A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on several physical steps that can be taken in the Pre-Conflict Phase – in Socially/Spontaneously Violent Situations - to improve your chances, should things have to go physical (Working the Pre-Conflict Phase – February 5th). In this article I want to look at how to manage, some of the psychological and emotional factors that may affect us, when having to deal with an aggressive individual, in the moments before it goes hands-on.
Managing Disbelief: overcoming the surrealness/bizarreness of the situation. I have seen people laugh in disbelief just before they were punched; they simply couldn’t believe that the incident they were involved in justified the use of physical force – it was literally laughable to them. This reaction/response is more common than you may think, and everyone is susceptible to it. We may like to think we will always judge a situation correctly, and recognize aggression in others, but sometimes our own positive/buoyant emotional state (especially if fueled by alcohol), will make us interpret a person’s actions and behaviors from our perspective rather than theirs i.e. if we are feeling happy, we will have a tendency to interpret another person’s facial expressions, such as a grimace, as being a smile, and even believe that their displays of aggression are in fact them “joking” around. Disbelief, is a form of denial, and this is one of our default coping mechanisms when dealing with aggression and violence: if we can tell ourselves something isn’t happening, we don’t have to feel scared or afraid – and that’s a feeling that we’re largely unfamiliar with, don’t like, and try to avoid at almost any cost. Laughing, makes us feel better, and allows us to deny the danger we’re in i.e. a quick mental re-write of the situation, and we’re all good. The first thing to do in your mental checklist, is to accept the situation for what it is, and recognize that it is not your rational/reasoning understanding of the situation that is relevant, but the other person’s aggression and emotion. What is the likelihood that somebody would threaten you, act aggressively towards you, for any other reason, than wanting to potentially harm you? The less you believe that you will ever have to deal with a potentially violent aggressor, the more likely you are to be caught in a state of disbelief when you do.
Managing Fear: overcoming the fear of fear. Fear is an emotion, not a feeling – being afraid is the “feeling” you get when you interpret your emotional state, within the context of harm and danger. Another way to look at it is, being afraid, is how you describe to yourself, and the word(s) you use when you talk to yourself, about your emotional state. When your fear system is triggered – subconsciously – you become adrenalized and your emotional state changes, and you tell yourself, “I’m afraid”. Our use of language to help recognize and describe our emotional state is important. If it was ethical to do so, I could take someone into a lab, wire them up, to record certain physiological changes (such as temperature, sweat, pupil dilation, blood pressure and other physical conditions), and give them the most terrifying experience of their life, and record the results to see what changes occurred. If I repeated this experiment, but instead of frightening the person, made them extremely angry, and then compared these changes/results, with those of the first experiment, I’d find that they were pretty much the same. The emotional change/shift would be almost identical. What would be different was how the individual described and talked to themselves about how they “felt” in each instance i.e. the language they used. When facing an aggressive individual, we can tell ourselves that we are “scared”, that we are “intimidated”, that we want to “hide”, that we “wish this wasn’t happening”, and any number of things that allow us to view our emotional state in a negative way, or we can turn it around and use other language to describe how we feel e.g. “this is unjust”, “this is bullying”, “this isn’t right” – and turn our sense of being afraid into a righteous indignation.
Managing fear in this way doesn’t mean we should respond in an overtly aggressive manner, or that we should fly into a rage etc. We still should run through our de-escalation methods and processes (“Dealing with Angry People” – 21st March 2012), and attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully, but at the same time this shouldn’t be done in an overly passive or submissive manner, as this could convince an aggressor that they would be able to deal with us physically – and it’s a good idea to always have them questioning whether this is the case or not, without coming across as challenging or overly aggressive. There is a lot more to de-escalation, than simply putting your hand up/out in a non-aggressive manner and talking softly/apologetically; there are several things that need to be communicated to an aggressor, both verbally and non-verbally. Our ability to mask our aggressive mindset, and our “righteous indignation” is a key skill to develop and cultivate.
It is worth noting that once you start “fighting”, when you have something to do, and a goal to achieve, you don’t have time to consciously process and interpret your emotional state i.e. being afraid usually goes at that point. It is the anticipation stage, during the Conflict-Aware and Pre-Conflict phases, that gives you the time and the bandwidth to think about these things.
Managing Peripheral Doubts: is it legal, am I morally entitled to use force, what if I make things worse? Etc. Peripheral doubts are those which cause us to question our ability to act physically/violently, and even whether or not we should. One of the questions I often hear when I teach groups for the first time, and talk about things such as pre-emptive striking, is, “is that legal?” Unanswered, that would remain a peripheral doubt that may cause them to hesitate and miss an opportunity to act, in a real-life confrontation. The easiest way to deal with this doubt, is to gain an operational and functional understanding of the legal aspects of self-defense and use-of-force etc. Know and understand what constitutes an assault, and learn to control and set the conditions, so your aggressor is the one who is/will be guilty of this. If you always have as your goal to disengage, and understand the way aggressive/violent incidents may be legally separated out to contain different phases, it is unlikely that you will ever be guilty of excessive force. If our solutions put us on the right side of the law, this doubt will be easily dealt with. If you’re legally entitled to implement your solutions, you should be morally entitled as well i.e. society is morally agreeing with you.
The fear of making things worse, is one of the major peripheral doubts we have around acting – especially when nothing physical has happened yet i.e. even if we are morally/legally entitled to make a pre-emptive strike, what if it doesn’t work and it just makes our aggressor angrier and spurs them to violence? Being able to recognize the warning signs that precede an attack, inside the legal framework that gives us the right to do so, will tell us “when” we have to act, and “when” we have no choice but to act. When violence is inevitable – and this is what the warning signs tell us – then in almost all instances it is better to be the person who acts first. Taking the initiative is better than playing catch-up and trying to create an opportunity in a dynamic confrontation. The best way to deal with peripheral doubts, is to educate yourself about all aspects of violence. If you’re relying solely on your physical skills, abilities and techniques, you will find yourself wanting when it comes to dealing with real-life confrontations.
One of the key survival skills, which I emphasize, teach and write about a lot, is decisiveness; being able to decide on a solution and act quickly. Disbelief, Paralyzing Fear and Peripheral Doubts all cause us to hesitate, and delay action, when it may be required. Learning to deal with these things and manage them is essential for effective real-world self-defense.
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A line that I use a lot when talking about real-life conflicts is, “violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum”. This is something that can easily get forgotten or lost in the training environment, where you might be practicing techniques and solutions in an open and unobstructed mat space e.g. will you have the space in a real-life confrontation to perform an armbar, or guard sweep, that works well in an open mat space? That’s not to say that such techniques aren’t appropriate or don’t have value, just that we need to understand the contexts in which such techniques and approaches will work, and when and where they won’t. It would be nice to think that all techniques and solutions are universally applicable to all situations, however this is not always the case, and one factor that can affect the appropriateness of a particular technique is the environment – have you room and space to perform it? Is the surface you are on level enough to allow you to perform it? etc. Whilst the environment can restrict and limit our options, it can also create and present “new” solutions to us, such as providing us with improvised weapons that we can use to help increase/up our survival options. However, we can also use it in other ways; by putting ourselves in a position which restricts our assailant’s movement, or using objects as barriers and obstacles to slow down/prevent and attacker’s access to us etc.
One of the issues that we often face when dealing with social/spontaneous aggression, is that when do we draw a line, and make it clear to the other party that we regard the situation as a conflict; this may escalate it into a violent altercation. In the initial phases of a dispute or disagreement with somebody, the other person’s emotional state might be “edgy”, rather than overtly aggressive. This would not be the time to shout, “Get Back!” and adopt any semblance of a fighting stance; as this would simply escalate the situation and take it in a direction, that it probably didn’t need taking, however at the same time we may want to do something discrete, that starts setting things in our favor, should it go physical. Many years ago, I was drinking in a pub with some friends, at a table, when a drunk man bumped into me, and spilt some of a drink he was carrying – I was seated and stationary at the time. Immediately, he became aggressive and started to blame me for knocking into him. In any situation where you are seated, and something like this happens, you need to stand up; one, it puts you in a better position should things go physical, and two, it prevents the other person from dominating you, by standing over you (if they’re able to do this, they may conclude/convince themselves that they have a greater ability than you to act physically). I stand at 5’6”, so I’m not a physically imposing individual, and anything I can use as an “equalizer” I’ll take. As I stood up, I turned the chair I was sitting on, so that the seat was pretty much level with my aggressor’s knees – I held on to the back and rooted it to that spot. If they wanted to throw a punch, or try and make a grab at me, they’d have to do it over the chair. From this position, I was able to look fairly casual – as if I was having a normal conversation – as I went through my de-escalation process. The chair was not a substantial barrier, but it would have hampered their ability to make an attack, and in some cases, this is all that it is needed for an aggressor to question their ability, especially if their strategy relies solely on getting in the “cheap shot”. Of course, if things had kicked off, the chair could have been picked up and used as an improvised weapon.
Moving furniture, such as tables and chairs, to impede an attacker’s advance towards you, and help create the time to make your disengagement is a good and productive use of your environment. Often, when we are looking for self-defense/self-protection solutions, we are looking for the “silver bullet”, that will deal with everything, and solve the problem we are facing: we want one simple thing to do, that will make everything right. Most real-life situations, are solved bit-by-bit, by doing several things, which may not be significant on their own, when added up, create the solution. Stepping back, and pulling chairs and other objects in front of you, as you disengage is not going to stop your attacker indefinitely i.e. they can move these objects out of the way, just as you were able to move them into their path etc. but it will give you a millisecond here and a millisecond there, which when added together, can help facilitate your escape.
In Active Shooter/Killer scenarios one solution, which may be available to you (and suitable to your situation), is to to barricade yourself in a room, piling tables, chairs, and other pieces of furniture up against the door. Will such a barricade ultimately, prevent a shooter from getting to you? Maybe not, but most will be unwilling to spend the time trying, when there are probably easier and more vulnerable targets to be had. Active Killers, are on the clock to kill as many people as they can, in the shortest possible time (before those who are capable of stopping them enter the scene), with the goal of exceeding the number of fatalities achieved by prior shooters. When students in room 205 of Norris Hall barricaded the door against the Virginia Tech Shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, preventing him access, he eventually gave up trying to break the door down, and went looking for easier targets. This strategy was replicated by students at UCLA in 2016, to prevent active killer, Mainak Sarkar - a disgruntled PHD student - from gaining access to them. These are not isolated incidents, neither did they involve “trained” and “informed” individuals. These were persons who saw the importance of using that which was in their environment to increase their survival chances.
I’ll often describe myself when I provide corporate services as a “Professional Coward” – it’s the job description I use. Although at first glance it may just appear a self-deprecatory remark, it actively describes who I am, what I do, and what I teach. All violence comes at a cost to those involved, even if at the end of the event you deem yourself to be the successful party. If there is a chance to disengage, take it. If you can slow things down to facilitate your disengagement, do so. I have learnt over the years that few violent situations can be dealt with in one go, and that most have several stages and phases that you must work through – even if this involves setting things up to make a “conclusive” strike (which in reality is rarely conclusive) or disengaging at the earliest opportunity. Knowing how to use the environment to increase your chances is a key survival skill.
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From my experiences, and those of other security professionals I’ve worked with, and supported by the research I engage in, most fights and incidents of social/spontaneous violence start face-to-face, and are preceded by some form of verbal communication; this may involve direct threats, or involve dialogue where the harmful intent is hidden or disguised. What we do and say, along with how we act and behave, is crucial during this Pre-Conflict Phase. In this article, I want to talk about what to look for, with regards to warning signs and imminent Pre-Violence Indicators (PVI’s), along with how and where to position yourself, and what to do with your hands. Your success in this phase of the conflict, largely determines your success in the next phase; if/when the altercation becomes physical. Whilst we may train from a position of unpreparedness, this should not be a state that we want to find ourselves in, and the earlier we can recognize the presence of danger, the more options we will have; both physical and non-physical. I have written about many of these things before, but in this article I am presenting them as a series of steps to follow.
Step-1: Control range and distance. I’ve written a lot about the importance of range control, but it is always worth mentioning and re-emphasizing it again. If you let somebody get to close to you, the chances are that their action, will always beat your reaction, even if you are in a state of readiness. In most instances, even when prepared, their movement will “surprise” you, even if that surprise is only momentarily; and if the attack involves a knife that means you’re getting stabbed to some degree – even if you are able to get your arm out to make some semblance of a block, that makes contact with your attacker’s arm, it’s probably not going to stop the knife completely (and at this range, forget about any form of simultaneous block and strike). To control range, check that when your eyes are on the center of your aggressor’s chest, you can see their forward foot, and a sliver of ground in front of it, using your peripheral vision. This should keep you at a natural distance for talking/communicating with your aggressor but will force them to have to move their body forward to make an attack; a much bigger movement to respond to than an arm swinging in to punch or stab/slash you.
Step-2: Control the “space” between you and your aggressor. I talk with my hands a lot, when dealing with aggressive and potentially violent people, using either a “static” or an “active” defense with my arms/hands. This sees me, extending my arms and putting my hands out in front of me. Sometimes, I gesticulate with them, “talking” with my hands (an active/moving defense), sometimes I have them out statically in a more passive and placatory manner, and other times they are extended more emphatically, with the palms out facing the aggressor, communicating a message of “stop”; both being more static defenses. How I position my hands is usually based on the level of aggression that is being displayed e.g. if it is fairly low-level, and I’m confident that it’s a situation that can be de-escalated, I will be more casual in my hand and arm movements as I “talk” with them, than if I’m dealing with somebody who looks like they are getting ready to cross a boundary. I may also be more active, moving my hands as I talk, if I’m preparing to make some form of pre-emptive strike; with the hands already moving, I am much more likely to get past an assailant’s flinch response, than if they suddenly start to move from a static position. One of the main purposes of having my hands out in front of me is to control/occupy the space directly in front of me, so that I can maintain my control of range.
Step-3: Step back. Whilst this is often necessary in order to control range, it is also an important action that will help you/your attorney present the incident in your favor, should the situation turn physical, and you find yourself involved in a criminal and/or civil case. For the conditions of assault to be met, you must fear for your safety, and your assailant must put themselves in a position where they can cause you harm – for an assault to take place, there doesn’t have to be any actual contact (when that occurs the assailant will have committed an assault and/with battery). If you step back, your aggressor has to actively move themselves to a position where they can cause you harm – should they wish to physically engage with you. At this point, you are permitted to strike/attack pre-emptively. By stepping back, you are demonstrating – to any witnesses – that you are moving away from the conflict i.e. you are not the aggressor, and if the other person moves in (and you have reason to fear for your safety), it is clear that they are acting in the role of aggressor. Even when I command people to “Back Off!”, I do so as I move back, in order to set these conditions, and ensure that it is clear who the aggressor is. If it looks like things are going to get physical, now is not the time to demonstrate your assertiveness, and try and force the other person to back away – if you command somebody to “Back Away” and they don’t follow your order, what is your next move/step? To hit them? If this were the case they/their attorney may be able to successfully argue, that you were the party that was guilty of assault and battery i.e. they had reason to fear for their safety, and you put yourself in a position to cause them physical harm, and then preceded to do so.
Step-4: Move slightly offline. Don’t stand directly in front off your aggressor. Your movement should be subtle enough that they don’t feel the need to turn, in order to face you, as you talk. However, it should mean that they will be forced to turn/rotate slightly if/when they make an attack. You’re maybe only gaining a millisecond of time here when they do attack, but every bit helps and adds up, improving your chances of making a successful defense. Generally, I’ll shuffle slightly to my right, away from their right hand/arm. I work off the premise that most people are right-handed, and so that’s the hand/arm that they’ll use to attack with – and I want it to travel the greatest distance to reach me (it is also likely that it will be slowing down and reducing in power, as it would have been timed to hit me, had I been directly in front of my attacker). Oftentimes, an assailant will give you a clue as to the hand they are going to use, because they will step back with the same side leg, and load weight on to it – this allows them to shift weight forward, to help generate power, when they make their attack. If somebody shifts weight on to the left in this manner, I’ll assume they are left-handed, and move slightly off-line to my left, away from their hand. All the time, I am checking for other signs, such as target-glancing, and scanning (you’ll be surprised at how many people look/glance away, and back at you when they’re planning to make an attack), which may indicate their readiness to punch/strike/stab/slash/grab etc.
Step-5: Keep your plan simple enough, to allow yourself to be decisive. I’m a strong believer in the effectiveness of pre-emptive striking. My “regular” plan, is to move back, and when/if my aggressor steps forward, committing an assault, to be the one who strikes first; because situations determine solutions this isn’t a hard and fast plan, but simply the one I generally default to. When I strike, I have only one thing in mind: getting a hand in to my attacker’s face. This is actually my “self-defense” plan in just about every situation; get a hand into my assailant’s face, and then let my training take over. Trying to think two, three moves ahead is impossible in a real-life encounter. This is due in large part to the fact that you can never predict your attacker’s response(s) to what you do. When he played IBM’s Big Blue Computer, Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov, stated that he only ever calculated (and was only capable of), one or two moves ahead at a time, from there he was simply responding to the situation and letting his years of experience and knowledge intuitively guide him. In contrast, the computer – and a team of programmers – calculated all of the possibilities to the millions of iterations and possibilities as a result of each move, and at the end of the day, lost. A real-life violent encounter is far more stressful than a chess match (whatever the stakes), and two moves ahead, is usually too much to think about. Keep it simple and have a go-to starting move. For me, it’s the hand in the face, to disrupt my attacker - after that, my training – my time sparring, my work on the pads etc. – leads me. Everything I do, is to ultimately facilitate safe disengagement at the first opportunity; this goal also helps me avoid the risk of using excessive force (i.e. I do only what’s necessary to give me the opportunity to get away safely).
Obviously, some of these steps happen simultaneously, rather than sequentially, however laying them out in this fashion, allows me to have a checklist of things that I need to do, if involved in some form of spontaneous social violence. It also gives me something to focus on, and have a plan that I’m working to, which is one of the ways I control my fear, and prevent my overall response from being one of panic. Having something to do in that moment, is better than trying to work out what you should do. In terms of what to say, and when and how to de-escalate a situation, use the website’s search function to look for articles on “de-escalation”. Any de-escalation process you employ should be done whilst following these steps.
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When it comes to looking at the most common attacks we are likely to face, there really are no reliable statistics to go on. A small UK police force, once collected this data over a short period of time, and presented a list of the top 10 most common “street” attacks, however this was a fairly crude piece of analysis and left many unanswered questions e.g. were the attacks evenly split, or did the top three (for example), account for 90% of the attacks? Was there a regional bias? What about unreported attacks and assaults – would these have skewed the data in a different way? Were there “biases” that could affect the order, such as when the attacker was a stranger, or when it was somebody known? These are some of the issues with presenting data in such a simplistic manner, even when it comes from the “field” and is reliably gathered. In most instances, an instructor’s ideas around common attacks, is based on their experience (if they have any), and the experiences of others they have talked and conferred with etc.
The problem with experience, is that it is by nature limited e.g. I have worked door and bar security, and have seen a lot of fights, but I have seen them in the context, of a bar/pub, when people are crowded together and usually drunk. Whilst my experience is valid in that context, it is not directly applicable in others, such as attacks that occur in the home etc. So, to get an idea of the most common methods of attack, we need to combine anecdotal evidence, our own experiences and whatever research exists, and accept that this may be limited to geography, gender, age, relationship statuses and any number of other demographics etc. When I tell you, that some of the most common attack methods, I and (others who I have worked with) have seen, and which some “statistics” and other pieces of research (including that done by the aforementioned UK police force), possibly confirm, involves pushes and grabs (usually clothing), take it with a pinch of salt, and recognize that these may not represent the most common types of attack that you are likely to experience, and may be restricted to certain contexts and situations.
Pushing – and taking a person’s balance – is an extremely effective way of putting somebody in an extremely disadvantageous position, which sets them up nicely for being punched. This is something that was pretty common, in the pubs and bars I worked in, where the conflict involved two men – it was usually preceded by some argument/verbal altercation, and possibly a couple of “light” (but escalating, in force) two-handed pushes; often used to test the other person’s response. All of this – and this is important to note when training defenses against pushes – happens at close range. A person would generally feel the push, rather than see it. This was partly due to the fact that they’d be looking at the other person’s eyes, which is natural when conversing, and not watching their hands, and partly because they were too close to see their hands come up. The simplest defense to avoid/prevent being pushed, whether it’s one-handed, or two-handed, is to step back, and control range i.e. I’ve never seen anybody run at somebody to make a push, when facing them (I have seen people do this from the rear); it’s just too telegraphed an attack. Stepping back, and putting your hands up, and out, in a placating manner, means that your aggressor needs to either knock your hands away, or find another way to gain access to you. If you miss the opportunity to do this, and somebody goes to push you, it’s likely that the first thing you are aware of is your attacker’s hands on your chest – and if you are training to deal with such attacks, this is where your partner should start their push from.
Most attacks, where social violence is concerned, is going to be initiated at this or a similar range, with you and your attacker being nose-to-nose. Your first job, in such conflict is to step back, put distance between you and them, and begin to control range, and alter your positioning, so you aren’t standing directly in front of them – your movement off-line should be discrete and not so noticeable that your aggressor will feel the need to realign their body with yours; the time they will find/realize that they need to do this, is if they were to make a physical attack, such as a push. Setting yourself up, to be able to control range and body positioning, in the pre-conflict phase of an altercation, is key to making your Krav Maga/Self-Defense effective.
Just as we should recognize how effective a push against us can be, in terms of disorientating us, and allowing our attacker to control the range/distance between us, we should also understand how pushes can be used to our advantage – when/where appropriate. When I spar, I use pushes quite a lot, especially to set up low roundhouse kicks. It allows me to move somebody back to a range/distance I am comfortable with, it upsets their balance, so they are not able to both recognize the attack, and form a defense against it, and because they normally try to root, as part of their process to regain balance, their leg absorbs all the power of the kick. Does it work well against people who are significantly bigger and heavier than me? Not particularly, and I don’t use it then i.e. different tools for different jobs. Although sparring doesn’t fully represent a real-life fight, there are moments when it does, or can, and we should take those lessons learnt and appropriate them for reality. Pushing an assailant isn’t particularly clever, and may not demonstrate our technical prowess, but it can be extremely effective at putting an attacker in a disadvantageous position that we can exploit – and we shouldn’t think that it is something, which is beneath our dignity to use and employ. What works well for the untrained individual, should work well for the trained individual as well.
Training to defend against pushes, both one and two-handed, may not be the most “exciting” or “sexy” part of our training, but it is necessary. Once your balance is taken, you are extremely vulnerable, and your chances of defending yourself in that moment, is almost impossible. If somebody is able to land a solid punch, as you fall/move backwards, and continue striking you, you may find it extremely difficult to get back in the game; both mentally and physically. Preventing that push, should be one of the priorities of our training.
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