Psychologist Catherine Sanderson explains how to be more courageous in speaking up about bad behaviour, from offensive speech to harmful actions.

1. Find a Short and Clear Way of Expressing Concern or Disapproval
This is from Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels. (Belknap Press, 2020, 272 pages).

This action helps you avoid getting embroiled in a lengthy ‘teachable moment’ or humiliating the other person. It simply identifies that the comment or action isn’t OK – for the person engaging in the behaviour and for those observing it.

One study examining responses to homophobic comments in the workplace found that the most effective type of confrontation was calm but direct: “Hey, that’s not cool.”

A similar approach could be used for almost any type of harmful behaviour, from calling out someone for using offensive language to intervening when a colleague is rude to a co-worker.

Openly expressing disapproval clearly communicates what isn’t acceptable, an essential first step in creating new social norms.

2. Assume That a Comment is Sarcastic and Identify It As Such

Sometimes you can disarm a speaker by assuming they are only being sarcastic. So for example, you could respond to a sexist comment about the hazards of voting for a woman by saying, “I know you’re just trying to be funny, but some people really do think that women are too emotional to be president!”

Your response clarifies that you disagree with the comment, but it doesn’t make the person who made the remark appear stupid or bad.

3. Make the Discomfort About You, Not Them

One way of doing this is to reveal a personal connection to explain your reaction to an insensitive remark. You could say, “I was raised in the Catholic church so that comment is hard for me to hear,” or “A close friend of mine was sexually assaulted in high school, so jokes about rape make me uncomfortable.”

This reduces the risk that you will make the person feel bad or defensive, but it also clearly indicates that their comment or behaviour was wrong.

4. Actively Play Out Different Types of Responses to Offensive Remarks or Problematic Behaviour

Learning different techniques for confronting bias or unethical behaviour can make a difference, but it’s not enough to learn skills and strategies; it’s essential to practise using them.

Practising helps reduce inhibitions about speaking up and makes responding feel more normal. It also increases our confidence that we can intervene in a real-world situation.

This is why the most effective programs for helping bystanders speak up—in schools, universities, and workplaces—not only provide training on how to handle difficult situations but also give people opportunities to practice these skills by roleplaying various scenarios.

5. Find a Friend Who Shares Your Concern

Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, found that what best predicts when someone will challenge prevailing social norms, even at great personal risk, is not having to do so alone. The downfall of Theranos (a company that made fraudulent claims about blood testing) started when two employees spoke out together about their concerns, even though they knew they would face potentially lasting personal and professional repercussions.

For those of us who aren’t naturally courageous, finding a friend to stand by our side can be essential.

6. Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

In 1999, Kathryn Bolkovac, a former police officer, was working as a human rights investigator with the United Nations International Police Task Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina when she discovered that some fellow officers were engaging in sexual misconduct. They were hiring prostitutes and raping underage girls, and were involved in sex trafficking. When she reported these offenses to higher-ups, she was demoted and then fired. (In 2002, she won her lawsuit for wrongful termination.)

What led her to speak up? For Bolkovac, a mother of three, one factor was the personal connection she felt to the girls who were being abused. As she told National Public Radio, “I’d be lying if I said there certainly weren’t moments when the children—my own girls—were going through my mind.”

Speaking up and risking the consequences can be far easier if you can see the world from someone else’s perspective. Some people may naturally empathise with others, but we can all learn to be more empathic by deliberately expending the time and energy to cultivate empathy. After all, if you were being bullied or sexually assaulted, wouldn’t you want someone to stand up and help you?

We can all learn to speak up in the face of bad behaviour. If enough of us do so, we can change the culture to one of courage and action instead of silence and inaction. What would it take to create a culture in which we are expected to act when we hear offensive language, witness sexual misconduct, or see workplace fraud? Sometimes just a single voice can be enough, especially when that one person gives others the courage to speak up.