support.”
Finally, keep in mind that calling the police or reporting harassment is not the best choice or the only answer in every situation. Templeton says to think broadly about what kinds of support you can offer—and not to assume that the solution involves law enforcement. Individual and community actions can also help hold people accountable for harassment or stop it in its tracks.