What to Do When You See Something Troubling

I can remember where I was standing. It was just an ordinary coffee shop, somewhere in Midtown New York. The midday rush was on, and the counter was swamped with orders.

Suddenly, I became aware of raised voices; hostile tones. The man at the front of the line was incensed about something—maybe the pace of the baristas or the wrong kind of milk in his coffee. He made his complaint known. Then, he continued to berate the girl at the cash register.

Her eyes were lowered, her shoulders slumped. The man persisted. He was not just complaining but demeaning, and the tenor of his voice continued to rise.

I felt a knot begin to form in the pit of my stomach, but that didn’t last. In short order, it was replaced by a red-hot surge of anger. The feeling began to rise in my chest, and I could see my emotions mirrored in the faces of other patrons in line.

Still, no one stepped up to intervene.

My mind raced as I contemplated the options. Should I jump the line and calmly point out that he was being irrational? Argue in the girl’s defense? Or simply let my own anger loose and confront, in whatever way came naturally, his appalling behavior?

Before I could decide, the exchange was over. The girl turned her back and began making a coffee. The man moved down the counter and started scrolling his phone. When it was my turn to order, I could only glare at him, my hands shaking.

Most of us can relate to this experience. It might be a confrontation in the coffee shop or movie theater. Or a coach picking apart an athlete on the sidelines of the volleyball court.

In all cases, we, the bystander, are suddenly plucked from the mundaneness of our everyday lives and handed the opportunity to act—to intervene on another’s behalf. It’s a heavy weight, and for good reason, says #WeRideTogether Program & Partnerships Director Kathryn McClain.

“It can happen anytime, anywhere, and I think it’s that spontaneity that makes it difficult to prepare for,” McClain explains. “When we know something is going to come up, we can plan ahead in our minds.”

Another big challenge when it comes to intervening in a troubling situation is what’s known as the bystander effect. In real life, it looks like everyone in the coffee shop looking on as an employee is berated, expecting that someone else will step in on her behalf.

“It’s a groupthink phenomenon where we think the more people observing the more the chance that someone else will do something,” McClain says. “But it actually has the opposite effect where you start thinking, Oh well, no one else is really doing anything either. You get into that internal dialogue, assuming that everyone else must agree with this behavior, or think it’s okay, or don’t think it’s worth intervening.”

The problem, McClain continues, is that this very natural tendency to ruminate on what to do next often leads to inaction of any kind—thereby reverse-validating the abuser’s actions.

Even more concerning: The greater the number of people looking on and doing nothing, the greater that reverse validation becomes.

“I think in these situations, if we see that harmful thing continuing to happen, or the perpetrators not being held accountable, or the rules not being upheld, that gives passive permission for it to continue,” McClain says. “That inadvertent response just continues the status quo, rather than changing the narrative.”

So how do we change the narrative?

While it’s comforting to imagine being the conquering hero, swooping in to rescue the person in distress, that’s not always a practical reality. How and when we choose to intervene is an individual decision, informed by our own past experiences.

“It goes back to personal identity situations, so depending on who you are, and the position that you’re in in that situation, you may be more or less poised or comfortable to intervene,” McClain explains.

What’s more, that decision to act—or not—can be influenced by numerous factors, such as your race, gender, ableness and/or physical stature, your rank in the hierarchy of a team or organization, and your past experiences with bystander interventions, including whether you’ve been a victim of misconduct yourself.

“I think all of those factors, in a matter of milliseconds, subconsciously or consciously, are going through someone’s mind when deciding to react,” says McClain.

In some scenarios, it may not even feel safe to intervene in a confrontation.

“You don’t want to become a victim as well,” she says. “You don’t want to do any further harm, or make the situation worse. Always make safety a priority and get help if needed.”

But this kind of direct intervention is just one side of the coin when it comes to your options for being an active bystander. “Indirect methods can be incredibly impactful for reducing that harmful behavior that that person experienced,” explains McClain.

These indirect methods might include creating an “accidental” diversion to interrupt the abusive behavior, documenting what’s happening in the moment with a photo/video or screenshot, and most importantly, checking in on the athlete or individual who was on the receiving end of the misconduct to make sure they feel seen and supported.

In fact, many situations that require bystander intervention don’t involve direct confrontation at all.

In some instances, being an active bystander might mean recognizing the obvious signs of an improper relationship between a member of the coaching staff and an athlete and reporting it. Alternatively, it could mean documenting a digital exchange that shows bullying between senior and junior teammates.

The bottom line: when we find ourselves witnessing misconduct or troubling behavior, we need to do something to support the individual involved. But there’s no one way to be a good active bystander. Prioritize your safety, do what you can to support those who have been the subject of the abuse, and don’t forget to check in with yourself, McClain advises.

“It’s really about listening to those signs inside your body, that gut instinct,” she says. “If you get the feeling that something’s not quite right, it probably isn’t.”

Watch the Preventing Misconduct in Sports: Safe, Active Bystander Intervention PSA to learn more about safe ways to intervene in unsafe situations.

Original article published by Horse Network.

Nina Fedrizzi

Writer and Editor



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