Denial - Recognizing The Signs

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 25th Nov)

Denial, is a common and normal the response we have when our adrenal system is triggered, and we become aware that we might be in danger. Two 19th Century Scholars, William James and Carl Lange, working independently came to similar conclusions about how our fear system operates – this is now referred to as the James-Lange theory. Most people naturally think that the order of events when scared is as follows: You see a bear, you become afraid, and because of the fear for your safety you run. Both James and Lange postulated that this wasn’t in fact the order of events and what really happens is as follows: You see a bear, you start to run and because you are running you recognize/understand that you are afraid. In effect what they are suggesting is that it is due to a change in your emotional state that you recognize you are in danger, not because you first consciously identify the threat.

If the danger is immediate, such as being charged by a bear or someone trying to stab us, we will not have time to “consciously” respond to the threat and will work on instinct. However if we have time to identify a threat, one of the most common responses is to deny it. If you’ve ever been walking and felt there was someone walking behind you, and then you identify footsteps, chances are you’ll tell yourself that you’re just imagining that someone is following you, and that you shouldn’t be so stupid. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize that you are in such a state, and it is often easier to spot the signals that tell you, you are in denial.

The first step when you enter a state of denial is to rationalize your state. If you hear footsteps that are gaining speed, and coming up behind you, rather than turn and confront the potential danger advancing towards you, you may try and convince yourself that the person behind you is just in a hurry (which could be the case however their movement was similar enough to someone’s who does want to hurt you that your fear system alerted you to the danger). You may add to the argument, that the time is around 6 PM and they are just in a hurry to get home from work etc. In this process you will start to minimize the potential risk to yourself – convincing yourself that you are not in danger. When you make a dynamic risk assessment of a situation there are only two outcomes, it’s either a high risk situation or one that contains unknown risks – there is no such thing as a low risk situation.

Trying to minimize risk, and reduce the risk to yourself should only go to confirm to yourself that the danger is large and real – else why would you try and discount it? If you have to rationalize a situation to the point where you are minimizing the risk you are in a state of denial, and you should act. If it is someone rapidly approaching you from behind and there is little or no time/space to disengage or put some natural barrier, such as a parked car between you and the person behind you, you should turn and confront. The situation is either a high risk one or one containing unknown risks; by turning and confronting you can gain more information to make a better assessment and prediction of what is likely to happen e.g. is it someone chasing you because you dropped your wallet and they want to give it back, or is it someone running at you with half a house brick raised over their head ready to hit you with it?

People often minimize risks when they are dealing with aggressively verbal people. If the question, “he surely wouldn’t hit me, would he?” ever enters your head when you are involved in a verbal altercation, understand why it does i.e. because you subconsciously are thinking that they may. When you ask these type of questions you are effectively making predictions. Don’t minimize the question by telling yourself, “No, of course he wouldn’t hit me”, as more than likely that’s what he is about to do. Trying to rationalize a dangerous situation is comforting, as it lets us off the hook for having to deal with it, and we can simply hope by ignoring it that it will go away. If we keep ignoring our fear system and getting away with this course of action we’ll soon detune it and will stop being alerted to potential dangers.   


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Removing Heads From Sand

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 17th Nov)

Last week's blog focused on Workplace Violence and how potentially violent employees, don't get picked up on and identified by employers during the interview phase. A large part of this is down to the fact that in an interview the employer is looking at the candidates suitability and eligibility to perform the tasks and responsibilities that would be given to them as part of the job, not whether they are likely to be aggressive and violent towards other employees - this is doubly difficult when aggressive/violent people know how to hide or justify their previous actions and behaviors. At base, the issue is one of awareness; knowing what to look for and recognizing when you see it - even if it is disguised and hidden. 

This week I had a conversation about somebody's father who had grown up in a rough neighborhood, had become successful, and had ended up losing his street smarts and savvy as due to becoming more accustomed to his new lifestyle of success - after a particular incident these skills were rediscovered and reinstated. Most of us, reading this, have probably been fortunate enough not to have to learn what violence looks like firsthand, and if we're honest about it recognize that this puts us at a disadvantage. Our education into violence, isn't firsthand, and so we don't actually know what to look for in our environment, or what is significant when trying to identify potential acts of violence.  

For many of us we are like the employer, who is looking to fulfill certain objectives. When we go to the supermarket to shop we are looking to get the groceries we need, we are not expecting to be attacked, or looking for potential assailants. When we go to work, we are looking at how to get their on time, whilst dropping off dry cleaning and getting a coffee. We are so focused on achieving our day-to-day goals and objectives that we ignore, deny or discount the potential dangers in our environment. If you grew up in a rough district/neighborhood, you knew that running errands for your mom, could see you being robbed before you got to the corner shop, a couple of blocks from your house - this was your reality and you took such possibilities into account.  

Modern day-to-day life is so hectic that our personal safety is often the last thing to be, if ever, considered and yet the consequences of being assaulted are so great. This is not me trying to fear monger or create hysteria but simply communicate a message that personal safety should be a consideration in everything we do, that we should not become so focused on achieving every task that we neglect to consider our safety in doing so. We may not have natural street smarts and may take the opinion that because of this there is nothing we can do i.e. we put our heads in the sand, and hope that violence never comes our way, or alternatively we can recognize that violence does happen and that we should educate ourselves to predict, identify and avoid it before it occurs. 

The media might like to portray to us that the world is in chaos and there is little we can do to avoid becoming victims but this is simply not true. When I ran errands for my mum, I knew who/what to look out for, how to move in a way that didn't draw attention to myself, and how to chose the safest routes based on the time of day. I was eight years old. I learnt what I did because it was essential that I did. You may be in your thirties, forties, fifties etc. and you may say to yourself, it will never happen to me (the line every victim says), yet you have far more intellectual ability than an eight year old, and far more opportunities to change how you act and behave. You just need to accept that you should and you can. 

You are the most important asset you have, and you should preserve and protect that. Accept that violence, however unlikely, can invade and change your life and learn to identify what it looks like and how it acts so you can predict, prevent and avoid it.      


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Workplace Violence

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 10th Nov)

I was recently interviewed concerning a stabbing at a Home Depot store in Quincy, MA. Both the victim and the attacker were employees. This brought up the subject of workplace violence. It always surprises me that there aren’t more instances of violence in the workplace; after all work is one of the few places we have to deal with, and communicate with people we haven’t chosen to be with i.e. the work environment is one that we have little or no control over the people we interact with. From what can be gathered concerning the incident at the Quincy Home Depot, it involved two employees who had a history of disputes, disagreements, arguments and aggressive behavior/actions between them. In any other setting they would never have met or interacted, and if they had come across each other they’d have probably both walked away, in the opposite direction, and had no further communication/interaction. Unfortunately the workplace doesn’t afford us this luxury of choice, and we aren't able to disengage, and instead may have to work alongside people that we simply don’t get like or get along with.

Firstly, it is worth stating that what I’m about to write doesn’t reflect or call into question Home Depot hiring or employee management policies, but raises some general points and considerations concerning workplace violence.

When a manager reads a curriculum vitae, and interviews prospective candidates for a position, the safety of existing employees is rarely a consideration. A manager wants to know primarily if a person can perform a job, and bring a skill set to the group/department that will allow them to fulfill certain functions and responsibilities. They are not asking the question, is this person likely to become violent and assault another employee(s). If a company/manager is hiring a computer programmer they are first going to check if the person can code in whatever language they use. They then may ask how much of a “team player” the person seems to be but they will rarely try to ascertain whether the individual they are interviewing is likely to put everybody else in danger or at risk.

My personal belief is that this needs to change. Too often we assume that personal safety issues have been taken care of by others. If you are a parent have you ever asked your kid’s teacher if they have ever harmed or hurt a child? Probably not. We assume that the school has somehow addressed that issue for us. Often they haven’t. They may have done the necessary criminal checks but they haven’t actually interviewed the teacher from this perspective. The schools primary focus is often on the success that the teacher has brought academically, not on their actual attitude to children and how they treat them. When a manager looks to employ an individual the focus is on their ability to do the job.

Hopefully you’re a bit picky about who you invite into your house. When a manager interviews a prospective employee they should be equally picky about who they bring into their “house”. A good team member should not only bring skills, abilities to the job, but they should also not cause a feeling of unease in their fellow employees. One of the things that is always surprising about incidents of workplace violence is that fellow employees often remark about how uneasy and uncomfortable they were with those involved. The co-workers of Patrick Sherill, the Oklahoma postal worker who went on a shooting spree after he was fired, had already nicknamed him, “Crazy Pat”, before he even committed his crime - there was a warning to management righ there. If you want to know whether there is a likelihood of workplace violence listen to other employees. If they use dark humor in reference to another employee, take note e.g. they hear a loud bang/noise, and jokingly remark that this was caused by “Crazy Pat” shooting his manager etc. start to investigate Pat Sherill before it comes to simply dismissing/firing him etc. Humor is a means of identifying danger – when we are in denial about a threat humor often reveals what that denial is.

If a company puts extreme pressure on its supervisors and managers to get things done right and quickly  and yet doesn’t create a culture which allows any negative information to flow upwards, troubled employees might never be identified and brought to the attention to those in positions of power (who are ultimately responsible for the business). Many supervisors and managers will not want to admit that they made a bad hiring choice, and have a bad person in their department,  and so will continue to “sing the praises” of a troubled employee, that makes everybody in the business is uncomfortable about etc. In fact a manager may force themselves to become the biggest advocate of an employee in order to save face, instead of admitting they made a wrong choice. In some instances they will help that employee get a promotion that moves them out of their department.

A positive workplace culture is key in allowing fellow employees and supervisors/managers to identify and deal with people who engage in aggressive and bullying behavior. Everyone must feel empowered to bring to the attention of management those individuals who make them feel uncomfortable and threatened. Personal safety is a right and something that every company should guarantee.   

During the first stages of a person’s employment they should be observed and if any untoward behaviors and actions are identified e.g. being excessively resistant to change etc. then somebody needs to sit down with said employee and explain to them what the terms and conditions of the company means and how their way of explaining/describing things doesn’t fit in with them. The longer an employee’s behavior goes unchecked, the more it is given tacit approval by those in positions of power. An employee who is reprimanded for a minor offence of aggressive behavior may feel that this is unfair considering previous “major” incidents were never identified or dealt with. Consistent handling of an employee’s behavior in line with company policy is essential (and any company who doesn’t have policy and process for dealing with aggression and violence needs to start addressing that immediately).

Workplace Violence is ultimately the responsibility of the company involved. The manager employing an employee must interview correctly, and those who work with the employee must be allowed to give their feedback early on. After that the company must be prepared to eject the employee as quickly as they can. The longer a person stays at a job the more entitled they feel to say even when they break all the rules. If an employee does need to be fired this should be done at the earliest opportunity before they feel they are entitled to work at that company – the last thing a company needs is a disgruntled employee returning with firearms to wreak havoc in the workplace.        

Most company’s ignore basic processes in the hiring and firing stages of employment because they are really only concerned with the productivity of an employee when they are in the work phase. There are many simple steps a company could take to ensure that the safety of its existing employees is maintained before new members of a company come on board and after they leave. This however requires employers to consider the well fare and safety of their employees from another a new perspective.

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Gradings & Lifting Weights

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 4th Nov)

I have always enjoyed lifting weights. One of the main reasons is because it’s honest. You can’t talk a bar up above your head, you have to lift it. Either you can or you can’t it’s as simple as that. Self Defense should be the same however all the abilities needed to be effective on the street can be difficult to test and prove. The UFC and MMA tried to get close but they were only able to replicate one dimension of a real-life conflict and had to take out some of the key elements that define reality, such as being surprised when attacked and recovering from a sucker punch etc. along with other more physical components such as multiple assailants and weapons. In some instances rather than reflect reality, instructors and schools have chosen to educate their students as to a reality that fits their techniques, skills and beliefs concerning what a real-life fight looks like e.g. two handed chokes from the front and back, pushing, pulling etc. – whilst such attacks do happen they are far less common than, pushes, grabs and large swinging punches, when surprised and still in denial of the reality of the situation. Whilst aself-defense school can't test reality as reality, it can take the many dimensions of a realconfrontation and test each component in a controlled manner. This is what is attempted in a grading. 

In grading, students largely fall into three camps: those that think “knowing” the techniques is enough, those that think because they’ve been a member of a school for a length of time they are entitled to grade and be belted, regardless of the number of classes they’ve missed and their overall lack of training i.e. get to “Black Belt” without the effort  (they often end up quitting a school, and doing a circuit of others in the hope that they’ll find an instructor who’ll hand them out belts regardless of their commitment etc.), and then there’s those that care about improving what skills they have and developing new ones, and working their way patiently through the system. These are the guys who don’t want to talk about lifting the bar over their head, rather these are the ones who want to be able to.

When you lift, you constantly have to add weight to the bar in order to improve. This means accepting failure, and having to start again. If you’re doing a big lift in a crowded gym, everybody sees this. Challenging yourself and accepting that you might not make the lift, and that’s okay because you can try again and again, is the same as improving your martial arts and self-defense skills. Some people who try to and want to lift heavy but find that it’s hard, it hurts and involves failure, may go back to lifting lighter weights for large numbers of repetitions because it doesn’t involve and real test of strength. Some martial artists will never try anything “new” in sparring because it may involve failure, others will not change the way they punch or kick, because it may mean they have to step back the power they were generating, in order to move forward (they must “fail” in a relative sense in order to get better).

A student in the UK, would never alter his Roundhouse Kick because as a tall person with a heavy leg he could generate a lot of power, through athleticism, not through technique. He never had the strongest kick he could have had because of this- all he saw was the power he was generating at the time, not what he could have generated. To get better you must come out of your comfort zone. Your belt is a marker of where you are now, don’t strive to be in the same place but with a different color belt round your waist in 6 month, work towards improving what you already know. Don’t look at other schools and see the belts they hand out there and judge yourself worthy of a higher belt than the one you have. Where you are is where you are.

I just spent the weekend being coached in Strongman Lifting by Svend Karlsen (World’s Strongest Man 2001). It was a humbling experience. On certain lifts, I need to drop my weight and improve my form; if I’m going to see the gains I want. I have a choice: I can continue what I’m doing or I can change in order to improve. Lifting is honest, you can do it or you can’t. Martial Arts training can be honest too; you can talk about how powerful your kick is or you can demonstrate how powerful your kick is. You can be satisfied by where you are now and in 6 months argue that the same kick is the one you’ve improved, or you can improve. The belt you will receive on Thursday is a line in the sand. Be honest about where you are and what you need to do to move on. Look on your belt as a 200 Lb lift, and aim to make a 240 Lb lift at the next grading.   

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