Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Final part of Drew Guest - De-escalation: Victory Without Violence

Stickgrappler's note: If you didn't read the previous part of this article, please read it here:

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 fourth and final instalment of this series, Bushi Dojo’s Drew Guest the verbal intricacies of a violent confrontation.

Last issue we looked closely at apathy, intuition and body language. 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.


It is important to actually listen to what the aggressor is saying. If we don't listen then we risk misunderstanding the true nature of the problem. Often an aggressor, particularly an ‘end of tether' aggressor, will believe that no-one is listening to them. If you don't show that you are listening then you inadvertently confirm that belief and further add to their frustration.

Don't just listen, use active listening techniques: repeat and rephrase what the aggressor has said to show that you do understand. Don't be afraid to let the aggressor talk. Often they want someone to talk to, not someone to talk ‘at' them. Appear interested and show that interest in your body language. Lean slightly forward maybe with your head tilted slightly so it shows you are listening intently. Use appropriate eye contact so that the aggressor can see he has your attention, but don't stare and maintain your awareness. You can use open questions to encourage the aggressor to continue talking. The more energy dispersed by talking and venting, the less likely the built-up energy will be released as physical violence.

Your body language should be open, but not so much as to leave you open to attack. Give the aggressor plenty of room; crowding is one of the leading contributions to frustration and aggression in humans. Try not to make premature judgments or assume what the aggressor is going to say. Instead, wait until they have finished so that you are sure you have the full story.

It's equally import to understand the message, not just what is said. An aggressive person will often use abusive and hurtful language; don't fall into the trap of becoming too focused on the words. Try to identify the presupposition of what is being said. A presupposition is the underlying meaning of an utterance. For example, if the aggressor approaches you asking, ‘What are you looking at, mate?', he is not really asking you a question; he is accusing you of an indiscretion.

Common Ground

We tend not to abuse those with whom we share a common link and whom we believe are similar to us. Psychologically, similarity is a major influence on our attractiveness to others.

This tactic is very similar to what Gavin de Becker refers to as ‘Forced Teaming'. Basically, we attempt to highlight either real or perceived commonalities between ourselves and the aggressor. Simply mentioning obvious similarities in appearance, attitude or circumstances can do this. Exchanging names has a duel effect of re-humanising the victim and increases the level of the relationship. It is much easier to abuse a total stranger, but simply knowing their name closes the psychological distance between two people. Try to encourage or lead the aggressor to a discussion on some commonality.

You are trying to establish yourself as a friend, a team-mate or at least an ally. For example, if the guy is wearing a footy jumper, you can highlight your mutual like for the team, or how you wish you still played the game. It doesn't matter that you may not like the team, what is important is that he believes you do. And when dealing with an aggressive person, what they believe is the important issue.

Options and alternatives

An ‘end of tether' aggressor will often feel that they are out of options; this is may be why they have turned to aggression in the first place. By providing options you allow the aggressor to see that all is not lost and that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. Start by defining an abstract, overall goal, and this will often be a solution to the problem or a way to find the solution. Next, highlight some intermediate goals to help the aggressor see a way through the tunnel. Just simply pointing out options can return the aggressor to a more rational state of mind. Let's look at a similar concept called ‘loopholing'.


Loopholing is providing and allowing an aggressor to get out of the aggressive action while still maintaining respect or saving face. Apologising is a simple loophole, even if you are innocent. The aggressor can then return to his friends and announce that he made you apologise. Most often, a predatory aggressor is simply after a boost to his ego or to look good in front of his peers. Simply feed his ego and he will be less likely to get physical. Most people don't want to fight so provide them with a means to win without resorting to violence.

Another example is to offer to buy the guy a drink, or provide some other gesture of respect or compensation. These are simply small insignificant gestures to avoid violence; the cost of a beer is a lot less then the cost of medical treatment and the associated time off work. Loopholing doesn't have to be submissive but if using an assertive loophole then ensure you don't disrespect or shame the aggressor, especially in front of an audience.

Grandpa's stories

This is one of my favourite techniques and it can be very effective in arresting the momentum of the aggressor. The idea is to simply waffle on non-stop, drift off on tangents, and provide so much irrelevant information that the aggressor actually gets bored and finds his own excuse to leave. You can talk about anything and everything; describe some fictitious domestic situation, whinge about your job, the economy, the good ol' days, and so forth. The trick is to start at a relevant topic, then lead the aggressor into your story and then waffle like grandpa used to.

An audience

If you are dealing with an aggressor or a situation that has the potential to become aggressive (for example, firing an employee, asking a patron to leave a club) then try to remove any audience. The aggressor will feel pressure from the belief that the audience is laughing at them or ridiculing them, they will be pressured just as if they are performing in a spotlight on stage. They will feel embarrassment and will often use aggression to regulate the emotion, preferring the empowering sensations of anger and aggression to the debilitating sensations of fear, guilt and embarrassment. Often a predatory aggressor is performing for his friends, so if you are in a position of authority take him aside and set the rules straight. This prevents embarrassment, which can quickly escalate into physical violence.

Of course, while removing the audience is a good idea, you should not do this if it means isolating yourself and the aggressor. Remember, your number one rule is to maintain your own safety so, if possible, know where help is and have it nearby. Either arrange for help to come to you, or for the means for you to get to help. Planning and strategy are vital elements in controlling potentially aggressive people and volatile situations.


Like any aspect of the martial arts and self-protection, de-escalation has to be practised. This is quite simple and can be fun. Obvious scenario training that includes the behavioural pre-fight stages of a confrontation lends itself well to practising de-escalation. Realistic scenarios, including simulated emotion, can help bridge the gap between applying skill in training to using it in the real world and this holds equally true for de-escalation.

Another more specific training tool is to have verbal sparring matches. One person tries to escalate whilst the other de-escalates. This training method isolates the verbal part of the confrontation, allowing one to develop the ability to know what to say under pressure. This is a simple isolation drill, just like those used for the physical techniques of martial arts.

Take virtually any training method for a physical skill and simply adapt it to de-escalation: instead of throwing combos of punches, throw combos of de-escalation techniques; drill specific techniques, drill defences for specific attacks, especially the common attacks. Observe real arguments and confrontations (safely, of course) and identify the tactics and techniques used. This is just like studying fight footage in MMA or kickboxing.

I won't lie to you; it is probably more satisfying to train the physical aspect of combat, but the importance of the non-physical behavioural components cannot be overstated. If you control the behavioural element of the fight, then you control the fight.


If the art of de-escalation was an iceberg then the pages of this article would be the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg'. There are so many tactics and techniques that we could fill a book. In fact, many authors have done just that. The Gentle Art of Self-Defence by Suzette Haden Elgin, Surviving Aggressive People by Shawn Smith and Verbal Judo by George Thompson are only three that come highly recommended and provide a good foundation for learning the art of de-escalation - the true art of fighting without fighting. Hopefully these articles have provided you with an adequate introduction to some of the theories.

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 and boxing.

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For other parts of this article, please check:

NOTE: Posted In Memory of Drew Guest. As posted on the Senshido International Forum Drew Guest was diagnosed with Renal Cell Carcinoma in early June 2011. Drew Guest passed away September 24, 2011.



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