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Bystander Intervention: How To Safely Intervene If You Witness Harassment

Bystander Intervention: How To Safely Intervene If You Witness Harassment

Team Missy

Last year I was invited to a virtual conference on Bystander Intervention with Hollaback! in partnership with L’Oréal Paris and it was one of the most worthwhile events I’ve attended because I actually learned something useful; how to safely intervene if I witness harassment.

I know some people say that they’d do this or that if confronted with harassment, either towards them or someone else, and that’s all well and good, but being confronted with a scary and potentially harmful situation is a completely different story in reality. We can freeze. We can worry about our safety, or the other persons safety. Or what if we make it worse? Or what if we are misunderstanding the situation?

Before doing the workshop I would have liked to think that I would have been able to step up and help someone in a bad situation, but the reality is that each situation is nuanced and things happen really quickly in the real world; you need a safe plan of action. Which is why Bystander Intervention is really useful as it walked me through some different scenarios of someone being harassed and how I could intervene safely.

Here’s what I learned…

Hollaback! uses the 5D’s when it comes to dealing with harassment. The 5D’s are: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct.


Distraction is a subtle and creative way to intervene. The aim here is simply to derail the incident by interrupting it. The idea is to ignore the harasser and engage directly with the person who is being targeted. Don’t talk about or refer to the harassment. Instead, talk about something completely unrelated. You can try the following:

  • Pretend to be lost. Ask for the time. Compliment them on their bag.  Ask for directions. Talk to them about something random and take attention off of the harasser.
  • Pretend you know the person being harassed. “Oh hi, Olivia, I didn’t see you there! How are you?”
  • Get in the way. Continue what you were doing, but get between the harasser and the target. This is a good one if you’re on public transport as you can easily manoeuvre your way in-between someone (if it’s safe to do so!) while pretending to be absentmindedly on your phone.
  • Accidentally-on-purpose drop something, the change in your wallet, or make a commotion.

Of course, read the situation and choose your Distract method accordingly. The person who is being targeted will likely catch on, and hopefully your act or statement will de-escalate the situation.


Delegation is when you ask for assistance, for a resource, or for help from a third party.  Here are examples of what you can do:

  • Find the store supervisor, bus driver, or a transit employee and ask them to intervene.
  • If you’re near a school, contact a teacher or someone at the front desk. On a college campus, contact campus security or someone at the front desk of a university building.
  • Get your friend on board and have them use one of the methods of Distraction (eg. asking for the time, directions, or striking up a conversation unrelated to the harassment) to communicate with the person being harassed while you find someone to delegate to.
  • Speak to someone near you who notices what’s happening and might be in a better position to intervene. Work together.
  • Call the local Garda station or 999 to request help. In certain situations, you may not be able to get to the person in which case, depending on the situation, you will need to use your best judgement of the appropriate way to help.


It can be really helpful to record an incident as it happens to someone, but there are a number of things to keep in mind to safely and responsibly document harassment. Check out this tip sheet from WITNESS for more details.

First, assess the situation. Is anyone helping the person being harassed? If not, use one of the other four D’s. If someone else is already helping out, assess your own safety. If you are safe, go ahead and start recording.

ALWAYS ask the person who was harassed what they want to do with the recording. NEVER post it online or use it without their permission.

There are several reasons for this. Being harassed or violated is already a disempowering experience. Using an image or footage of a person being  victimised without that person’s consent can make the person feel even more powerless. If the documentation goes viral, it can lead to further victimisation and a level of visibility that the person may not want. Also, posting footage without a victim’s consent makes their experience public – something that can lead to a whole host of legal issues, especially if the act of harassment or violence was in some way criminal. They may be forced to engage with the legal system in a way that they are not comfortable with. Lastly, the experience could have been traumatic. Publicizing another person’s traumatic experience without their consent is no way to be an effective and helpful bystander.


Even if you can’t act in the moment, you can make a difference for the person who has been harassed by checking in on them after the fact. Many types of harassment happen in passing or very quickly, in which case you can wait until the situation is over and speak to the person who was targeted then. Here are some ways to actively use the tactic of Delay:

  • Ask them if they’re okay and tell them you’re sorry that happened to them.
  • Ask them if there’s any way you can support them.
  • Offer to accompany them to their destination or sit with them for awhile.
  • Share resources with them and offer to help them make a report if they want to.
  • If you’ve documented the incident, ask them if they want you to send it to them.


You may want to directly respond to harassment by naming what is happening or confronting the harasser. This tactic can be risky: the harasser may redirect their abuse towards you and may escalate the situation. Before you decide to respond directly, assess the situation: Are you physically safe? Is the person being harassed physically safe? Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate? Can you tell if the person being harassed wants someone to speak up? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you might choose a direct response.

If you choose to directly intervene, some things you can say to the harasser are:

  • “That’s inappropriate, disrespectful, not okay, etc.”
  • “Leave them alone.”
  • “That’s homophobic, racist, (insert type of harassment), etc.”

The most important thing here is to keep it short and succinct. Try not engage in dialogue, debate, or an argument, since this is how situations can escalate. If the harasser responds, try your best to assist the person who was targeted instead of engaging with the harasser.

See Also

Direct intervention can be risky, so use this one with caution.

* A note about safety: We don’t ever want you to get hurt trying to help someone out. Always think about safety and consider possibilities that are unlikely to put you or anyone else in harm’s way.

The Distract tactic is one of the best ways to safely intervene without putting you or someone else at risk.

Hollaback offers free online Bystander Intervention training in association with L’Oréal Paris. Just head over to their website and signup for the one hour training session.

School And College Training

There are currently a number of programs in Ireland to provide Bystander Intervention Training in schools and colleges. We urge you to flag this with your school or college as this sort of discussion benefits us all.

UCC are currently running a number of bystander intervention initiatives.

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