De-escalation, Reflective Listening & Non-Complimentary Behavior

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 28th Aug)

I was bullied as a child. I was constantly told by my teachers, my parents, and other people in authority, who I looked to for advice, that if I ignored my bullies they would go away – I tried it, and they didn’t go away; in fact, it made it worse, because the more I ignored them, the greater the lengths they’d go to, to get my attention. Nobody responds well to being ignored. When working door/bar security, If I was on my own and I had to separate two aggressors, whilst I was talking to one, the other would become frustrated that I wasn’t talking to them, and end up getting more emotional – he/she was invested in the dispute, and had no intention of walking away from it. It sounds a simple strategy: ignore them and they will go away, but deep down, we all know it’s fundamentally flawed, and will often escalate situations rather than de-escalate them. I have written a lot about de-escalation in this blog, however I’d like to talk about some proven methods that can be used effectively, in the right circumstances.

Firstly, de-escalation is rarely if ever successful in premeditated confrontations, where the aggressor has come to, or orchestrated the incident, with a goal or outcome in mind e.g. if a mugger demands your wallet, they are only going to be satisfied with one outcome – walking away with your wallet. If, however, you spill a drink over somebody, or act/behave in a way that causes them to become aggressive i.e. it is a spontaneously aggressive/violent situation, they may not have a goal/outcome in mind, and this is where de-escalation has its place.

If you’ve ever been in a heated/aggressive argument or confrontation, you may have had the feeling that the other party wasn’t listening to what you were saying – strangely enough, it is likely that they were feeling the same way. When people become angry/aggressive it is because they believe that they are in the right, and are justified to express themselves in the way that they are (even if this constitutes an assault – there doesn’t have to be physical contact for someone to assault you). By arguing back, and/or trying to make/state your case, you will be perpetuating this feeling in them, as they become baffled by the fact that you are not listening to them or taking them seriously i.e. you should be responding to what they are saying, not making a counter-argument. One tactic to get around this is to use a strategy known as reflective listening. With reflective listening, rather than trying to state your own case, you acknowledge your aggressor’s emotional state and position e.g. you say, “You seem really angry, why is that?” this gives an aggressor the chance to acknowledge their emotional state, and rationalize it. When they give the reason as to why they’re emotional, you may be able to validate it by agreeing that this would make you angry too…if that was in fact the situation; allowing you to start introducing some logic and reasoning into the confrontation. If they respond emotionally/aggressively to what you say, again you can reflect, by stating that you can see how they might see it this way, etc. De-escalation is a process. There are no silver bullets, but by helping the aggressor acknowledge their emotional state, there is a chance that they will respond positively.

One de-escalation strategy that has recently gotten a lot of attention is something called “Non-Complimentary Behavior”. This method involves responding to an aggressive individual, by acting/behaving in a way that doesn’t reflect the way that they are acting/behaving e.g. if somebody acts in an aggressive/nasty way towards you, you respond by being non-threatening and nice, etc. The aim of the strategy is to take away the aggressor’s justification for their angry behavior; it isn’t “fair” to be aggressive towards someone who is being nice/kind. The success of this strategy depends upon the emotional state of the aggressor, as well as the relationship they have with the person they are targeting i.e. they have to care about being seen to be fair, and to a certain extent reasonable, something that is more likely if they are still in control of their emotions, and care about how their target – and possibly those around them - perceives them.

It is important to note that ignoring someone isn’t a non-complimentary behavior. An example of a non-complimentary behavior, would be to bring in doughnuts to work, and offer one to someone who had been extremely rude and aggressive towards you – almost shaming them of their actions and behaviors. Ignoring someone at work who you had a dispute with, wouldn’t be a non-complimentary behavior, it would just be ignoring them, and if you actively and deliberately ignored them, it would in all likelihood make the situation much worse.

However, the concept of non-complimentary behavior has been used to justify an intervention strategy, that involves ignoring an aggressor, when intervening in a hate crime. There is a poster campaign around Boston at the moment, advocating that a person who witnesses an incident of religious/racist abuse should intervene by talking to the target about frivolous topics, such as the weather, movies they have seen, etc., until the aggressor/abuser gets bored and walks away. It’s a nice idea, but it is neither an effective strategy, nor an example of non-complimentary behavior. Just as with bullies, ignoring somebody who is invested enough in their view-point to publicly, verbally assault someone, is not going to see them go away, and may in fact escalate the situation.

Non-complimentary behavior can be effective, but usually only when that person cares about how they are perceived by others – not the case in most incidents of spontaneous violence, where de-escalation can be used.

Nothing comes with a guarantee, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution where de-escalation is concerned. Having a number of different tools in your toolbox, that can be applied in the appropriate situations, is your best survival strategy.




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Situational Awareness, Mindfulness & Curiosity

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 21st Aug)

Sometimes when I talk to people about self-protection, they come away with the idea that those of us who think about our personal safety are in constant state of highly strung paranoia, jumping at shadows, and ready to decimate anyone who has the misfortune to approach us, outside of our field of vision. Sometimes, instructors promote this idea of “good” situational awareness, by telling stories about how their wife, friend, acquaintance, tapped them on the shoulder when they were distracted or deep in thought, and they turned ready to deal a death blow, only to recognize at the last moment that this person isn’t an enemy hell bent on their destruction. These stories are almost apocryphal in nature, and are terrible examples of what good situational awareness is, and only go to reinforce the view that to be aware of what is going on around us, we need to be in a constant state of high vigilance – when we recognize danger or harmful intent, this should be the state we enter, but it is not the state that allows us to recognize the danger in the first place; in fact it is likely to prevent us from identifying threats – we can consciously only process one thing at a time, so actively looking for signs of danger (before we’ve narrowed the threat down), is going to be an extremely inefficient and ineffective way of identifying harmful intent in our environment. I have found that it is this perception, of having to constantly think about danger, which is one of the biggest barriers for untrained people when considering risk, danger, and threats to their personal safety; they believe that their quality of life will drop, if they have to be constantly on the lookout for trouble. In this article, I want to look at the positive effects of good situational awareness, that go beyond keeping us safe.

One of the problems with modern living is that we are too comfortable, and too accustomed to our environments. We have lost the desire – and sometimes the ability – to be in the moment. Our familiarity with our surroundings and those in them, have caused us to completely switch-off, or actively look for something to distract us; such as reading something on our mobile phones. Our environments bore us, and we have stopped being interested in them. This isn’t just a problem from a personal safety perspective, it’s a problem with who we’ve become. We have lost the ability to enjoy the quality of the moment, and to be curious about the things around us. We shouldn’t be actively looking for danger, we should just be looking. A few weeks before I moved to the U.S. I was walking along the South Bank of the Thames in London – I often used to walk this route, as there was a company on Tower Hill, that I used to do some consultancy work for. This time, for whatever reason, I stopped, and looked across the river, at the London skyline. It was the first time I’d done so. In that moment, I began to realize some of the reasons why tourists came to the City; the skyline is an extremely impressive one. As I looked along it, I saw countless tourists taking photographs of it. They had a curiosity I lacked. The familiarity and the routine of the route, had taken me out of the moment. As “aware” as I thought I was, I wasn’t really aware of my surroundings. By being mindful in that moment, I increased my awareness. Good situational awareness doesn’t just alert us to threats and dangers, it increases our quality and appreciation of life.

When man first came down from the trees, and ventured out onto the savannah plains, he’d have been curious about everything. His survival depended on that curiosity. What did the new sounds he heard mean and signal e.g. the presence of prey that could be the next meal, or the proximity of predators that signaled danger, etc. Nothing could be or was taken for granted. This was a new environment and needed to be understood. This is the start of developing good situational awareness; understanding the environments that we exist in. If you were blindfolded, could you easily and quickly find the fire escapes at your place of work? This is an environment you probably spend an excess of 40 hours a week in, so this should be an easy one for you to do. Do you know where the nearest hospitals and police stations are on your way to work.? When you walk through the town or city where you live do you ever look up, or do you only look straight ahead? How well do you really know the physical environments, of the places you travel through, work in, visit etc.? We should be curious about our environments, so we can educate ourselves concerning them. This also allows us to live in the moment, and appreciate our surroundings, which is something we should be doing as living creatures.

Whenever I drive at night and park my car, I sit for a few moments with the lights off (central locking on), to let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness. This is something I started year ago, as a safety precaution, however I have seen wildlife that I would never have seen otherwise, and this has improved my quality of life. If I hadn’t taken these moments I would never have seen a young coyote play in the snow, which was extremely entertaining and life-affirming. Being situationally aware, involves being aware of everything, not just the things that can harm us, and this part often gets forgotten. Situational awareness means that you are living in that moment, and when we start to do that, not only do we become safer, but our quality of life goes up. Being aware does not involve being fearful, or constantly imagining the dark thoughts that others may be having towards us. This would be both exhausting and depressing. It involves living in the moment, something which will make our lives both safer and more enjoyable.

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(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 14th Aug)

In real-life confrontations, stances – as stances – rarely exist. If you have time to adopt a “Fighting Stance”, like an MMA fighter, at the start of a bout, you will have missed an opportunity to attack your aggressor. In violent incidents,  there is no referee, telling you when the fight will start, and if you have the time to get into a stance, you obviously recognized that the situation was turning physical, and therefore you should have made a pre-emptive assault, instead of getting into a position which sees you waiting for your aggressor(s) to attack you. If you were taken by surprise – which you shouldn’t have been, if you are aware of your surroundings – you won’t have the time to get into a stance, you’ll be blocking and moving, and trying to play catch up on what has happened to you. In this article, I want to look at the role stances play in real-life confrontations, their relevance and use, and what they can teach us about fighting.

I strongly oppose the notion that Krav Maga is MMA for the street. This isn’t about rules, and what techniques are effective or not; that’s another debate/discussion. The format of an MMA bout, bears little resemblance to a real-life confrontation – real life violence is non-consensual, and occurs without warning. There is nobody there to start (and stop) the fight, and combatants generally start nose-to-nose, without the luxury of distance. From a fighting perspective, there isn’t an opportunity to get into a stance, you are simply fighting from the moment things go physical. However, there are occasions, during the verbal confrontation, that precedes most physical confrontations, when you do have the time and space - and should adopt a stance - but it won’t be your “fighting stance”.

Anyone who has worked in some public-facing form of security, will have found, or been taught a stance/position, where they don’t look aggressive, but are ready to act. On many CP (Close Protection) courses, you are taught to stand, with arms half-folded – the idea being that you appear non-threatening, but have a free hand that can be used, to push, grab and make quick distracting strikes, etc. Personally, I liked to put my hands out in front of me, palms somewhat down in an Interview/De-escalation Stance. I’d normally, “talk” with my hands, moving them as I spoke, so that if I had to go pre-emptive, my hands were already moving, and were less likely to cause a reaction from the person I was dealing with. If in these situations, if I’d pulled a “traditional” fighting stance, with my hands coming up to guard my face, I may well have been viewed legally as the aggressor, and seen to have committed an assault i.e. I was in a position where I could cause harm to the person I was dealing with, and would have given them a reason they should fear for their safety. Forgetting any legal perspectives on the “Fighting Stance”, if they had a weapon on them, they may now feel threatened enough, and feel justified, to use it. Adopting a “Fighting Stance” during a social interaction is only going to escalate things, and let your aggressor know where your intent is.

So, what is the purpose of a “Fighting Stance”? It is there to teach concepts and principles. A fight is a dynamic thing, and you need to be mobile in all directions, so your weight needs to be divided equally between both feet – as you move, not as you stand there. Obviously, if you are striking, weight transfer will occur, though it should never result in more than 60% of your weight being loaded onto the front foot – something worth checking, next time you throw a straight rear-hand punch/strike (if you can lift your rear foot from the floor as you strike, you should look at centering the weight in your hips, by sinking them). Fighting is about moving, and a “Fighting Stance”, should teach you how to move.

When you move, you need to be stable, and able to generate power. Many people confuse stability with balance. The individual who throws their rear-hand punch, with everything they’ve got, loading 90% of their weight onto the front foot is balanced, but they are not stable – they are effectively standing on one leg. A “Fighting Stance”, should teach you the importance of keeping your head over your shoulders, and your shoulders over your hips i.e. not to lean, whether you're moving backwards or forwards. It’s not so much a stance, as a lesson on what to do when you are moving.

In a fight, both hands should always be active. The idea that you will ever simply have your hands up in a static position is erroneous – they should be doing something; preferably striking. There really shouldn’t be a time when they are both up, simply guarding your face. This mistake often gets made, when people confuse sparring with fighting. Sparring has many merits, however it shouldn’t be looked on as replicating a real-life fight. Sparring is something you and a partner do together, a fight is something you do to each other i.e. my aggressor is trying to violently assault me, and I am trying to violently assault them – the fact that I am doing this in order to defend myself is a secondary concern. A real-world confrontation sees somebody coming at you, there really aren’t moments when you are circling each other in stance – if there are, why aren’t you attacking in these moments? Fighting should be a zero-sum game, if your attacker isn’t doing anything to you, you should be doing something to them – you shouldn’t be giving them the time and space to recover and maneuver.

We need to stop confusing real-life violence with combat sports. We need to recognize the format of violent confrontations, and understand the purpose of the “stances” we teach from, and practice in. There should be no static elements in a fight – we should be moving and attacking, or at worst moving and defending, in order to set up our attacks.

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Elephants In The Room

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 7th Aug)

Often, when people with little understanding of what real-life violence looks like - because they have been fortunate enough to never experience it first-hand - try to imagine incidents, situations and scenarios, they build their “models of violence”, from the media, the movies, and third-party anecdotes, imagining that common armed criminals such as muggers, are at some point looking to, “complete the task of termination”, rather than simply exit the environment with your wallet. A rich diet of action movies, and extreme news stories, can distract us from the reality of violence – which is more likely to comprises of pushes, shoves, grabs and punches, than assassination attempts. In this article, I want to look at some of the elephants in the room that often don’t get discussed in self-defense classes, and some common misconceptions around violence.

There is a tendency when teaching techniques to remove the context e.g. a knife defense gets taught, without an explanation as to why somebody is making the attack in the first place – when we introduce the attacker’s motive into a scenario, we can understand much more about the when, where and whom of assessing risk. One of the other five situational components, that features in a violent confrontation, is relationship i.e. what is your relationship with your assailant? It is often implied – or sometimes explicitly stated – in self-defense scenarios that our attacker is a stranger, however this does not reflect reality, where we are statistically more likely to be assaulted by someone we know; and when we look at particular demographics such as children, this is especially true. There is a value to teaching “Stranger Danger”, and other similar programs, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we are addressing the danger of sexual assaults on children, when they are far more likely to be committed by family members and their friends. If our child safety programs don’t reference this, it would be wrong to think of them as being truly comprehensive.

Even when we are presented with the facts and statistics, it is all too easy to think that they don’t apply to us. In a now-famous study concerning how we apply statistics to ourselves, there was a survey that consisted of a number of factual statements, where participants were asked to state their opinions, thoughts and ideas about them. One of the statements/questions was, “The average life-expectancy of a US Citizen is 88 years old. How old do you expect to be at your time of death?” Nobody answered 88 or younger, everybody believed that they would beat the statistic; that it didn’t apply to them. We can argue to ourselves that we, personally are most likely to be assaulted by a stranger, however we are part of the statistics that say this isn’t the case. We do a huge disservice to our female students, if we present rape and sexual assault scenarios in the context of strangers, making surprise attacks from the rear; when in fact most rapes involve people the victim knows, and occur in their home or somebody else’s.

Most violence happens face-to-face, and is preceded by dialogue. A subjective study will confirm this. How many verbal altercations and disputes have you seen, versus physical fights? How many physical fights have you seen – from the starting point, not having walked in on – that didn’t start first with a verbal confrontation? Do sneak and surprise attacks happen? Of course, and we need to train for them, however we also need to train to deal with violence from “conversation” range, and from the standpoint that there are things we can do to better our chances of surviving such altercations during this phase of the fight (the Pre-Conflict Phase) e.g. controlling range, bringing our hands up in a placating manner, attempting to de-escalate the situation (if it’s spontaneous in nature), etc. If we train from the perspective that people just attack/punch us, out of the blue, and that’s what is most likely to happen to us, we aren’t training for reality. Most violence is low-level, that occurs spontaneously, and can usually – with the correct training - be de-escalated. One good way to stay on track and make sure we are training realistically, is to introduce “motive” into everything we teach; why is the person targeting us, why have they chosen to be violent towards us? Is it something we’ve done? Is there something they want? If every time we teach or learn a technique the motive of the attacker is introduced, we will quickly see if we are creating contrived, and unlikely scenarios.

When we consider that most violence happens face-to-face, and is preceded by dialogue, and recognize that the person who initiates the physical confrontation will have the advantage, we really have to teach and/or practice pre-emptive strikes and attacks. If you are in fear for your safety, and your attacker is in a position to cause you harm, then you are being assaulted, and you have the right to defend yourself (under US law), and that includes being the one who makes the first strike. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is school, and the guilty person is the one who “started” it. If you have the opportunity presented to you to make the first strike, and put your assailant in a position where they are the one who is reacting, don’t pass it up. Be aware of what would constitute reasonable force in such a situation, and don’t pass up on an opportunity to disengage, and get to safety, because you’ve been lead to believe that in every situation you need to fully incapacitate your assailant – not being there is, in most cases, the safest strategy. If you believe that your attacker might eventually pull themselves together and come hunt you down, you’re most likely confusing yourself with Jason Bourne.

Reality Based Self-Defense, means basing what we teach on reality – how real-life altercations actually occur, not simply what we imagine them to look like. We should not be trying to create realities which don’t exist or are unlikely, just because they “could” happen; anything could potentially happen, and we need to put aside our flights of fancy, to be grounded, and to teach, train, and practice for the real-life situations we are actually likely to face.

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