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How to be an active bystander.

This article is brought to you by 'Graham Goulden. Cultivating Minds.'

Over past weeks and indeed years many stories have hit our headlines.  All, in my opinion share one thing in common, the silence of those who were present and, who were in a position, to do something.  In each story bystanders stood by doing nothing to stop the resultant harm.

Whether the focus is on the Red Arrows aerial display team, McDonalds, the NHS, policing or within the high echelons of our national government what is clear is the presence of people who did nothing.  The following blog was written in response to a sexual crime that took place on a train apparently witnessed by several bystanders.  In this piece I highlighted two things.  Firstly, I discussed why people remain silent.  Secondly, I discussed the consequence of our inaction.  Both points are sadly being missed by many who deliver trainings to activate bystanders.  Both are vital in the engagement and activation of people who have the ability also to do something that can change the outcome.

When people better understand why they don’t act we help them to overcome these inhibitors. When we discuss consequences of silence, we help motivate them see that action can interrupt the harm.  People don’t simply intervene.  There will always be some form of motivation. As we know all too well harm will evolve and continue unless we see interruption.

Each of us has great potential power to help others in need, to influence fellow witnesses when action is needed, to become active bystanders. We have the potential, if we join together, to influence organisations and our country to prevent harm to people at home and abroad. I see a bystander as a witness who has the potential to know what is happening and the potential to take positive action. I say the potential to know, because to avoid involvement people often close their eyes to events.

But people can also exert positive influence on each other. Past studies with young children and adults confirmed that when a person is silent or dismisses a situation then the likelihood is that few people will act.  Inaction breeds inaction.  However, the opposite is also true.  When one person highlights an issue and provides direction to others then action will occur.  Action breeds action.

Helping people realise their power is the first step to helping them use it.  Whilst the provision of tools is important, these tools will unlikely be used unless we discuss the points above as well as working hard to motivate individuals to act.  When we are motivated to act the evidence suggests we will act.  To anyone delivering such training my ask is to follow the evidence and do it properly.  We set people up for failure if we don’t.

Tools are important for anyone who wants to help.  Efficacy motivates people to act.  Good training provides the tools for a motivated person to use.  Tools give us options.   We can make decisions based on each event.  A knowledge of brain science is also relevant. 

We are less smart when we are stressed.  Many people I work with often talk about acting quickly and getting it wrong or making it worse.  Some even discuss a physical attack that occurs when they act.  A quick discussion on how the brain works can help.  When we are stressed, our brain becomes emotional, it reacts.  Its evolutionary and designed to keep us safe. 

Training people to remain focused helps.  Developing a form of initial selfishness can help.  It provides time for you to get the brain engaged again.  Deep quality breaths get the oxygen back to where it’s needed.  This helps the brain become critical again and can keep you safe.

In our engaged state we can start to think about what tools will work best.  We often hear about the 3, the 4 or the 5 D’s.  Whatever tools you provide, help people to think them through.  Dr Phillip Zimbardo from the US says it best through his use of the term the ‘Heroic Imagination’ where we rehearse our words, our delivery, time, or location where we use the tools.

We can intervene directly, speaking to a victim.  If you don’t feel safe engaging with the harm doer, don’t.  Maybe you could get someone who is more qualified or closer than you are to this person.  This might simply be ‘calling the police’.

Another option is to use a simple distraction to diffuse the event.  Nothing big is needed.  Changing the subject at a team meeting or asking a person for the time can alter the event.  Always remember to do this if you feel safe to do so.  Using a distraction can help delay a direct intervention.  This is especially useful with a friend or colleague.  Maybe the Christmas night out isn’t the place to have ‘that chat’.  Do it the next day.

Phones and technology present opportunities to gather evidence.  The ‘Document’ tool was highlighted in the murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020.  A passer-by recorded the event.  I have no doubt this evidence led to the conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin.  We can also combine this option with giving others responsibility to act – “Hey can you call the police whilst I record this”.  The evidence suggests this will work.  Remember action breeds action.

Tools are important but we need to ensure that these tools are going to be used.  The evidence tells us how to ready people for action.

Here’s an active bystander checklist.  One that was passed to me by US psychologist Catherine Sanderson.  She refers to this as her moral rebel checklist.  I love that term.

  • Instil as belief that change is possible.

  • Help people find friends and allies.

  • Silence has consequences.

  • Provide skills and strategies.

  • Practice

  • Sweat the small stuff – Provide focus on harmful behaviours and attitudes.  Such focus can help avoid the evolution of harm.

To end I want to repeat a point I make above. “When we are motivated to act, we will intervene when we witness harm”. Surely that’s the outcome we want.  Victims deserve it, society deserves it.


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