When we witness racial, sexual or any other kind of harassment, what can we do to intervene?
Tips for Active Witnessing and Conflict De-escalation
Treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Unleash our constructive power to transform conflict.
Always attend to your own safety. Notice your concerns about intervening and honour them.
1. Centre and calm yourself. Try breathing slowly, maybe thinking of an image that calms you, and waiting before reacting until you’ve taken at least a couple of deep breaths. The best way is to develop a centring practice in daily life so that it’s habitual and easy to do even in the heat of a conflictual moment.
2. Give your attention to the targeted person. Sit or stand nearby. Make eye contact with the targeted person. Let them know you are witnessing and standing by.
3. Engage them in dialogue. Ask, “How can I help?” If you ask whether they are okay, they may feel pressured to say yes, even if it’s not true. Ask what they need and how you can best help them. Don’t assume you know. You may wish to offer possible solutions but just understand that the targeted person may reject them. Befriend and connect with empathy and emotional support. E.g., “You don’t deserve this. He shouldn’t be saying this to you.”
4. Use distraction and humour. Interrupt the interaction by asking the targeted person for the time or directions to the nearest grocery store. Compliment the targeted person, sing, be silly, offer potato chips, do jumping jacks, burst out crying, spill a drink, ask for a Band-Aid or act like you are in pain so people start to attend to you instead. You could comment on their hat or T-shirt, ask questions, look for commonalities, such as, “I went to that place once!” or “I’m a Canucks fan, too!” Do anything that will take the aggressor’s focus off the targeted person. Sometimes the aggressor is performing for an audience (e.g., his buddies). If you can peel away the friends/audience, then the performance is deflated indirectly.
5. Delegate. Ask others that are in the area to do something (e.g., get another shopper in the store to go find a manager). Think: Who might be able to help? Who has credibility here? If you don’t feel safe, or have young children with you, you might say to someone who is in a better position to help, “That woman over there is being verbally attacked. Would you feel comfortable saying something?”
IMPORTANT: Always check in with the person being harassed before calling the police.
6. Distance. Try to increase the distance between the targeted person and the aggressor (e.g., say, “Excuse me, I need six feet” as you push your shopping cart between the two people to separate them). If the targeted person is willing, help move them out of the situation. Pretend you know the person being targeted and run up to them and say something like, “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry I’m late. Let’s go!” To help them get away from the hostile person, you might ask them if they can help you with something and then lead them away.
7. Address the comment. In solidarity with the targeted person, you might speak to the aggressor:
“I understand you are scared, but s/he deserves to be treated with respect.”
Name what you see: “She looks uncomfortable. Why don’t you leave her alone?”
“Can you explain what is so funny about that joke? I don’t get it.”
“What’s going on here?”
“Can you tell me again what you just said?”
“Ma’am, that is unnecessary. Please step away from him.”
8. Interposition. Put yourself between the aggressor and the targeted person. Start by moving slowly toward the targeted person. Stand between them and the aggressor. Maybe touch the person on the elbow or the shoulder. Sometimes, if you have delegated or asked people to help, you can together form a U or V and gradually back the aggressor away.
9. Follow up. Check in with the person who experienced the disrespectful behaviour, whether it's minutes, hours or days later.
You can ask, “Can I sit with you? Can I accompany you somewhere? What do you need? Can I get you a cab?”
Or say, “I saw that. You didn’t deserve that. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Nonverbal cues like a knowing glance can also be helpful.
10. Record the interaction. Give the footage to the person who experienced the harassment so they can decide what they want to do with it.
To be more discreet, you might pretend you are checking your email.
Try to hold device sideways and get as much detail into the frame as possible.
Record yourself saying where you are and what time/date it is.
Do this only if someone else is already helping the person being harassed.
For online harassment, take a screenshot.
Conflict de-escalation: CLARA method
Addressing the aggressor.
C = Calm
Centre and calm yourself.
L = Listen
Listen for the feeling that may be behind the words, an unspoken and unmet perceived need (e.g., for personal or family safety); an experience that may be driving what they are doing right now; or a value that they are trying to actualize or live up to, but maybe not in the healthiest or most skilled way.
A = Affirm
Acknowledge the feeling (e.g., fear), value or need that you think is driving this behaviour. For example, say, “I hear your concern. You want there to be some accountability for this. We need to figure out a way to make sure this doesn't happen again.”
Avoid psychologizing the person. And remember that any attempt to discover what the person’s underlying need might be is not the same as affirming or agreeing with the strategy they may be using to try to meet that need. You can just say, “I hear you.” That doesn't mean you think what they’re doing is okay.
R = Respond
You could offer a suggestion or idea. Ask a question, preferably an open-ended one that helps the person break out of the narrowness of aggression. Or offer a choice. “What if I were to do this?” “Would you like A or B?”
A = Add
Offer a resource or maybe video they could watch, if they seem receptive.
Sometimes it can be most effective to connect with someone who has a closer, more trusting relationship with the aggressor than you do, and ask them if they’d feel comfortable raising the issue with that person in a way that takes issue with the words/behaviour but shows kindness and respect to the person.
This resource has been derived and adapted with gratitude from multiple sources, including trainings offered by DC Peace Teams, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Right to Be and the American Friends Service Committee.