As we head back to school and work this fall, you should know there’s one thing that has been proven to work against bullies. It’s “bystander intervention”–otherwise known as advocacy.
I became an advocate in 4th grade. At the time I didn’t know that was what I was doing. But an advocate is “someone who publicly supports something”, and that’s what I did.
I went to Catholic school, and I was in a small class where the students had all known each other since 1st grade. But this year, there was a new girl in school. Anna was beautiful, and she looked and acted much older than the rest of us. She carried a purple purse that went over her shoulder, and she’d fling it on with a flip of her hair. The girls in my class were all immediately entranced with this girl who knew, said and did things we didn’t. Anna became the queen of the class, and everyone wanted her favor.
But she could be mean. And one day on the bus she was especially mean. There was a boy on our bus who was in 2nd grade and he was awkward. He talked too loud, said the wrong things and was often the butt of the jokes on the bus.
He was one of the last people to get on the bus, which meant that there weren’t many seats by the time he climbed those steep stairs and brushed past the driver. Every day he’d look around nervously, hoping to make it to an empty seat before anyone attacked. Whether he made it was a crapshoot though. On this day, he didn’t make it.
Anna must have been upset about something (hurt people hurt people) and she went too far. The boy hadn’t even taken his seat before she made fun of his looks, his lisp and his love of science fiction. She went deep. And yet I still didn’t speak up. Anna’s cruelty wasn’t what made me an advocate that day. It was the eye contact. Just as another barb hit this young boy, I made eye contact with him. I saw the pain in his eyes and once I saw that pain, I couldn’t unsee it. So I had to speak.
“What are you doing?”
That’s all I could think to say. What was she doing? She was torturing this young boy. She was hurting him. And some part of me wanted to know if she knew that was what she was doing.
I remember quaking while I waited for her to respond. In my 4th grade mind everyone was looking at me in shock and disgust. I was terrified that Anna would turn her sharp tongue on me next.
“What do you mean what am I doing?”
“What are you doing? I’m just wondering.” It was all I could think to say.
Once again, eye contact was key here. Anna and I made eye contact, and something in that moment made her stop.
“Nothing.” And with that, she moved on to talking about what happened on Who’s the Boss? the night before.
Anna was being a bully. And bullying is a problem in the office just like it’s a problem on the school bus. Sexual harassment is a problem too, and they’re similar issues that could have the same solution. We need to learn to advocate for each other.
Because research shows it works. (It may be the only thing that does). Studies show that bystander training is one of the few things that works to combat sexual harassment at work. And studies of school bullying show that when bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time. When we advocate for each other, it works.
Bystander intervention is advocacy. When you speak up publicly in support of a victim, you are an advocate. And if you don’t know what to say, use the tools of a trial lawyer. Lawyers are also known as advocates. While many people believe a lawyer’s job is to argue, the best trial attorneys (the best advocates) do their job by asking questions. The majority of any trial is nothing more than questions and answers. We win by asking questions.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” And with that it was over.
Everyone wins when we ask questions. The next time you’re faced with a situation where you should speak up, use your voice. Start with a question. Advocate for the people around you. It works, and the practice you get will make you even better at advocating for yourself.