Guest Blog: IMPACT's Meg Stone Talks About Bystander Intervention
Dear Engaged Bystander. I know that being an engaged bystander is not easy. We address issues many people would rather ignore. We have to communicate with enough self-assuredness that we are not dismissed and simultaneously approach challenging conversations with warmth and flexibility so that people feel supported and motivated to change.
Those of us who have committed to being active bystanders have done so because we believe that advocating for healthy relationships and sexual respect is so important that we’re willing to make ourselves temporarily uncomfortable in order to make our communities permanently healthy.
As effective bystanders we need more than commitment. We need skills.
What skills does a bystander need? Here are a few that have helped me:
Identify the behavior(s) that may be harmful and talk about it in a way that will be heard. A statement like “You need to treat your children better” doesn’t do much to help someone change. If the person is honestly trying to understand the problem, this statement doesn’t give them information about what specific behaviors may be problematic or what other options are available. If, on the other hand, someone is resistant to change, it’s too easy to dismiss the comment as vague and opinionated. The engaged bystander could offer a break (“I can see that you and your children are frazzled, can I look after your kids while you take a break?” could offer another option (“I know this is really hard, I have been there too. I find that it helps to let my kids know what they can do rather than…” A bystander who can identify the specific behavior that is concerning and communicate it in a way that fosters understanding is likely to be more effective.
The ability to identify and communicate positive expectations. In our Peer IMPACT and other bystander programs participants work together to identify both negative and positive social expectations they see in their communities. When dealing with a negative expectation (such as pressure to be in a dating relationship, making it hard to end an unhealthy one) we ask the IMPACT participants to practice conversations that will change those expectations. The group works together to identify all of the strategies that might work in a particular conversation—is it humor? A serious tone so the person doesn’t dismiss the problem? – and then participants get the chance to practice the actual words they would say. Our instructor plays the role of the other person in the conversation and reacts the way someone might: defensiveness, anger, minimization, disagreement. Our participants practice staying composed and focused. We support them in finding the words when they’re flustered and keeping the conversation on track.
The ability to tolerate the fear and discomfort that comes from speaking up about sexual respect. The most important change that happened for me as a result of IMPACT was my relationship to fear. I still sometimes avoid things that are scary but not nearly as often. Like anything else I’ve done hundreds of times, communicating when I feel fear has become a normal part of my life. The ability to experience and work through fear in a supportive environment has given me the confidence to put myself in scary situations when I know the end result will be positive.
Executive Director of IMPACT