Why Everyone Needs Bystander Intervention Training

A lot of people have been asking me about “bystander intervention” strategies. Yesterday I was asked, “What’s the big deal? Why does it matter to students?” My response was simply that bystander intervention programming actually matters to everyone.

You see, “bystanders” actually compose the largest number of people in the “cycle of violence.” Let me try and quantify that statement and put it into perspective.

If we look at the social cycles of discrimination, bullying, harassment, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, and on up through sexual violence, the number of people, in terms of a percentage, that are actually “perpetrators” of the behavior or direct “victims” as a result of the behavior, is actually very small in comparison to the number of people who are “bystanders” to the behavior.


What is a bystander?

For this argument, the word “bystander” refers to all of the people who are witness to or are aware of a social injustice, and are in a position to do something before, during, or after the event that could have changed the outcome of the event or could have lessened the cost of the negative personal, sociological, or psychological ramifications of the event.

For many people, the problem in understanding “bystander intervention” strategies lies with the word “bystander” itself. “Bystander” literally means someone who is standing by, a witness to, but not participating in.

So trying to mobilize people who are “standing by” is a tough concept for people to wrap their heads around. For example, many people, regardless of their work context, witness social injustices such as racial slurs, passive aggressive workplace discrimination, or maybe even not-so-subtle forms of coercion.

People who “witness” these things, or who are aware of these behaviors, usually chose not to get involved in stopping the problem by rationalizing that “it has nothing to do with me,” or that “it’s not my problem.”

The error in this type of thinking is that when people witness events, such as bullying in schools for example, they are condoning the behavior they are witness to. People assume that “ignoring the problem” or acting like they didn’t see the problem, will make it go away.

The reality is that ignoring the problem does not make it go away, and just like a wound left unattended, the problem will actually grow, fester, and become more dangerous.


Who’s involved?

People also assume that since they are not engaging in the inappropriate behavior or not a direct victim of the injustice that “standing by” seems like the safest and most “neutral option.”

Doing nothing is never a neutral option. Doing nothing tacitly empowers the perpetrator, and quite frankly, doing nothing is in essence making a choice in favor of the socially toxic behavior and further facilitates the creation of an environment that allows it.

The confusion surrounding bystander intervention goes beyond the word bystander. It also has to do with our understanding of the terms “victim” and “perpetrator.”

When we use the nouns “victim and perpetrator,” we rigidly isolate and categorize people, events, and behaviors. Nouns such as victim and perpetrator are emotionally charged and come with a whole slew of subjective interpretations of what it means to “be a victim” or to “be a perpetrator.”

Most of the time, this type of thinking allows us to rationalize and “write ourselves” out of the equation because we don’t categorize or label ourselves as fitting into one of those categories.


Changing perspectives

I challenge you; however, to stop thinking about the cycle of violence as being relevant only to those who are victims and perpetrators. I encourage you to start looking at the problem from a different perspective. For example, stop using the nouns and start using the verbs.

The term victim refers only to a small percentage of people; however, the number of those who have been “victimized” by the cycle of violence is much greater. I am not a victim of sexual violence, but I have absolutely been victimized by it. I am not a victim of workplace bullying or harassment, but I have been victimized by it.

I have witnessed how these things affect the lives of loved ones and coworkers, and as a friend, sibling, co-worker, supervisor, and most importantly as a leader, I realize that if I am not part of the solution, I could very well be part of the problem.

If you understand this line of thinking, you will understand why people make the choice to intervene, to draw a line in the sand regarding the types of behavior they will allow in their presence. You will understand why people make the decision participate in creating a living, learning, and working environment that is socially healthy for everyone.

Jill Weisensel
Verbal Defense & Influence Consultant


Vistelar Group –