Say Something: Barriers to Bystander Intervention

Let’s begin by defining what bystander intervention means.

Basically, it’s the point at which someone intrudes on a possibly unsafe circumstance. This includes interrupting activities or remarks that advance violence.

Bystander intervention is the difference between contributing to the cycle of violence by remaining silent and participating as an agent of change to stop the violence for someone else. We call this being an active bystander. The good news is, it’s never too late to become an active bystander! So why aren’t more of us stepping up to help?


There are four types of barriers to bystander intervention: Individual, Relationship, Community, and Societal. While none excuse silence, they all outline reasons why people turn a blind eye. But you didn’t come here for psychological analysis or research. You’re here to learn how you can help someone! Right now, this is about how YOU can overcome the personal obstacles of individual barriers and start making a difference.


On the individual level, barriers can be thought of as personal obstacles. Personal obstacles are guided by our personalities. They are the masked thoughts and feelings we encounter when faced with offensive behaviors or potentially dangerous situations. Regardless of whether you identify as an introvert or extrovert, you experience your own personal obstacles, which decrease your probability of intervening.

Personal obstacles include a variety of circumstances such as shyness, lack of confidence, hesitancy in knowing how to proceed, fear of embarrassment, and/or wanting to stay out of someone else’s business. Let’s break these barriers down (see what we did there).


I’m too shy.

When it comes to bystander intervention, there are three D’s we use to explain the various types. One of those types happens to be distract- disturbing the situation without directly addressing the offender. This tactic is perfect for the quiet introvert who claims to be “too shy” to help a victim out of a situation. ‘Spill’ a drink, ‘accidentally’ turn down the music so all conversations are audible, ask for assistance finding something. Anything you can do to take the focus off of the victim is helping them.


I’m not brave enough.

Here is where the second of the Three D’s comes in handy-delegate. Making another bystander aware of the situation and asking them to address it. Asking for help is the most brave thing a person can do, especially when violence is involved.


I don’t know what to do or say.

Sometimes, it’s less about what you say and more about saying something. Do you always have to publicly call out the offender in the moment and tell them to stop assaulting your friend?(The third D- direct) Could you instead invite your friend to coffee or go for a walk so you can privately ask if they need your help getting out of a violent situation?


I don’t want to embarrass myself.

Would you rather be embarrassed for a few minutes, or live with the guilt of having done nothing? The worst that can happen is you try to help and it turns out nothing is wrong, but at least you tried. At least now that person knows you care.


It’s none of my business.

Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn’t mean it’s none of your business. Too many acts of violence go unaddressed because someone walked away and said, “It’s none of my business.”


Bystander intervention looks different in every situation; calling a cab for the woman whose boyfriend went home without her, stopping someone on the street and asking for directions to keep them from berating their partner; the list goes on.  

In any case, intervention is about something beyond responding in the moment to a potentially vicious circumstance. It’s about testing and changing the social standards that tolerate and support domestic and sexual violence. We have to be the ones who stop allowing vicious acts to be carried out before our very eyes. All it takes is one voice, one act, one stand.