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Bystander intervention is about the small things we all do for our friends, families, and communities. When we see someone being pressured or experiencing unwanted attention, we have a variety of ways we can check in: anything from a simple hello to a more creative distraction or interruption.
Being an active bystander is crucial but not complicated. The best interventions happen early on. They’re easy, subtle, and safe; a successful intervention might not look like an intervention to anyone else. This way, we can help build a community that doesn’t tolerate casual disrespect and disregard. We also help prevent pressure and disrespect from escalating to coercion and violence. Check out these scenarios and suggestions for honing your intervention skills.
How to help
Notice what’s going on
If you see someone who looks uncomfortable or a dynamic that makes you cringe, pay attention to that instinct.
- Are they stuck in a conversation they don’t seem to be enjoying?
- Is someone getting overly handsy on the dance floor?
- Are they recoiling from an offensive comment or joke?
Noticing these things early and disrupting those dynamics can stop a situation from escalating into something worse.
If you are unsure:
- Monitor the situation. The dynamic might resolve itself. If you are unsure what to do, look for help.
- Talk with someone else. Do they see what you see? “Does that seem a little off to you? Do you think we should do something?”
- Accept that it’s perfectly normal to be unsure—in fact it’s probably a good sign! It means you’re not waiting for the situation to escalate out of hand. If you check in and then realize that everyone’s OK, you can always extricate yourself. If everyone is enjoying the interaction, they will pick up right where they left off.
What can you do about it?
You’ve noticed something that bothers you and you’re trying to figure out how you can help. There are a lot of ways to do that. Your options vary by person and situation. Often, adding a third person to the mix does the trick.
- What feels right to you?
- Can you talk to someone’s friends?
- Can you join the conversation?
- Can you ask someone to help you find the bathroom?
- Can you loop in the bartender or the host of the party?
If you need more ideas, talk to the people around you. They might help you brainstorm an intervention or give you more information about what is going on.
Come up with a plan
- Evaluate the situation and find a strategy that might work.
- Consider talking to a friend if you need ideas or help with intervening.
- Thinking through different ways the intervention might go can be helpful before you act—and can be a useful way of figuring out how other people can help you intervene.
- There might be someone else around who is better positioned to act. Find allies whenever you can!
- Stay safe and make sure your plan doesn’t put you or anyone else in harm’s way. Escalating the situation (whether verbally or physically) is almost always counterproductive and dangerous. Ideally, whatever intervention strategy you choose would be subtle and nonconfrontational.
Make it happen
- Once you’ve noticed something and have a plan to intervene, carry it out.
- Make sure you’re looking out for your own safety and that you’re not escalating the situation.
- Remember, a successful intervention might not look like an intervention to anyone else. It can be as simple as asking two people for directions or changing the music.
Students have given SH101 these reasons for helping others in uncomfortable situations:
- “Someone helped me once.”
- “I was just doing what I would want someone to do for me.”
- “What if I were in their shoes?”
Change the dynamic
When you see a friend or someone else in an interaction that makes you uncomfortable, you can change that dynamic in easy ways:
- Go join the conversation.
- Change the music.
- Spill your drink on one of them—or yourself.
- Ask to borrow a cell phone charger.
- Pretend to be really drunk and ask your friend to take you home.
- Invite them to grab a bite with you.
- Point out the dynamic to a bouncer, bartender, or the party host.
- If you have their number, text them. “OK over there? LMK.”
Why & how
- If you aren’t able to act in the moment, don’t assume the opportunity has passed. You can always check in afterwards: “I saw you at the party on Saturday. I was concerned. Did that work out okay?”
- This is especially effective if you are noticing an ongoing dynamic. You might get coffee with a friend to talk about their new relationship. You can also check in with a friend if you notice that their behavior has been a little pushy lately.
If you’re worried your friend is pressuring others:
- This can be a great opportunity for stealthier interventions—for example, by joining a conversation or joining people on the dance floor. If you’re close to your friend, you can always insist they come to the other room to give you their opinion about something important.
- It can also be useful to talk to your friend later when you’re away from the situation. Avoid taking an accusatory tone. Voice your concerns about the particular situation or pattern of behavior. But if you are concerned about an immediate situation, intervene now.
- Make sure your friend knows you’re bringing this up because you care about them and you want to look out for them. You can say something like: “I know you meant well” or “Knowing how great you are, I’d hate for you to be perceived in a negative light.”
- You know your friend best. You’re equipped to figure out how to have a conversation about why it’s wrong to use pressure
What to say
Lines that work
The goal of intervening is to create some space in a social interaction. That way, someone can extricate themselves if they want to. There are lots of different ways to create space, from asking open-ended questions to offering an exit.
Ask open-ended questions:
- “How’s your night going?”
- “Hey! Don't you work at the office next door?”
- “Do you know who the host is? Could you introduce me to them?”
- “Have you seen Tom anywhere? Do you know what he’s up to?”
Offer an out:
- “Can I borrow your cell phone charger?”
- “I think your friend is looking for you downstairs.”
- “Did you see what’s going on outside?”
- “Could you show me where the bathroom is?”
- “Want to dance?”
Look for allies
Who & why
Anyone around you can help you out. Sometimes, someone else is better positioned to intervene (e.g., they may know one of the people in the uncomfortable interaction). You can point out a situation to someone else or ask them to help you. Consider involving:
- Your friends (or their friends)
- The party hosts
- Campus or local police
- Your boss or colleagues
- Someone who works at your school
- The bartender or bouncer
One way to involve someone else is by telling them how they can help: “I’m going to interrupt this. Please bring the bartender over, just in case.”
If you’re on your own, start to help. Often, others will step up too.
Why it works
Intervening in simple, low-key ways can make the difference
Certain patterns of behavior can make us feel uncomfortable or even trapped, whether it’s an aunt asking you what you’re going to do after graduation or a classmate trying to dance too close to you.
These kinds of pressured interactions can feel hard to disrupt when you’re caught up in them—but a third party can easily step in and help break them.
That’s why intervening is so effective. It helps “break the script” by introducing a new character or dynamic. This can make it easier for the person who’s being pressured to leave the conversation, or for the person applying pressure to realize that that’s what they’ve been doing.
You don’t need to be certain that a situation will end violently in order to intervene—that is often very hard to gauge. Low-level pressure or disrespect is enough to warrant an intervention, because everyone deserves to feel respected in every encounter. Plus, if you intervene and realize that no one is feeling uncomfortable or trapped, you can move on and they will pick up their conversation again.
Check out the resources at your school or in your community
- Connect with your college or university’s sexual assault prevention programs and resources.
- Review your campus consent policy to understand the processes and options.
- Reach out to sexual assault centers in your community for additional resources and ideas.
- Talk to others in your communities about what you can do to help.
Who are you? [video]
Read through each scenario and choose an answer that best fits how you would react in that situation. Keep track of your total points and learn your bystander approach at the end.
1. At a house party, you notice someone from your physics class pulling a very drunk person into the bedroom where everyone dumped their coats. Do you…?
- Point this out to the host.
- Follow them into the room, ask if they’ve seen your coat, and proceed to describe it at length.
- Catch up with the person from your physics class. "Dude, what's the homework, again?"
[A=1, B=3, C=2]
2. At an impromptu party, you notice a guy looking uncomfortable about someone who is getting close and grinding on him. Do you…?
- “Accidentally” spill your drink on the handsy dancer.
- Sidle up to the iPod, interrupt the rambunctious playlist, put on the Barney soundtrack, and look as surprised as everyone else.
- Dance towards them and invite some friends to join the circle.
[A=3, B=2, C=1]
3. During a seminar discussion, one of your classmates makes a rape joke. Some people laugh, while others look uncomfortable. The professor doesn’t say anything. Do you….?
- Make a sympathetic face at the uncomfortable classmates and check in with them later.
- Roll your eyes and say, “Oh yeah, sexual violence is hilarious. About the reading though…”
- Talk to the professor after class and tell them the joke made you and others uncomfortable.
[A=1, B=3, C=2]
4. Your roommate seems distracted and unsettled. When you ask if everything is OK, your roommate shrugs and says, “Yeah, I just had a weird hookup last night.” Do you…?
- Say “Weird how? Do you want to talk about it?”
- Text your roommate’s best friend and suggest they get lunch together and check in.
- Grab some ice cream, sit on your couch, and talk it out.
[A=2, B=1, C=3]
Direct interventionist: You’re skilled at shifting attention to yourself when you see something wrong—whether that’s by being caring, silly, or a little upfront. It doesn’t bother you much if someone thinks you’re interfering, because you’re doing what you think is right.
Distraction artist: You’re great at subtly making space for others and changing the tone of a conversation or a party. You know how to get others involved and how to be there for your friends.
Stealth operator: You’re most comfortable working with other people and finding help—and when you see something that bothers you, you’re the one who’s building a team to tackle it.