Note: The material on this page is an excerpt of a chapter from my book on unarmed self defense. I'm making this chapter and the previous chapter available for free on my site, due to their importance in self defense:
Avoiding or preventing an attack is easy, and in the vast majority of situations it does not require physical self defense or martial arts. If you follow these simple guidelines, the chance you’ll ever be attacked is incredibly small:
What are dangerous places? How can you avoid being a good target? How and when should you attempt to escape? Read on.
For a predator to attack you, he necessarily needs three things: intent, means, and opportunity. Denying him any one of those three things makes it impossible for him to attack. The easiest way to do that is to avoid a predator so completely that he is not only denied the opportunity to attack you, but also the intent as it specifically relates to you. If you’re not on his radar, he can’t even intend to attack you. You can accomplish this to a very significant degree simply by avoiding dangerous places. If you’re unable to avoid a predator, making yourself a bad target is the next best thing.
If a predator does choose you as a target, you can still deny him the opportunity to attack you. By being aware of your surroundings, paying attention to warning signs, and noticing pre-attack indicators, you can spot a predator and deny him the close distance he needs to attack you by using space and/or objects in your environment. And even if you are approached by a predator, you can de-escalate the situation and avoid physical violence using a variety of measures.
If you’ve taken the steps above, it’s highly unlikely it will go that far. But even when a predator has the intent and opportunity to attack, we can take away his means or ability through physical self defense.
In the rest of this chapter, I’ll cover avoiding dangerous places, being a bad target, being aware of your surroundings, warning signs, pre-attack indicators, distance, evasion, de-escalation, pre-positioning, and physical self defense strategy. In the rest of this book, I’ll cover taking away a predator’s means through physical self defense.
This is the number one rule of self defense. If you avoid places where violence is likely to occur, you’ll dramatically decrease the chance you’ll even be considered as a target. These are dangerous places:
High Crime Areas: Some countries, cities, and areas are known for having high levels of crime. Even in regions that are generally safe, there are often specific geographic locations where high levels of crime regularly occur. Even if violence in such areas isn’t targeting people like you, it’s possible to get caught in the crossfire. In your own city, if there are high crime areas, you probably know where they are. Avoid them. Don’t travel to other cities or countries with high crime rates. If you do enjoy travelling, there is a lifetime of safe destinations to visit. Travelling to a dangerous city or country is not worth the risk, particularly when there are so many safe alternatives. Before travelling to a new destination, look into the crime statistics and avoid the high crime areas.
Among Violent People: Violence is more likely to occur in the presence of violent people. Obviously the former section, high crime areas, ranks at the top of the list for being among violent people. In addition, violence often takes place where groups of young males hang out, particularly where they’re drinking. If you avoid bars, parties, and other such locations, the chance you’ll even see such violence is slim. If you’re not a young male, then these locations won’t pose the same level of risk. Violence is also common in violent groups, but exposure to it requires being in a group with a propensity toward violence. If you’re not a member of a violent group, you don’t hang out in the same places as such groups, and you’re not in a relationship with a violent individual, you’re covered. If you are a member of a violent group, or you’re in a relationship with a violent individual, there’s only one thing you need to do: Get out now. It may not be easy, but you can do it.
Among People Who Don’t Like You: Places where you’re different from everyone else and where that difference isn’t well accepted can be dangerous. If you’re a white American male walking around in Tokyo, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to have a problem, even though you are different and you will stick out. But if you’re a white American male walking around in Afghanistan...well that’s a different story. Avoid places where you’ll stick out and people tend not to like your kind.
Verbal Escalations: When two or more people begin to argue, with escalating verbal tension, the likelihood of violence increases. Some individuals need to psych themselves up in order to become violent, and progress from talking quietly and being relatively still to yelling and using bigger physical movements before becoming physically violent. Verbal conflicts can happen in any physical location, but because they require an escalation, you can avoid that “place”. Avoid arguments, conflicts, and provoking people. And remember, it’s possible for a person to perceive that you provoked them even if you think otherwise. It’s better to be even nicer and less provocative than you may think necessary. Tread carefully in places or groups where you don’t know the social conventions.
In-Between Places: Violence is easier to successfully use and get away with where there are few witnesses. But there must be someone available to attack. “In-between places” are those where people commonly pass through, but not too frequently, for example, between parking lots and tourist attractions, on jogging and hiking trails, on isolated side streets, in parking garages, and on the way to mail rooms from apartment complexes. Attackers can wait in these places, knowing that victims will pass through, and they’ll likely have some time alone with the victim. In-between places where people are more likely to have money or valuables are an even better location for criminals looking for money.
As best you can, avoid these in-between-places. If you’re staying in a hotel that’s several blocks away from tourist attractions, and getting to the attraction requires a walk down an isolated street, take a cab instead of walking. If you’re going to a popular area but know you won’t be able to find parking in the vicinity, take a cab or public transportation if it exists. If you’re going to a shopping mall and have the choice to park in an isolated parking garage or a visible lot on the street, choose the visible lot on the street. Imagine you need to rob someone for money, tonight. Think about where you would wait for victims, and avoid those places.
A rapist or serial killer doesn’t need his victim to have money, and may be willing to wait for a longer period of time. If you were a rapist and wanted to ambush a woman, where would you do it? On a jogging trail near a college campus, but not too near? On a path between an apartment complex and the mail room, not visible from the street? Avoid these in-between-places if possible, and when you can’t, be sure to follow the rest of the advice in this chapter.
Lawless Places: Some countries and areas are relatively lawless, particularly in times of war and internal conflict. In these places, criminals can get away with nearly anything. Avoid these places. If you chose not to avoid them, then minimize your time and exposure in them.
Often times a predator will choose his targets based on some conception of risk vs. reward. The predator wants to get one or more things out of the attack (reward), and minimize his chance of getting injured or caught in the process (risk). There are exceptions, as some predators may be reckless, mentally ill, without self-worth, suicidal, or under the influence of drugs. But consider that very few robbers will attempt to rob a policeman in uniform, but many will rob a well dressed woman with an expensive purse, lots of jewelry, and headphones in her ears. Anything you can do to increase the risk and decrease the rewards for a potential predator, will decrease the chance that you’ll be chosen as a target.
In general, a predator will choose victims they think they can successfully attack. While you can’t change your age, height, and gender, there are some things you can do to make yourself a higher risk target. Paying attention to your surroundings is a big one, which I’ll cover in more detail shortly, but if a predator sees he’ll be unable to take you by surprise, he’ll probably choose a target who is paying less attention. Walking around with headphones in your ears, listening to music, talking on the phone, or texting, is a sure sign you’re not paying attention. Avoid these behaviors, especially in isolated areas. Along similar lines, don’t get drunk in public. Drunk people make perfect victims.
When people are physically fit, it shows. And attacking a fit person is more risky than attacking one who is visibly out of shape. Aside from the mental and physical benefits, regular exercise and weight lifting will make you a higher risk target.
The clothing a person is wearing can inhibit movement. Who would you prefer to attack, a woman in a tight skirt with high heal shoes, or a woman wearing jeans and running shoes? The clothing and shoes a person wears can tell a predator a lot about them. Wear clothing that allows you to move well.
One person is easier to attack than two, two people are easier to attack than three, and so on. While groups can get attacked, the more people you’re with, the lower your chances will be.
If you know how to use it, carrying a visible weapon can significantly increase the risk to a potential attacker. Would you rather attack a woman with pepper spray in her hand, or one with nothing? Think about the type of person you’d choose to attack if you needed to get money today, if you were a rapist, or if you wanted to beat someone up to prove your manhood. What behaviors, qualities, and conditions would make you more likely to attack them? What behaviors, qualities, and conditions would make you less likely to attack them?
Again, you can’t change certain aspects of your physicality. But you can change aspects of your behavior that would be rewarding to a predator. What does wearing expensive clothing and jewellery tell a predator looking for money? What kind of car do you drive, and what does it tell a potential predator? What does wearing revealing clothing show a man who is already thinking about rape? (It’s not fair, but it is true.) Think about what you’d look for in a victim, in terms of rewards, and eliminate those as best you can. When a woman carries a purse, it wouldn’t be foolish to assume there are objects in it, potentially valuable objects, especially if it’s an expensive, name-brand purse. If you do need to pass through a high risk area, don’t carry or wear anything that will appeal to a predator. This includes laptops, smart phones, and any other high value items you may carry in your hand or wear on your body.
The more obstacles a potential predator has to deal with, the more likely he’ll choose an easier target. Would you prefer to break into a home with a visible camera, motion sensing lights, window bars, a barking dog, and an obvious alarm system, or one with no sign of preventative obstacles? In addition to the deterrent quality of obstacles, some can stop an attacker dead in his tracks. If you do have an alarm system, use it!
Keep your home, car doors, and windows locked. Don’t open the door for strangers. A locked door is an obstacle that requires far more effort to get through than one that is unlocked. And when that locked door has a sign next to it from an alarm company, and a dog barking behind it, there are very few predators that won’t leave for another home.
Some predators will walk a neighborhood pretending to be a handyman, knocking on doors to see who is home, who isn’t, who opens doors, and what’s inside. Again, do not open the door for strangers. Use blinds or curtains so it’s difficult for a predator to easily see inside your house. Use motion activated lights around your house. Predators don’t want to be seen, and will avoid getting close to a motion activated light. The more obstacles you can set up between you and an attacker, the harder it will be for him to reach you, and the more likely it will be that he’ll chose another victim.
Have a plan for home invasions, and make sure everyone in your home knows that plan. Your plan will vary depending on the size and layout of your home, where the exits are, how many people live in it, their ages, etc. When making your plan, remember that the goal isn’t to kill an intruder, but to keep yourself and your family safe. Escaping may be your first priority, particularly if you know where the intruders are coming in, have barriers between them and your family, and a safe way to exit. If you do have motion sensing lights, locked doors and windows, an alarm system, and an alert dog, it’s highly unlikely your home will be chosen. If it is, each of these barriers will act as layers in your security system, alerting you to the progress of the intruders.
Some people have a philosophical problem with owning or using guns. Although I’d prefer if no one was violent or used guns, that’s clearly not the world we live in. I once had an instructor in a handgun course explain that a gun is like a parachute. No one wants to have to use a parachute. But if you were in a plane that was going down, and you had the opportunity to jump out with a parachute, you sure would be glad you had one. I feel the same way about guns, and it’s a valid argument, regardless of how you feel about them. If intruders ignore your motion sensing lights, break through your door or window, continue into your home despite your alarm going off, and are about to enter the room you and your family are waiting in, having a gun, the ability to use it, and a plan with a good chance of success would surely beat the alternative.
The use of guns is beyond the scope of this book. But I’ll relate two incidents that happened to friends of mine here, as a cautionary note.
One friend who was a cop, had a gun on the side of his car seat. He and his fiancée stopped at a drive up ATM machine to get money, when a man approached the open car window and told my friend to hand over the money he had just retrieved. My friend went for his gun, was shot in the head, and killed in front of his fiancée.
Another couple I’m friends with was asleep in their home, when my friend woke up and noticed his kitchen light on in the room next to their bedroom. He had a gun under his bed, right next to him. But before he could grab it, the door opened up and a man came in with a gun pointed at them. He was smart, and didn’t go for his gun. Unfortunately their dog began barking at the guy, and the guy shot their dog in the head before robbing them. My friends left their house that night and never went back in. They put it up for sale and moved out of the city.
I relate those stories to emphasize that if you do decide to own a gun, you absolutely must learn how to use it, and you absolutely must have a plan for when to use it and when not to use it. A gun is not a magic weapon. If someone has a gun pointed at you, and you go for your gun, you’re probably going to get shot. In order to use your gun, you need to know your attacker is coming BEFORE he sees you or has his gun on you. This is one reason layers of home security are so important, as they’ll let you know someone is on their way.
Back to home security...
Although you won’t be there to attack, if you go out of town, make sure you have a neighbor pick up your mail and remove flyers each day. Some predators will place flyers on or in front of doors, or on car windshields, to see if they get removed. If they don’t get removed, they can assume you’re out of town.
It’s always better to be aware and mindful, not just for self defense. Get into the habit.
Most people do the same things day after day, week after week, month after month. You should be aware of what’s normal in your neighborhood, where you walk your dog, in and around public transit areas, in and around your place of work, in the grocery store parking lot, and everywhere else you go. What kind of people do you normally see? What do they normally wear? What are they normally doing?
When something or someone is out of place, take note.
Why is there an adult man hanging around a children’s playground if he doesn’t have a child? Why is there a man leaning against a wall or peaking out from a recessed doorway? Why did those three guys split up but keep walking toward me? Why is that man wearing a jacket in the summer? Why does that kid have one hand behind his back? I’ve never seen that guy before...what’s he doing in my neighborhood?
People naturally have good instincts, and it’s extremely common for victims of crime after the fact to say they had a bad feeling about a situation, that something or someone didn’t seem right. But they ignored it. When you’ve got a bad feeling, pay attention to it!
Predators will use social conventions to their advantage. They know that it’s rude to be rude, and that nice people don’t want to be rude. They know you’ll feel strange crossing the street when they’re walking toward you, and that you probably won’t. They know you probably won’t tell them to get out of your face when they come too close, or that you’ll shake their hand when they put it out for you. The most dangerous predators won’t seem like predators on the surface, but odds are, you’ll know something isn’t right. They’ll be where they don’t belong or they’ll be doing something a normal person wouldn’t do. It may be something small, but if you’re aware and paying attention, you’ll see it. And you don’t have to be paranoid. You simply need to be aware and pay attention to your feelings.
Gavin de Becker, in The Gift of Fear covers 7 tactics a predator will commonly use to gain your trust or take advantage of you. I won’t go into great detail, as you should read the book yourself, but they are worth mentioning here:
Most people will notice these tactics on some level. They’ll feel uncomfortable, but they won’t trust their instincts. It’s important not only to be aware, but also to trust your feelings. The Gift of Fear is an excellent title, as fear really is a gift. It was given to us by nature to let us know when trouble is present. When you feel fear, there is likely a very good reason. Pay attention to it, and do something about it.
In addition to the above warning signs, there are a number of common pre-attack indicators you should be aware of. One of the most common is the witness check. Before an attack, the perpetrator will know he’s about to do something illegal. He either wants witnesses to see what he’s doing, in the case of violence for status, or he wants to be sure there are no witnesses to see what he’s doing, in most other cases. Many of them will do a witness check right before they launch their attack, looking around to check for witnesses, and some will continuously look for witnesses as the time of the attack gets nearer. If you have a strange feeling about someone, if they’re somewhere they shouldn’t be or doing something they shouldn’t be doing, and they’re looking around frequently, there is likely a problem. If a stranger has approached you, is within striking distance, and does a witness check, you’re about to be attacked.
Highly skilled predators may operate in groups. Doing so will allow them to hide some pre-attack indicators, but this often creates others. In a team of two or more, the predator in front of you can avoid the witness check for example, by relying on his partner(s) as a look out. One may be approaching you from the front while another walks up from the rear. The man approaching from the front sees what’s behind you, and the man coming from the rear can signal the one approaching from the front if the coast isn’t clear, removing the need for the witness check. It’s also possible for two or more predators to use cell phones for this purpose, as lookouts and to coordinate the timing of their movements.
But when predators operate in groups, they are often all within sight of each other. If you turn a corner and two men, one in front and one behind, begin walking toward you at the same time, it could be a pre-attack indicator. If you’re in an isolated area and one man is leaning against a wall with a phone to his ear, and another is approaching you with a phone to his ear, but neither looks like they’re talking, it may be a pre-attack indicator.
In addition to the witness check, many armed predators will do a weapon check at some distance from the victim, assuming they’re not already holding the weapon (concealed or not). Obviously, the existence of a visible weapon in the hand of an approaching stranger is a very reliable pre-attack indicator. But if the weapon isn’t already being held, the predator may “check” with his hand, touching his weapon (under his clothing or in his pocket) to make sure it’s in position and ready. This quick pat or weapon check should be familiar to most people who carry or have carried a weapon.
The third common check is the victim check, where the attacker surveys the victim as he approaches, to make sure he’s made the right choice and to monitor the victim for a weapon or counter attack. The average, relatively unskilled predator will be obvious with his victim check, looking the victim up and down nervously. A more skilled predator will tend to “zone out”, so he can notice everything peripherally without being obvious. However, the average well-meaning stranger will not approach you in such a manner, so the victim check should trigger as a pre-attack indicator in most cases.
As always, there are exceptions. If a predator is sure about his location and victim choice, or if he has no regard for his own safety, he may not do any of the checks.
Some predators may avoid the weapon check by holding a weapon in concealment, in their pocket, behind their back, under their shirt, etc. Pay attention to where a person’s hands are. If one hand is swinging naturally and another appears to be unnaturally placed in concealment, for example, this may be a pre-attack indicator.
Location can also be a pre-attack indicator. Watch for people standing or waiting where they don’t belong, especially in isolated areas. Another key can be in dress. If a person is in a location they don’t fit in, and they’re wearing something that also doesn’t fit, pay attention. Their clothing may be hiding something, or it may reveal they don’t belong in the location they’re in.
One of the best pre-attack indicators is position. For a predator to attack you, he’ll need to get close. When there are few people around, it’s entirely abnormal for a stranger to get too close to you. So when a stranger attempts to invade your personal space, particularly when there are few people around, it may be a pre-attack indicator. He may also be testing your boundaries or attempting to establish dominance.
Other pre-attack indicators are obvious. When a person begins raising his voice, yelling at you, turning red, making big movements, and being otherwise aggressive, he may be gearing up for an attack.
Warning signs and pre-attack indicators are always there. Once you know what to look for, once you begin paying attention, you’ll see them. I’m from New Orleans, a city with lots of tourism. For years I lived in the place were all tourists go, the French Quarter. My family lives there today, and I still spend a significant amount of time there. Like many other places with large numbers of tourists, there are predators looking for victims. I’ve often walked the streets or sat on my balcony, watching them operate.
They stand stationary and watch, where the vast majority of people are walking to and from shops, restaurants, and sights. They position themselves so people will have to walk close to them. Or, they approach strangers immediately putting a hand out for a hand shake, or putting an arm around a stranger’s back. Once they get close, they start with a variety of cons, either to get money without physical violence, or to get people to a more isolated location where they can rob them away from witnesses.
Most people are afraid to say “no” when a hustler puts his hand out for a hand shake. It’s rude not to reciprocate, and the hustlers rely on that social convention to get close and establish control. For the few people who do refuse, the hustler usually acts offended, accusing the person of racism. And at that point, he gains control again as the victim does everything they can to convince the hustler they’re not a racist.
Pay attention to your surroundings, how people behave, what they’re looking at, and where they position themselves in relation to others. You may be surprised by how much you’re able to see.
If you have failed to avoid dangerous places, to increase the risks, and to decrease the rewards enough for a predator to choose another victim, and you see pre-attack indicators, it’s still not too late to prevent the attacker from succeeding. What’s essential to realize in order to maintain control of the situation, is that you do have a choice, and you must make that choice.
In Rob Redenbach’s book, Self Defense In 30 Seconds, he does an excellent job categorizing the choices along with their pros and cons. I’ve changed the order of the choices in a way that makes more sense to me:
By making one of the above choices, even if an attacker has already approached you, even if he has threatened to use violence, and even if he has pulled a weapon, you can still maintain or regain control. But you must realize you have that choice, and again, you must purposefully make it. Without making the choice, you give your attacker control. There’s a great quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War that applies here:
“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity for defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.”
Your attacker cannot successfully attack you unless you provide him that opportunity. He cannot control you without you allowing him to do so. The choice is yours, but only if you know that it is. I can’t overemphasize how important it is that you remain in control and make purposeful choices, even if the choice is to comply. Stop, and think about this for a while.
Since this chapter focuses on prevention, I’ll cover the first three choices (leaving, dominating, and complying) here. The rest of this book will cover the second three, which fall under physical self defense.
Distance removes opportunity from the attacker’s equation. It can be used to avoid or escape (leaving, in the previous list of choices) from a potential attack. Maintaining a safe distance, such that a potential threat will need to take at least a few steps in order to reach you, is crucial. It isn’t realistic to assume you can maintain a safe distance from all people at all times, but it’s also unnecessary to do so. In the company of friends, there is no need to maintain a safe distance. In a crowded place, under normal circumstances and where there are no warning signs or pre-attack indicators, it’s also unnecessary (and impossible) to maintain distance. But when you’re in an isolated area, see warning signs, pre-attack indicators, or don’t feel right, you should strive to create as much distance as possible between yourself and any potential threat.
In isolated areas, you should also keep a safe distance from places an attacker may hide in order to surprise you. Keep your distance from recessed doorways and corners, and walk on the side of the street where there are no cars. If someone is approaching and on track to cross your path, cross the street or change direction. Run if you need to.
If you’ve already been approached by a potential attacker, your first choice is still to escape or leave as long as you can do so safely. The key is to do it under the right circumstances, with the right attitude, and at the right time. Many predators will “interview” potential victims, asking questions, violating distance, and watching to see how the target responds. At the interview stage, especially in areas where witnesses are present, where the predator will need to get you to an isolated area first, leaving can be a sign of uncooperativeness, a sign that you will not comply or make a good victim. But in an isolated area where the predator already has the opportunity to attack, leaving may make that opportunity even more attractive. So the key to leaving as a purposeful strategy, is only to use it during the interview stage, as a sign of active noncompliance.
Another very important point to keep in mind when walking away from a threat, no matter where you are or how many people are around, is to maintain your awareness of the threat’s position and location. Keep your eye on the threat to make sure he’s not coming up behind you. Leaving may seem obvious, but if you don’t purposefully make the choice, you may not do it. Social conventions or fear may stop you from leaving when you should. Understand that leaving is your first choice, and make it whenever you can. In the coming section on de-escalation, I’ll cover another element of effective leaving, dominating your opponent verbally and with body language.
Sometimes, creating enough distance to be completely safe is impossible. It may be that you’re far away from safety, and running will put you in a worse position. In these cases, evasion, a close relative of distance, can be a viable option. If you see a potential attacker before he sees you, you may be able to hide. Hiding can be easier than you might imagine. If the potential attacker isn’t paying close enough attention, you can make yourself disappear by crouching next to a car or hiding behind a tree, for example.
You might be surprised how easy it is to hide in the open. As long as someone can’t see or hear you, you’re effectively invisible. As a teenager, I went through a phase where I was pursued on numerous occasions by various people with bad intentions. It wasn’t pleasant, but I’ve been just a couple of feet away from people who were actively looking for me. The key to hiding successfully is to either be safe and secure in your hiding place, or to remain mobile, to circle the object you’re hiding behind if the potential attacker is moving such that it becomes necessary. In isolated areas, where you’ll most likely need to use evasion, it’s even easier, as you don’t have to worry about anyone else seeing you and revealing your position.
You can use evasion with cover even if your attacker does see you, as long as he doesn’t have a projectile weapon (gun, pepper spray, etc.) that he is willing to use. If you’re as fast as your attacker and have good endurance (it is far more tiring than you might imagine), you can play the circle game, circling a parked car for example, while yelling for help. Few attackers who mean you serious harm will chase you around and around a car while you’re yelling for help and drawing attention to them.
Unfortunately, evasion may be difficult or impossible if you’re with family or friends who aren’t on the same page.
When you can’t avoid a potential attacker through avoidance, escape, or evasion, de-escalation is the next best option. In terms of the choices you must make when faced with a threat, leaving, dominating, and complying can all be effective forms of de-escalation.
Every attack requires an escalation of some sort. The escalation may be more or less visible, but it will include a final closing of distance, it may include a verbal escalation, and it may include an “interview”, where the perpetrator goes through a process of questioning (verbally and/or non-verbally) the target to confirm his likelihood of success. The perpetrator may also tell the target to do something, and in some cases, complying can de-escalate the situation, preventing it from going physical.
Before many attacks, especially when robbery or violence isn’t the primary motive, a verbal escalation may occur first, where tension is noticeably built up leading to a physical assault. A typical build up many people will be familiar with is where one male challenges another by saying something like “You got a problem?”, or “What are you looking at?”. If the answer is “Yeah, you’re my problem.”, or, “I’m looking at you, asshole!”, then the escalation generally progresses until physical violence occurs. But often, simply saying, “I’m sorry man, I didn’t mean to stare.”, and following such a course, will be enough to stop the escalation and prevent the attack. Sometimes, it will take a couple of deflective statements, but by allowing the perpetrator to maintain his dominant role, there will be no need for violence. This is a form of compliance, as you’re allowing the perpetrator to maintain or increase his status. Simply leaving can also work in such situations, especially if you do so in a compliant manner.
In the case of violence for conflict resolution, where an argument usually precedes a physical attack, you can also comply by letting your opponent win. Don’t participate in escalating the situation further. Saying something like, “Well, you could definitely be right. I need to think about this a little more.”, for example, can both end the escalation and the discussion. If you feel a person is beginning to feel provoked by something you’re doing or saying, reverse course and/or leave.
If you feel threatened by someone that you think may want to rob, attack, or abduct you, dominating the situation and leaving can work very well during the interview stage, or as the predator is attempting to close the distance. One of the best ways to de-escalate an attack using physical and verbal dominance without physical contact, is to put both hands up as a barrier, create distance, and say in a very loud, commanding voice, “BACK OFF!”. Doing so absolutely requires practice. I’ll repeat that. Doing so absolutely requires practice. We are not socially conditioned to yell at a stranger before being physically attacked. Most adults aren’t accustomed to yelling at all. It takes practice to say “Back off!” in a loud, commanding voice, to mean it without looking scared or self conscious. If it’s not practiced, and if it’s not meant and done in a dominating way, such an attempt will come across as weak and fearful. It will have the opposite effect. Practicing establishing distance, putting your hands up as a barrier, ready to attack, and giving the “back off” command is a valuable exercise.
A loud command can be literally stunning. A potential attacker will not expect you to yell at him before he attacks. It will be unexpected, and it will shock him. It will serve to show him you’re not a good target, are unwilling to cooperate, draw attention to what he’s doing, or give you the time to attack while he is taken off guard.
If the threat of violence has already been made, if you were taken unaware and by surprise, especially where deadly weapons are involved, compliance is one of the safest choices a person can make. If a predator puts a gun in your face and demands your wallet, your money, your keys, etc., giving him what he’s asking for is highly likely to de-escalate the situation. This is difficult for many self defense and martial arts practitioners to accept. They train hard to be able to take out an opponent, and feel that giving a predator what he wants is giving up, or losing. But the goal of self defense is not to beat up, incapacitate, or take out an attacker. The goal of self defense is to survive and prosper, minimizing injury or damage. And the best way to do that when faced with a deadly threat, where giving up a physical object will end that threat, is to comply.
Compliance is an active choice. As hard as it might be to accept, it’s often the smartest choice you can make, far smarter than resistance. It’s very important to realize this. You should practice giving up your money against a deadly threat.
Of course, when a predator wants you or your family, compliance is not a good option, especially when the predator’s goal is the act of violence or murder. You can and should try to escape or use verbal and physical dominance at the interview stage if possible, but even with the threat of deadly force, complying is not a de-escalation strategy in such situations. If a predator points a gun at your head and tells you to get in his car, come with him, go inside your house, etc., it’s highly unlikely to end well. Your chances are probably much better choosing to sprint away as fast as you can instead of complying. If you can’t safely escape, this is where the line between de-escalation and physical self defense is crossed. If there is one rule in self defense, it is never to comply with a predator who wants you.
The OODA Loop is a concept developed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The concept describes the process humans go through when confronted with a stimulus that requires action or decision making. First, we observe a stimulus. Second, we orient ourselves to the stimulus or new situation. Third, we decide what to do based on that observation. And finally, we act. The OODA Loop has important implications for self defense strategy.
Normal human interactions can be seen as chains of OODA loops, where one person acts, the other observes, orients, decides, and acts, and the cycle repeats. But in aggressive situations, it’s possible for a person to get stuck between the first two phases of the loop. When a predator launches a surprise attack and keeps the pressure on, the victim is bombarded with so much information that they’re stuck observing and continuously attempting to orient. They can’t even get to the decision phase since the situation is moving and changing at such a quick and overwhelming pace. The predator is in the action phase, and the victim is stuck two steps behind, unable to catch up.
The OODA Loop concept sheds light on why it’s so important to be aware of your surroundings, to have a plan, and to proactively make choices. By being aware of your surroundings a potential attacker will be unable to act without you seeing it coming. By making certain choices, you are acting, forcing the predator into the first half of the loop, where you are now two steps ahead or at least on the same level as the predator.
This is one reason why using the “Back off!” command is so effective. The predator thinks he has the situation under control. He’s decided what he wants to do to you, is in the middle of his plan/action, and all of a sudden you break into his loop. It kicks him back into the observe and orient phases and changes the game. You’ve taken control, the predator feels it, and is likely to back down, at least momentarily. If you’ve done so in a place where other people are around, when the predator observes the new situation, he’ll quickly realize that all attention is on him, which is a very uncomfortable prospect if he knows he’s about to try something illegal. At the least, breaking into the predator’s OODA loop will give you the upper hand if you need to resort to physical self defense.
In addition to the “Back off!” command, there are a number of ways to break into a predator’s OODA loop, either making him reconsider his attack or making him miss his opportunity. If you’re carrying a weapon when you notice a threat, especially in an isolated area, putting your hand on the weapon, drawing the weapon, or disengaging a safety on the weapon, where the potential threat notices your movement, can make him reconsider. Faking a weapon check when you don’t have one can also work well.
Recently a friend of mine related the following incident to me: He was in a busy tourist area, and needed to make a trip to a hardware store that was about four blocks away. The two blocks closest to the hardware store are relatively deserted, and places where criminals often rob people who park there or transit through them...a perfect “in-between place”. My friend noticed three young guys who fit the profile for robbers in the area, walking toward him on the other side of the street, looking around for witnesses, and then looking him over. Although he didn’t have a weapon, when they looked at him, he looked right back and pretended to put his hand on a weapon underneath his shirt, as if he was carrying a concealed handgun. He told me they instantly changed their demeanor, quit looking at him, and continued on their way. He told me he’s used this tactic on multiple occasions, and it’s always worked well. Of course, a fake weapon check can backfire, and you should be prepared for that eventuality (to run, to use evasive manoeuvres, to comply, or to fight if necessary). But it’s a good example of breaking into a predator’s OODA loop and changing his plans without the use of physical violence.
Another strategy that can work to disrupt an opponent’s OODA loop, is simply to talk to him, to address him or ask him a question. It’s difficult not to at least quickly consider a question when asked, and this can throw an opponent off. Maintaining or creating distance is a safer bet, but if a threat is coming near you, confidently saying “Hey, how are you doing?” can reset his mind and throw off his timing, if not his plan. It’s surprising how effective a simple question can be at disrupting a physical plan, if used at the right moment. Next time you’re training with a partner, ask him a question right before you attack, and watch what happens. Even after you’ve done it once or twice, it can still have a surprising effect.
On the other hand, if a predator is “adrenalized”, focused, and firmly moving in for the attack, he likely won’t even hear whatever question you’re asking, making it ineffective.
As mentioned in the previous section, a surprise attack can cause a person to freeze, as a fast, overwhelming attack can be too much information for the mind to orient to. Fear can also cause the freeze. And the combination of fear and an overwhelming attack, even worse. In Facing Violence, Rory Miller devotes a chapter to different types of freezes and how to break them. I don’t have enough experience with freezing or breaking freezes to go into specific examples and details for each type, but two strategies that have worked for me follow the solutions Rory offers.
The nature of a freeze is that you’re “frozen”, or not doing anything. And it’s triggered by someone or something else that is doing something. The key to preventing the freeze (and breaking a freeze) is to actively do something. This may seem obvious, but there’s more to it, as described below, and it should be a fundamental part of your self defense strategy.
Most predators will attempt to take their victims by surprise. And when you get nailed by an assault you didn’t see coming, you will at least momentarily freeze. Everyone will. First, your body and mind will be shocked by the physical nature of the assault. Second, you’ll either be completely paralysed on a primal level, stuck trying to figure out what’s going on, or you’ll pause for a moment while you switch from your everyday mind to a more aggressive state. During this period, you may very well be getting mauled by your attacker. One way to prevent this from happening is to use what I call pre-positioning.
Pre-positioning requires you to be aware of the threat before the situation goes physical. Ideally, you’ll position yourself far, far away, and there won’t be a physical attack at all. But when you can’t avoid the threat, (and he’s closing in on you) pre-positioning involves becoming the predator yourself, mentally and physically. You pre-position yourself to attack the threat. Mentally switching from being a victim to being a predator, makes all the difference in the world. Pre-positioning is active. It involves doing something. And doing something is the opposite of freezing.
Anyone who has sparred just a bit, standing and with strikes, knows that standing flat footed, chest to chest, with your hands down, and directly in front of your opponent is a very bad idea. But circling to the outside of your opponent, for example, minimizing his options while maximizing your own, works well. Pre-positioning involves setting up your position relative to your opponent, and seeing your opponent as your prey rather than as your attacker. If he moves to attack, he’s giving you something. He’s creating an opening that you will use to your advantage.
You’ll need to practice pre-positioning in order to understand and use it, but it should be part of your physical martial arts and self defense training. Sparring will help with your ability to pre-position, and it will be covered in later chapters on the Fundamental Five and Environmental Applications.
The second strategy, conditioning effective default responses to various types of attacks, is a last ditch option when you are attacked by surprise. If you’ve conditioned yourself to unconsciously respond to a physical assault, even if you are surprised by the attack, your body will execute the conditioned response. Immediately after the response, you may freeze as you try to figure out what just happened. Hopefully, your training will kick in and you’ll continue to act as quickly as possible. I’ll cover conditioned responses in detail in the chapters on Functional Training and the Fundamental Five.
This chapter and the previous one cover serious topics: The nature of violence and its prevention. The material isn’t light or nice. It is important however, and it can save your life. With that said, for most people reading this book, the world is a safe and enjoyable place. Physical violence can happen, but for the majority of people in first world countries, it’s an exception. The purpose of the material in these two chapters isn’t to have you focus on danger or become paranoid. It’s to give you the knowledge to avoid or prevent violence without having to use physical self defense.
At first you may need to practice to modify your behavior and become more aware of your environment. But in time, these behaviors will become second nature. You won’t need to think about them. Prevention is about minimizing your risks. And when you’ve done that, when you’re well prepared, there will be little to worry about.
As always, there are exceptions. Some places are dangerous. And you may live in one of them. I spent seven years of my adult life living in a neighborhood where physical violence was common. There were multiple shootings directly in front of my house, bullet holes in my roof on two occasions, and every two or three nights my wife and I would hear gunshots. There were turf battles with groups of people fighting each other, drug dealers on two corners within two blocks, a brothel with heavily drugged hookers roaming around, and plenty of unsavory characters. Just before we moved into our house, one of our neighbor’s sons was murdered. Just before we moved out, another one was murdered, and then set on fire in his car. Another one of our neighbors, who my wife used to make brownies for, was jailed for murdering two people.
One of the best decisions we ever made was to move. The feeling of living in a new place, where we could walk outside at any time, day or night, with no concern for our safety, was indescribable. We immediately felt the difference in our lives, and it was no small thing. If you’re living in a dangerous place or with a dangerous person, it doesn’t have to be that way. Leave. It might not be easy, but you can make it work, and you’ll be glad you did.
Life is too short to be obsessed with violence. Minimize your risks, learn what to watch out for and how to respond if you do get into trouble, and then forget about it.
The best thing about functional self defense and martial arts practice has nothing to do with violence. The best thing is that it’s healthy and a great deal of fun. It’s fantastic for exercise, incredible for balance, and a physical and mental challenge. The variety and range of movement and force is liberating for your body. You can do it for the rest of your life, and you’ll always have room to improve. Stand up, clinch, ground, striking, grappling, blunt objects, sharp objects, and projectiles, with a partner, in a group, or alone, indoors and outdoors, there’s a near infinite amount to practice and enjoy.