We know that all forms of violence are unacceptable. Why, then, do we often stay silent when we witness something wrong?

Researchers have studied this specific phenomenon, called the “Bystander Effect,” which shows that as more and more people witness violence, less bystanders are likely to intervene. There are many reasons being this hesitation: in a large crowd, you might expect someone else to speak up before you, or feel that if the situation were truly dire, someone would have spoken out already. Intervention is also challenging because bystanders are unsure how to act when they see something that doesn’t feel right.

Therefore, knowing what to do when you witness violence could be the key to saving someone’s life.

  1. Identify your fears. Often, our instincts tell us to feel uneasy, even if there is no outright proof that something is wrong. If you’re concerned about someone, try to determine why. Learn more about the signs of domestic abuse here.
  2. Consider intervening. Depending on the situation, there are many ways to interrupt the violence. If you are a distant bystander witnessing an abusive outburst or a potentially dangerous situation and you feel safe, step in and ask for directions, pretend to trip and spill your drink, or try to strike up a conversation about something else.If stepping in the middle feels unsafe, that’s okay! Trusting your instincts is key to keeping yourself safe. Stay away from the situation, but be sure that they know you can see them. Have your phone on hand in the event that you need to call for help. Consider recording the altercation so that if the survivor pursues legal remedies, you can submit it to the authorities.You can also get involved after the violence occurs, particularly if you know the person experiencing abuse. Find a safe, quiet place to talk to this person, and trust that if they need your help, they will be honest with you in time.

    Before intervening, ask yourself what the desired outcome is, and weigh the benefits of intervention with any risks to your personal safety.

  3. Enlist allies. Don’t underestimate the power of numbers. Look around and locate potential allies: mutual friends, the bartender or waiter nearby, or the host of the part you’re attending.
  4. Be a friend. Even for unacquainted bystanders, witnessing potential violence feels scary, and knowing the best way to help can feel impossible. To figure out what the next step should be, consider how you would act if the survivor were a close, personal friend. Give this person the same care, consideration, and protection that you would give to someone you love.

No matter what, your safety is your number one priority. If, at any point, you feel unsafe in this situation, step away and try to seek out other ways to help the survivor, such as calling the authorities or working with other bystanders so that you are not intervening alone. You feeling that you are unsafe probably indicates that the survivor is in imminent danger—don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1.

For more advice on helping someone you know who is experiencing abuse, click here.