Navigating Uncomfortable Situations

In those moments when something feels wrong – someone has said something hurtful, an event is
happening that feels threatening, your institution isn’t doing something that you would like to see – we have lots of options for how we react, call people in, and build bridges for positive change.

Assess for Physical Danger. Assess the situation and determine if someone is in immediate physical danger from others or at risk of self-harm. In these situations, please call the police. If you’re on Duke University’s campus, you can call (919) 684-2444.

Determine if Immediate Emotional Harm is On-Going. If no one is in immediate physical danger, determine whether immediate harm is happening. For example, are you or someone near you the victim of bullying or a microaggression? Is the behavior ongoing and hurting people emotionally?

In these instances, we have two options, we can use an in-the-moment intervention or an after the fact intervention.

In-the-moment interventions are best used in face-to-face or live interactions for the purpose of avoiding harm. They include the techniques of interrupting (e.g., use phrases like, “Okay, let’s switch gears.” “Let’s move on.”), appealing to authority (e.g., “I just want to remind you that according to our guidelines, we are working to be respectful of all viewpoints,” taking a break (pause the situation, take a bathroom break), turning to others (ask someone else out loud: “What emotions arise from the last comment? What is coming up for you?” and intervening directly.

When we intervene directly, we want to have a one-on-one conversation and make sure we leave room for growth, including a willingness to learn and approach situations with a fresh perspective, so we can teach others. A de-escalating technique that allows for growth is the use of non-violent communication methods. For a one-on-one conversation, you can ask, “When you say or did, what did you intend?” or use this useful formula: “When you said, I felt _ because __.”

When using in-the-moment techniques, it is important to use a calm voice and non-threatening body language to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate.

Make a Plan for How to Address a Situation that Happened. In moments when there is not an immediate risk of further emotional harm, it is best to take time to reflect and process and then conduct an after-the-fact intervention. After the fact, interventions include:

  • Self-reflection: Ask yourself: What happened? How did it make you feel? What would you like to see done differently? What concrete outcome would you like to see?
  • Talk one-on-one: Ask to have a conversation with the person involved in the incident. Remember to use non-violent communication and come in with an open mind. A useful formula is to say: “When I saw [state observable behavior with no interpretation]…I feel…..Because I need…Would you be willing to….? How does that feel to you?
  • Ask an ally to intervene. Alternatively, you can ask an ally to intervene on your behalf. Explain what happened to someone you trust and is well-positioned to have a conversation. Bring in someone who can support you and help facilitate a difficult conversation or have that conversation themselves. In the Nicholas School, we have the Coffee Conversation Program, where you can report anyone in the community, and a trained faculty or staff member will have a conversation with that person outlining the values of our community and appropriate behavior.
  • Reflect as a group. Another option is to reflect on the incident as a group, or at least offer time for reflection, thus allowing those who would prefer to opt out to do so. Remember, everyone is at a different place and has different levels of comfort talking about challenging topics. We need to be careful not to force anyone to engage when they’re not ready.
  • Check-in with others: Finally, you can do private, more personal check-ins with others – including anyone that you thought might have been particularly affected by the incident. Remember, don’t assume that the person was affected – it’s a fine line between checking in on someone and making assumptions based on someone’s identity, so ask first.

Find resources: In NSoE, lots of support resources are available to students, staff, and faculty. Anyone can reach out to the DEI Student Coordinator ( or the Assoc. Dean of DEI ( Other resources are listed on our DEI Resources Webpage. Report: Depending on the seriousness of the incident, it may need to be reported. Reporting options for students, staff, and faculty can be found on our Reporting Webpage.