Active Bystander Intervention
The overall goal is to defuse the situation and separate people who are hostile to one another.
Someone is threatening someone else. You aim to help, while allowing the target autonomy and control. How?
- Decide if interaction is appropriate, or problematic
- Take responsibility
- Decide how to react
- Be alert. Headphones, hoods, phones, books…
- Be attuned to body language and how it changes.
- Decide if interaction is appropriate, or problematic:
- Trust your gut. Survival skills/reptile brains. Feel danger.
- Look for signs: racing heart and pulse, dilated pupils, muscle readiness
- Before you step in, scan your environment.
- Look for aggressive postures: Violation of personal space. Loud and hostile language. Where are their hands? Cues that there are weapons available to the aggressor.
- Take responsibility:
Decisions you can make ahead of time about what actions you are in a position to take, and which you cannot.
Consider these beforehand:
- Am I feeling well today? Am I clear-headed? Given that, what can I do today?
- Who am I with at this moment? Could I endanger them?
- Am I doing something that could cause me to be injured or arrested?
Then, in the moment, you know what you can commit to.
- Decide how to react:
Act confident. Try to react with your head, not your heart.
Before moving a muscle, slowly breathe OUT, then in, five times. Approach as assertive (but not mutually aggressive), confident, and as calm as you can, that’s the first step toward defusing a situation.
- Body language: keep your chin lifted, your spine straight, feet planted, knees slightly bent.
- Voice: calm and firm as possible. Slow it down. Control the volume to slightly loud.
- Eyes: Maintain direct eye contact, but without malice.
- If you have to imagine yourself playing a role—think of the most confident, graceful person you know, fictional or real life, do it.
Tactics in public places:
In open spaces:
Assertive ignoring: This is suitable for responding to street ranters and street harassment. Maintaining your space, calmly. Keep a confident posture and keep moving. Refuse to engage.
In enclosed spaces:
- Physical strategies:
Draw attention Ask people in the space to look up. “Hey everyone, that man is yelling at that woman, please look up!” “Look up, I need help!”
Distract (distracting either person in the situation)
Distract the aggressor:
- question about directions, or some other neutral topic. (This works best when the bystander is a larger, white man, but it can work with other bold people or groups of interveners.)
- faking a fall or dropping a lot of things, then making a lot of noise about it. Everyone is distracted. Works better in crowded places.
Distract the target: This technique is also used when you know the target and you are in a public place, as a date-rape intervention.
- Keep a respectful personal space. Don’t crowd the target. Don’t touch or physically guide.
- Ask if you can sit there/stand there. Introduce yourself by name.
- Do you need help? Is this person bothering you?
- Suggest that the targeted person move away, don’t demand it.
Follow the target’s instructions – he or she does not need more disempowerment! If you are good a play-acting, pretend you know the target and see if you can get them to play along.
Delegate (bring in other people to help get a person in trouble to safety.)
Distance Separate the aggressor from the target, physically, by asking the target to move or having a group to surround the target and turn their collective backs on the aggressor. This is commonly effective in stranger interactions in closed spaces, like public transportation.
In open spaces, walk the target away from the aggressor. Continue to speak loudly, calling for people to “look up.” “Look up, this man is bothering us!” “Help, this man is bothering us!”
Delay When at all possible, check in with the target after the incident is over. This is true of hostile shouts, stares, or prolonged aggressive incidents. You can validate the personhood of the target by acknowledging that you saw what happened. He or she may be stunned and need a friend at that moment. He or she may need medical care or not feel safe enough to get home alone.
Summary: Remember the Ds. Use Draw Attention, get help and Delegate. Then, with your allies, create Distance between the aggressor and the target. Take the time to care for the target’s delayed reaction. Make sure the target is safely on their way to a safe private place.
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