How to Safely Intervene in a Conflict

For those of us who are not prone to conflict, it may seem easier to avoid or ignore situations of harassment or discrimination in the hope that the threat will disappear or someone else will intervene. But whether it be random racism or micro-aggression in your group of friends, street harassment by a stranger, or police brutality during a protest, you, as an outside observer, have many opportunities to speak up or intervene.

“Eyewitnesses have power,” says Lani Shotlow-Rincon, board member of Stop Street Harassment . “And that right can be used to prevent persecution, mitigate persecution when it occurs, and help victims of persecution eventually deal with it and get rid of it.”

Here’s how to decide when and how to intervene.

Be observant

According to Jenna Templeton, assistant director of health education at the University of Utah Student Health Center, the first step in deciding whether and how to intervene in a conflict is to notice what is happening around you, adding that intervention depends on our ability and desire to see potential harm.

Rely on your own safety

Before intervening, consider the risks to your physical and emotional well-being. For example, it is not advisable to get into a fight in which you could be injured.

Likewise, avoid situations that can be provocative, unsafe, or simply exhausting – protect yourself first.

Become an active bystander

Shotlow-Rincon says direct intervention using words and body language can help dispel conflict and condemn inappropriate behavior. There is no “right” answer for every situation, but there are a few basic tools that can be used even if you don’t have formal training for active outside observers.

  • Ask if you need help . Simple “Do you need help?” informs the person being persecuted that you see the situation they are facing and gives them the opportunity to communicate what they need.
  • Answer verbally without escalating . Insulting the bully is likely to make the situation worse. Induce specific behavior rather than attack the person.
  • Reject, distract, or interfere . If you are an outside observer, you can divert attention from the bully or disrupt the process of normalizing bad behavior. For example, respond directly to the abuser with something like “How did you know that I …” to redirect the abuse to you. Or make supportive comments about the person being attacked.
  • Register . If the conflict is spreading, check with the victim and ask if they need additional support. Shotlow-Rincon says that simply recognizing experiences can help people feel safer and less alone.
  • Please advise if necessary . Not every situation requires a law enforcement report (more on that in a minute), but you can reach out to various anti-harassment organizations such as RAINN , the National Domestic Violence Hotline , and Stop Street Harassment for support. If you are going to call the police, try the methods in this guide to report it .

Check your privilege

Both Shotlow-Rincon and Templeton say that privileges such as race or gender influence every decision to intervene. For example, if you are a white person, you can exercise your privilege on behalf of a person of color.

However, just because you enjoy different privileges does not mean that you can choose the best course of action for someone who is being persecuted or persecuted.

“Avoid being a savior,” Templeton says. “Talk to those who may be affected and ask how you can help.”

Finally, keep in mind that calling the police or reporting harassment is not the best choice or the only answer in every situation. Templeton advises to think broadly about what kind of support you can offer, and not to assume that the decision is related to law enforcement. The actions of individuals and communities can also help hold people accountable for or stop harassment.


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