How to Help Others in Times of Need: Bystander and Upstander Intervention

When we think about standing up to violence, harassment, discrimination, or bullying, our thoughts immediately go to the tragedy that happened in Portland, Oregon in 2017. We all would like to do the right thing, and stand up for those being harassed, but now many of us will have second thoughts about doing so. The first rule of intervention is: Make sure you and the people around you are safe. Once that is done, you may be able to still your second thoughts and utilize some of these recommendations to diffuse potentially inflammatory situations.

To address uncomfortable situations, you must first be able to identify them. Each of us has probably been in a situation where our stomach flipped, but that doesn’t always mean we did something about it. This could be due to not having a technique to utilize, or maybe we turned a blind eye, replicating other bystander and upstander behavior. Don’t be too hard on yourself. This is a common response for individuals who don’t know what tools to use when they experience or witness harassment, discrimination, violence, hazing, or bullying.

Situations where individuals don’t respond to someone in need of help is called the Bystander Effect. The Bystander Effect, suggests that the greater the number of people present, the less likely someone is to help another in distress. This could be due to:

Psychologists conducted a study to better understand the bystander effect. It is alarming how long it takes bystanders to respond to help these individual (actors) in distress. The bystander effect is reality, but hopefully you will recognize it in the next situation you witness or experience.

Bystander and upstander intervention is a technique that can be used in any circumstance, whether you are addressing harassment, discrimination, bullying, or violence at the workplace or your personal life. You can use the five techniques described below to address the situation. They are called the 5-D’s. Keep in mind that depending on your individual style, some of these techniques might be more appealing to you than others.

Direct – You can directly address a situation by acknowledging and naming the offense.

Distract – You can distract the individuals involved by engaging the individual being targeted. Although distraction is not a long-term solution, it is good in the moment when you need to act immediately.

Delegate – If you feel uncomfortable utilizing the direct or distract method, then find others to delegate to. Also, there is power in numbers, the more people you delegate to and seek help from the stronger your message will be.

Delay – Maybe you didn’t feel comfortable with any of the options above, or your safety was in jeopardy, you can still check in with the individual after the fact. Some situations of harassment, discrimination, violence, hazing, or bullying happen so quickly you might be frozen before you can do something. Many people will appreciate you checking in with them even after the fact.

Document – If nothing else document everything. This may come in handy with a longer incident or in a workplace setting. If an investigation is conducted your document could be invaluable.

If you think that a situation will improve on its own, think again. Addressing situations early is essential in setting a standard. Often people feel uncomfortable and don’t say anything, letting behavior continue until it has become hostile and toxic. It is important to “nip it [the behavior] in the bud” early, to prevent the behavior from continuing or escalating.

The next time you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation try one of the 5-D’s! Hopefully you feel empowered to stand up for yourself or someone else.

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