Bystander Intervention and Deescalation
Keeping people safe in public spaces
QFTC organizer | March 20, 2021
Bystander intervention and deescalation is a way of using nonviolent methods to defuse harmful situations and ensure the safety of everyone involved. This is good general knowledge to have on hand; after all, anyone could potentially find themselves in the role of a bystander in an escalating situation just in day-to-day life. The most important thing is to be prepared, so that you don’t freeze up or do something that makes the situation worse!
The information in this post comes from trainings by three organizations, each having somewhat different areas of focus (see bottom of page). I highly recommend attending their trainings if you have the opportunity! A big benefit of attending an actual “in-person” - nowadays virtual - training is being able to work through example scenarios, either by role-playing or by thinking through the situations they present and rehearsing your response. Plus, the trainers can explain all this stuff a lot better than I can write it!
First, and most importantly: know yourself.
- The main tool that you have in an intervention/deescalation scenario is yourself - your voice, body language, tone, volume, etc.
- What characteristics or identities do you possess? What are advantages or disadvantages that can work for or against you in various situations?
- Evaluate your emotional capacity. What is your typical response to stressful situations (yelling, verbal abuse, threats, physical domination)? Do you have any emotional triggers? How do you respond to people who disagree with you politically? Can you hold space for people with mental health issues or drug intoxication?
- What are ways that you can deescalate yourself before entering a situation? Make sure you have effective grounding and centering techniques, and the ability to notice if/when you become ungrounded.
- What are your mental, emotional, or physical limits? Is this the right role for you?
STEP 1: ASSESS THE SCENE
Maintain cool alertness!
A. Scene safety
- Survey the environment around you. What is the layout? How many other people are around, and what are they doing?
- Make sure to note possible exits, routes of safety, and line of sight to potential allies or antagonists.
B. Identify the conflict
- Is this a constructive or destructive conflict? Not all conflicts are destructive! If it seems like things aren’t going to get out of hand and/or will resolve on their own, do not intervene. Check if body language or physical postures are escalating, whether the target appears afraid, whether people are being dehumanized, or if it seems like violence or significant harm is imminent.
- If there are two (or more) people: is there a clear victim and/or aggressor?
- If there is only one person: is the person acting in a way that makes you worry that they might be a hazard to themselves or others?
- If you are in a protest: Are there counterprotestors being deliberately provocative? If the protest is nonviolent, are there people within your own protest actively trying to incite violence and disruption?
C. Assess yourself
Remember, you don’t HAVE to do anything. It is better to do nothing than to worsen the situation. Make choices with your own care in mind.
- What are your own needs in the moment?
- Are you the right person for this? Do you feel capable of changing someone’s behavior and guiding the situation to a better solution?
- If you do get involved, what is your plan?
- Do you need additional support or backup? (In protest situations it’s good to go with a buddy or two!)
STEP 2: CENTER/GROUND YOURSELF
- If you are not thinking clearly, you could put everyone around you at risk. You need to be your full intelligent self and hold on to your ability to assess the situation strategically.
- Remember: Whose crisis is it anyway? If you are a bystander, it is not your crisis. Do not get escalated yourself in response!
- Hold on to your goal - which should center the safety of everyone involved.
- You gotta believe you can do it before you can do it! :)
- Some suggested grounding techniques (look up others, find what works for you):
- Deep breath
- Count to 10
- What can you see, hear, feel, smell?
- Feel the weight of your feet on the ground, your presence in the world
- Sing or hum to yourself
- Bring a calming image or memory to mind
STEP 3: DETERMINE IF ACTIVE INTERVENTION IS REQUIRED
- If there is a clear aggressor and victim, ask the target if they want you to intervene! Don’t just jump in and take power from them. (For instance, ask “do you need anything?") If they do not want you to, do not intervene! However, you can still stay nearby to witness and observe, and be available if things escalate further. Can you empower the target to constructively step in for themselves?
- If there is no clear victim or aggressor, and the conflict appears to be destructive, go for the person who you think you can have the most effect on. Often this is a person who appears more regulated and in control of themselves (i.e. less escalated). Or, it may be the person who you have the most affinity with - usually the person who is most similar to you in identity (race, gender, class, etc.).
- Don’t get caught up in trying to stop every loud noise or shouty interaction.
STEP 4: DEESCALATE/INTERVENE
A. General advice:
- Try to use the least amount of intervention necessary.
- How you act is more important than what you say. Keep an open stance and calm demeanor. Bring the emotion down gradually.
- Use empathy and compassion to rehumanize ALL parties involved. Separate the action from the person, acknowledge human dignity. Talk to them like you would talk to a friend or family member. What does this person feel, need, or want? How is this action/context affecting this person?
- Slow down, avoid a sense of time pressure (“If you act like you have 5 minutes, it will take all day. If you act like you have all day, it will take 5 minutes.")
- When someone is escalated, not everything they say needs a response.
- Most people don’t actually want to physically fight, and would welcome an excuse to disengage.
- Stay detached from outcome. It’s paradoxical, but the more attached you are to a particular outcome (for instance, “make the aggressor understand what they’re doing is wrong”, “make the victim feel better”, “everyone needs to get along”, etc.), the more fixed your mindset becomes, and the more difficult it is to respond in ways that positively affect the situation. Don’t get your ego hooked into the situation, or else you will be the one in crisis.
- If it seems like a particular tactic is not working and the situation is still escalating, shift tactics!
B. Intervention options:
- Sometimes just your presence and eye contact with the target is enough - support, connect, witness. Or, wait till the situation is over (especially for harassment that happened in passing or very quickly) and speak to the person who was targeted to check in on them after the fact.
- Sometimes, if you simply speak up that you are witnessing this interaction, that’s enough to deter an aggressor. Documenting (filming) can also be powerful, but do NOT use the image or footage of the victim without the person’s consent - it’s very disempowering and can result in legal issues they don’t want to deal with. Ask the person being harassed what they want to do with the recording.
- Distraction: Do something unexpected, get the aggressor to think about something else. Strike up a cheerful and completely unrelated conversation with either the victim OR the aggressor as if you’re buddies. Do a dance, sing a song. Get creative!
- Humor: defuse the situation, change/dissipate the energy
- Delegation: Ask someone else to intervene - ideally a credible messenger or someone with authority (shop owner, protest leader, etc.) that the aggressor will listen to. Or, ask others nearby to do something specific to help (call hotlines etc).
- Distance: Try to separate people from each other, or separate the disruptive/aggressive person from the crowd. If you can’t get the person to leave, see if you can clear the area of uninvolved people.
- Peel away enablers: If the aggressive person is surrounded by buddies egging them on, you can deescalate by drawing away or distracting their buddies.
- Interposition: Physically using your body to place yourself near or in between people. You can also invite other people in the vicinity to stand/sit/kneel with you, or to form a privacy circle around the disturbance. Or, if you subtly take small steps towards the aggressor, you can shift their positioning and “herd” them backwards gradually.
- Give the aggressive person what they want: for instance, if someone in a car is angry at traffic being blocked by a march, perhaps the best thing to do is to temporarily halt the march and allow the car through before resuming.
C. Deescalation strategies/tactics:
- “What can I do for you (the escalated person) in this moment?” Be present, give them a bit of your time to show that you care, don’t jump straight to “fixing” it.
- Ask open-ended questions, use your natural curiosity and empathy.
- Give them options (will you walk with me? etc.)
- Use “I” or “we” messages, display interconnectedness and solidarity, we’re in this together and we’ll get somewhere together.
- Personal insights and experiences often reach people in a way that abstract facts do not.
- Modeling: “I’m going to take a breath now.” Breathe and ground yourself. The other person may unconsciously follow suit (in the same way yawning is contagious).
- Don’t tell someone to stop yelling - it’s like telling someone to stop vomiting. Telling someone to “stop” triggers a visceral defensive reaction. But if you ask “what’s going on?”, that breaks the cycle going on in their head and shifts their attention. Or, “I can’t hear you when you’re shouting” ( = “I want to listen and understand what you say, but I am unable to when you are interacting in this way”).
- It’s less about dialogue and more about generating a deeper connection that shifts the energy/course of the interaction. Keep it simple, get to the essence of the situation.
I. Framework of “Content, Process, Ground”
Content = topic being talked about.
Process = how it’s being talked about.
Ground = how grounded people are.
If grounding falls apart, process falls apart, and you won’t get anywhere with the content - people dig in their heels. If you notice yourself or others becoming ungrounded, drop the content until you can reground and check your process.
II. CLARA method: Center, Listen, Affirm, Respond (+/- Add).
Note that this is premised on being on a neutral or equal footing with the person you’re addressing.
- Center: Center and calm yourself first (don’t feel “put on the spot”, threatened, or attacked)
- Listen: What is the story behind what the person is feeling? Listen until you hear the moral principle that they are speaking from, what lies at the core of their questions or statements, a feeling or experience that you share. Listen for a way in which you can open your heart and connect with them.
- Affirm: Express the genuine connection that you found when you listened - whether it’s a feeling, experience, or principle that you have in common with the other person. You don’t have to agree or address their political argument right away - just acknowledge what you have been hearing from them. The important part is to convey the message that you’re not going to attack or hurt the other person, and that you know they have as much integrity as you do.
- Respond: Answer the question or respond to the issue that the person raised. If you agree with them, say that too - this conveys the message that you are not afraid of the other person and that their questions and concerns deserve to be taken seriously. You can find common ground while taking your stand on a different platform (for instance, with the “I’m white and poor and therefore lack privilege” argument, agreeing that people can be discriminated against on the basis of class as well as race, and that is also a societal injustice.) If it seems like the person is just trying to fluster or attack you rather than truly asking to engage, reacting with respect rather than defensiveness can derail that.
- Optionally, add information: You can share additional information that may help the other person or the audience to consider the issue in a new light, or redirect the discussion in a more positive direction. Once you have connected with the person, you can share facts that are relevant to the questions the person is asking, or correct mistaken facts that they’ve mentioned.
STEP 5: DISENGAGE
- Generally as simple as walking away.
- Your role is to ensure everyone is fine. Hold on to that goal.
- Follow up with the victim, check in with them, acknowledge their trauma, ask if they want any additional assistance.
- Check in with yourself - how are you feeling or reacting? Would you like to debrief and process with someone (call or text a friend or partner)? Be careful of burnout or compassion fatigue.
Additional helpful websites
DC Peace Team
They do bystander intervention trainings fairly regularly, as well as trainings on other nonviolent tactics and restorative communication techniques.
White Bird Clinic
White Bird Clinic specializes in community care, including crisis intervention and mobile medic response. Their training focuses on trauma-informed crisis deescalation and communication.
UU Mass Action
Claire Muller from UU Mass Action does trainings on protest marshaling and deescalation.