De-escalation: Victory Without Violence, part 3

Written by Drew Guest

Most martial arts instructors preach that what the student learns in the dojo is only to be used in self-defence and that violence should be avoided. It’s a sound philosophy, but how many instructors actually teach the verbal skills and body language tricks needed to really accomplish this in the face of an aggressor with bad intentions? Here, in the third instalment of this series, Bushi Dojo’s Drew Guest covers the important elements in defusing conflict.

victory-without-violence3
images by James Steer

Last issue we looked at the two main types of aggressor (the predator and the desperate or ‘end-of-tether' aggressor) and the different behavioural approaches (assertive, submissive and passive/neutral) for dealing with them. Let's continue by looking at some other things we can do to prepare ourselves for dealing with aggressors. Some of the following tactics and suggestions will lend themselves more effectively to particular approaches and/or type of aggressor, while others are universal.

Acceptance

Apathy and denial can get you killed. Thousands of victims thought, ‘It could never happen to me', only to have themselves proven wrong, sometimes with devastating consequences. This is apathy - our natural defence mechanism against fear. We distance ourselves from our fears of being attacked by reassuring ourselves that it only happens to other people. Some people are less likely to experience a violent encounter than others, but no-one can ever be completely immune to the possibility. The simple and empowering counter against apathy is accepting that you could be a victim of an attack or aggression. Don't get paranoid; just acknowledge that it is possible. Statistically there is a much higher chance that you will experience aggression rather than physical violence, but aggression can escalate to violence very easily, especially if you handle it the wrong way. One of the most dangerous things to do when facing aggression is to deny it is happening or be trapped in asking ‘how/why is this happening to me?' If you find yourself asking ‘why me?' or thinking ‘this can't be happening', you must stop and acknowledge that it's happening - and it's happening now. You will only find solutions by thinking about what to do, not by worrying why it is happening.

The first step is to recognise when you're in a potentially violent situation. Most of the time this will be pretty obvious but in some cases, such as with a predatory aggressor, it may be hidden in the initial interaction. The predatory aggressor will often use the ‘interview stage' of an attack to test and manipulate their victim prior to utilising aggression. (For an in-depth look at the stages of an attack, see my 2007 article ‘Attack By Numbers' online at www.blitzmag.net) Recognise when the warning signs mentioned earlier are in play. The earlier you recognise them, the easier the de-escalation and, thus, the avoidance of violence.

Intuition

Our senses detect a huge amount of stimuli all the time. We have perception and selection processes that filter out most of the stimuli so that only those of interest or importance get relayed to our consciousness. The other stimuli not filtered are still sensed, it's just that they are perceived only at a subconscious level. This forms the basis of one popular explanation of how intuition works: the ‘gut feeling' that you get is a response to something perceived in the subconscious. Intuition is always a response to something and is usually a warning of some sort.

Thousands of victims of violence have said that they felt something wasn't quite right before they were attacked. Do not ignore these warning signals; they have evolved in us from the time our species began and are a part of our natural protection system. Regardless of how or what you think intuition is, it does exist and it exists to warn you of danger. When you feel intuitive signs, stop and ask what it could be. It's better to take a little time to do this than to ignore it and potentially lose considerably more than a few seconds in your day.

Breathing

Before anything, take a deep breath. This accomplishes a couple of things. It will calm you and acts as a system reset. It's always an advantage to start from a calm, centred position when dealing with aggression. It provides you with room to move and makes it harder for the aggressor to manipulate your own level of aggression. Keeping your own level of aggression at a relatively low level acts as an anchor for your adversary's aggression. It is psychologically difficult to raise the level of aggression when faced with a comparatively lower level; basically, the aggressor doesn't need to raise the aggression level as they are already at a significantly higher (and by their perception, superior) level of aggression. As a rule, you should always try to maintain a level of aggression lower than that of the aggressor.

The other benefit of breathing deep is that it supplies the brain with a decent dose of oxygen. Our brain must work quickly during the de-escalation attempt and providing it with oxygen will enable it to perform at its best under pressure. Your cognitive ability may already be, or could soon be, impaired due to the processes involved in the Acute Stress Response, better known as the fight-or-flight response. We want all the help we can get, so take a breath and feed the brain.

Body language

It's well known that body language and non-verbal cues account for between 80 and 90 per cent of human communication. A huge amount of information gets transmitted via your gestures, gaze, posture, facial expressions and the tone and volume of your voice. The words themselves only account for about seven or eight per cent of communication. Your physical actions, posture and gaze are the first things that a predator reads in the selection process of an attack.

Regardless of what tactics or strategy you use, when dealing with an aggressive threat, you must match it with congruent body language - i.e. it must support, not contradict, your words. For example, if I'm trying to convince the aggressor that I don't want to fight, then standing in a fighting stance with my fists up won't be congruent to that message. See the photo on the following page to see what I mean. Simply ensure your outward appearance and gestures match the type of approach you choose. If you take on a submissive role, then ensure your body language reflects this.

Particularly take notice of your facial expression. The basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust all have distinctive facial expressions. Research (e.g. Ekman, 1994) supports the idea that facial expression is innate and universal across cultures. Facial expressions are the most dominant form of emotional expression in humans, and even cross to similar expressions in animals. Others judge your emotional state by interpreting your facial expressions; often this is done automatically and at a subconscious level.

Faked body language and facial expressions are not as effective as spontaneous or real expression, so you will need to practise. Jump in front of a mirror and practise your stance, posture and facial expressions. If you decide on an aggressive approach, then use the appropriate angry expression and body language; if you choose a submissive approach, then use the expression and body language of fear.

Goals & plans

Your first goal should be the maintenance of your own safety, second would be the safety of others, and even loved ones. Most of us would consider our loved ones' safety as more important than our own, as I do. However, you cannot protect your loved ones if you're taken out of the picture, thus the importance of maintaining your own relative safety as priority. Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline would have heard the safety instructions: they always ask that you secure your own facemask, etc. prior to assisting anyone else, even your children. Lifesavers and emergency workers will always maintain their own safety over that of those they rescue. After all, who would rescue you if the rescuer were injured? The same idea applies when facing an aggressive person. This doesn't mean you will step aside so you don't get injured if a guy is trying to hit your wife, but it does mean you will do all you can to stop the situation escalating to violence in the first place. And if that doesn't work, in the scenario above for example, you may tactically be smarter to step aside momentarily if you're not the focus of the attacker's rage, so you can attack from the side or behind to stop the threat.

On that note, there are quite a few examples of people stepping in to help a stranger who's getting bashed by multiple attackers, only to be fatally injured themselves. Tactically, calling the police from a safe distance, then yelling at the attackers that the police are on their way, would be a better first response before stepping into the fray.

Your personal safety is obviously the major goal; other goals contribute to bringing about that safety. Your goals can vary depending on the situation. You may choose a goal that provides solutions to the aggressor and help return them to a normal level of rationality. It may be to remove yourself from the situation, or maybe to remove the aggressor from your environment. Regardless of what the goals or sub-goals are, you must decide on them early. It's fine to have a general plan to achieve the goal, but you have to be flexible in that plan. Rarely will an aggressive confrontation go according to your plan; the nature of aggression is that it can be influenced by countless variables. In self-protection, there is always an exception (or more) to every rule. Even the information in this article cannot be taken as absolute or guaranteed.

The big advantage to working towards a goal is that it helps you remain calm and keep you thinking and working in a positive direction.

Take control

Try to take control of the interaction by guiding the aggressor along a path of your own choosing. Establish boundaries, set a flexible plan and steer the interaction in that direction. Use the other tactics I've mentioned to control the situation. Physically, put yourself in the most advantageous position, preferably with yourself between the aggressor and an escape route. Try to avoid being stuck in a position where the aggressor blocks the exit. Don't be drawn into a fight and don't allow yourself to be intimidated by threatening and abusive language.

Decide on your approach and take control early - the earlier, the better. Even if you choose a submissive approach, it's your choice so you are controlling the interaction. To the aggressor it seems that he is in control, but it is really you working towards your own goal, whether that be to give his ego what it wants so he can walk away believing he's the alpha male, or give him a false sense of domination so you can surprise him with a pre-emptive attack as he closes in.

Next issue, we'll look at some specific verbal and physical ways to respond to certain things an aggressor will commonly do or say.

Drew Guest has been studying martial arts and self-protection for over 24 years. He has a teaching rank in Muay Thai and holds grades in other systems including Zen Do Kai, Senshido, judo, Australian Freestyle taekwondo, GymGari freestyle and boxing.