A Guide to Intervening in Negative Behavior

Bystander behavior is the social phenomenon where we see something happening that we know is wrong and we are compelled to do something, to say something. We actually want to make a difference in that moment. Yet, we don’t. We do nothing and we say nothing. We are bystanders and this is bystander behavior.

Whether you are involved with residence life, student affairs, fraternity and sorority life, campus health and wellness issues, sexual violence initiatives or any of the programs on a college campus, you deal with bystander behavior in one form or another.

Intervening in this type of behavior is not easy. The most popular question Mike gets following his keynote is, “How can I intervene—how can I take action?”

Intervening effectively is a skill that requires practice. An intervention is possible when you want to respond firmly, are in a position to impose boundaries or consequences or when you want to address the behavior in a less confrontational and more educational fashion. The skill is called a confrontation and the latter response can take one of two forms: by shifting the focus or by shifting the person.


It is often necessary to let someone know that their behaviors or remarks are not appropriate and will not be tolerated. This is important for setting boundaries, creating safety and imposing consequences. If you are in a leadership role it may be your responsibility to act as an enforcer in some situations, and even if you are not, you may want to respond to the situation firmly. An intervention of this type can be called a confrontation. There are many models for an effective confrontation. In a confrontation, you let the person know that you are concerned about their behavior and how it is effecting you, and—if you are in a position of authority—that you are willing to impose consequences. This can be done briefly, in the moment or can be part of a longer discussion.


When someone makes an inappropriate remark or engages in inappropriate behavior, it may be possible to “shift the focus” away from the remark or behavior. This can be done in one of three ways.

  1. Ignore the remark or behavior or leave
  2. Shift attention away from the remark or behavior
  3. Reframe the remark more positively

Shifting the focus is a way to not enable or participate in a remark. And, it can diffuse a situation for the moment.

The goal of “shifting the person” is to help someone understand their motivation for making a remark or engaging in a behavior and to help them understand why it is problematic so that they will be less likely to engage in it in the future. If we confront someone habitually, they may learn to avoid acting in certain ways in front of us or change their behavior due to fear of punishment. “Shifting the person” can be effective in helping individuals understand and change, rather than merely comply or avoid doing something in front of a particular person who objects.

The skills of confrontation, shifting the focus and shifting the person are all designed to provide more options so that we can respond to bystander situations in a way that feels better to and that are more likely to have a beneficial impact on the situation.

Mike Dilbeck is a great choice for residence life, hazing prevention, alcohol awareness and fraternity and sorority life programming. In his keynote, RESPONSE ABILTY: I have the Power!, students will understand how seizing the opportunity to act can dramatically change their campus, and how it can be effective in causing a radical shift in their community and for society.

Check out campuspeak.com/dilbeck to learn more about Mike and his keynote.

Most of the above is excerpted from the book published by Mike and written by Dr. Alan Berkowitz: RESPONSE ABILITY—A Complete Guide to Bystander Intervention.