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Helping a Friend as an Active Bystander

If you're worried about your friends' behavior or actions, don't be afraid to bring it up. Staying silent simply enables the behavior. For example, in the case of a problem drinker, many recovering alcoholics attribute their initial awareness of their drinking problem to the intervention of a friend or family member. The following five-point formula will provide some guidelines on what to say as well as how to handle denial and what to do if nothing happens. If others who share your concern join you in this effort, there is a greater possibility for success.

The Five-Point Formula

"I Care"

Let the person know that you care about him/her and that because of the significance of the relationship you need to discuss something very important. Both starting and ending the discussion with an emphasis that you are doing this out of genuine concern, caring, and/or respect for the person sandwiches the difficult feedback between strong positives.

"I See"

Report/review actual events with your friend as you perceive them. Remember you are criticizing the behavior, rather than the person. Try to limit your statements to observable, irrefutable facts and not hearsay. The more details you have, the stronger your presentation will be. If necessary, write them down in advance.

"I Feel"

Tell the person your own reaction, using "I statements" to reveal your feelings. ("You have a problem" can be refuted and denied.)

  • Example: "It really scares me to see you get like that" or "I'm worried about what might happen if you continue with this type of behavior."

"I Want"

Tell the person what you would like to see happen.

  • Examples: "I would like to see you get some help for this." or "I'd like to see you talk with someone from CAPS"

You might want to add something like:

  • "I may be totally off base with my perception but being right or wrong isn't important. I'm willing to be wrong but I'm not willing to leave this unsaid because I'm worried and concerned about you."
  • It's important to choose words that you are comfortable with and that fit your style.

"I Will"

Specify what you will or will not do.

  • "I value our friendship but in good conscience I cannot ignore it," or
  • "If you will work on this issue I will do everything I can to help, but if you don't go for help I may need to get help for your behavior."

Be very careful to set ultimatums only if you can stick to them.

Be Prepared for a Negative Reaction

It's common for someone to feel attacked when confronted by a friend. Defensiveness and denial can be difficult to deal with especially if you aren't expecting such a response. Here are some examples of responses and how to answer them.

What are you talking about? You <insert action here> too.

  • Answer: Yes, but I don't do the things you do when you <insert action here>. I don't <insert action here> and then… (Describe the behavior)

It's okay. I've been under a lot of stress lately. I won't do this after I graduate.

  • Answer: How can you be sure of that? Stress is a part of life. What else are you doing to help deal with it? Look at the other problems it has created for you. (Cite examples)

It's none of your business! It's my life.

  • Answer: It is my business because you're my friend and I care about you. It hurts me to see you hurting yourself like this and I want to help you.

Try to stay calm and objective. Remember you may need to bring up the topic several times to reach your friend. Don't take any harsh comments personally.

Taking Care of Yourself

Thinking about your friend's actions, planning what to say, and actually bringing the subject up will undoubtedly be very stressful. Although you can't make someone get better, you can take care of yourself by setting limits and getting support for your own emotions.

If your friend does not respond positively to your intervention, be able to let go of some of the pain you are feeling. Accept that the person doesn't want to deal with this right now, but let him or her know what you are going to do from now on. Reassure your friend that you still like him or her; it's what happens when he or she <insert action here> that you don't like.

Setting Limits

  • Don't make excuses for the person, cover up for his/her problems, write papers or do homework.
  • Be willing to talk with your friend, but be clear that you won't allow him or her to just continue with these actions without a follow up discussion.

Adapted from "How to talk to a problem drinker," University of Massachusetts, Amherst Health Services, "Helping Others," Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program and BACCHUS Network Certified Peer Educator Training.