All conflicts are not created equal. Sometimes your life is on the line, while other times it’s just your ego. You might be able to choose whether or not to get involved, or you may find yourself with no option but to fight. The perfect response to one situation could easily prove disastrous in another. Win or lose, however, when things get physical, there will be consequences. Those consequences can be life-altering.

Some violence can be staved off simply by presence, that is, looking and acting like you’re more trouble than you’re worth. Bad guys don’t want to fight; they want to win. And they rarely mess with alert, prepared targets. You can use words to defuse many situations, or apply calming or directive touch to reach resolution without injury. But not always. Sometimes empty-hand restraint is required, particularly if you need to control a situation without seriously hurting anyone; bouncers, security guards, and law enforcement officers routinely use such techniques. Other times, less-lethal or even lethal force is necessary to save your life or that of a loved one.

These choices form a continuum, a set of options that may be drawn upon to resolve any situation you encounter:

1.Presence — use of techniques designed to stave off violence via posture or body language that warns adversaries of your readiness and ability to act or that poses no threat to another person's ego.

2.Voice — use of techniques designed to verbally de-escalate conflict before physical methods become necessary.

3.Touch — use of techniques designed to defuse impending violence or gain compliance via calming or directive touch.

4.Empty-hand restraint — use of techniques designed to control an aggressor through pain, or force compliance through leverage.

5.Less-lethal force — use of techniques or implements designed to incapacitate an aggressor while minimizing the likelihood of fatality or permanent injury.

6.Lethal force — use of techniques or implements likely to cause death or permanent injury.

It’s very important to enter this force scale at the right level. If you use too much or too little force, you are in for a world of hurt. Consequently, it is vital to understand the various options, knowing how and when to apply them judiciously.

It was May of 2004 when 29-year-old Jose de Jesus brought an eight-inch butcher knife to Herald Square in Manhattan, a popular tourist spot. A guy with a long history of severe mental problems, he had violently assaulted others, including relatives, before.

Nearly killed one. And he planned to do so again.

Without warning, he pulled out the knife, randomly attacked 21-year-old Dmitri Malaeyeva, stabbing him in the chest. As his first victim fell, trying desperately to stem the bleeding while drawing a tortured breath through his punctured lung, de Jesus turned on another passerby and plunged the knife into his flesh.

Screaming in terror, most bystanders began running from the scene. Some dialed 911 on their cell phones. But George Robbins, a 34-year-old graphic artist, could not stand by watching the mayhem and do nothing. So he ran toward the madman, hoping to thwart his attack. Weaponless, his heroic attempt failed, and he became de Jesus’ next victim.

As Robbins fell to the ground hemorrhaging, Harold Getter rushed in and tried to disarm de Jesus. The 49-year-old security guard was unarmed and his martial skills were no match for the maniac and his knife. In moments Getter also became a victim.

And then an NYPD officer arrived.

Working with a squad assigned to thwart shoplifters in Herald Square, Officer Mary Beth Diaz was in the area, heard the screams, and rushed toward the scene. She was 23 years old, just five months out of the Academy.

“Police!” she screamed.

De Jesus turned to face her and began stalking forward brandishing his knife. Officer Diaz drew her duty weapon, a 9MM handgun. “Drop the knife,” she shouted.

When he kept coming she repeated it again. “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!”

He was only ten feet away when she opened fire. Her single shot entered de Jesus’ lower abdomen and smashed into his hip, shattering the bone. He screamed, doubled over, and collapsed to the ground. He continued to writhe and shriek as she disarmed and handcuffed him, ending the carnage.

De Jesus and his four victims were rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where miraculously, no one died, not even the perpetrator. Malaeyeva, who had the most grievous injuries, was listed in fair condition by his doctors later that evening. De Jesus was also listed in fair condition after surgery. He told detectives that he had wanted to die and was hoping to goad a police officer into killing him by randomly stabbing and slashing people.

Officer Diaz was consoled by other officers and treated for trauma at the hospital. Afterward she told a reporter, “Thank God the guy is alive. Thank God I stopped him before he hurt someone else.”

If you try to use Level 4 in a Level 5 situation, you will get hurt. Perhaps badly. If you try to use Level 5 in a Level 4 situation, on the other hand, you will likely wind up in jail. Or be sued. Or both. We are not just talking legalities here; you have to be able to live with yourself afterward too.

Martial artists learn dangerous, even deadly techniques. Classical systems were developed long before the advent of modern medicine. In those days, any injury sustained from a fight could be catastrophic. A busted jaw, or even a few lost teeth, might mean you’d starve to death. In the days before social services, a broken arm or leg boded poorly for your long-term chances of survival when you could no longer work for your living. Internal bleeding, a ruptured organ, or a severe concussion; forget about it — you almost certainly would not have survived.

Knowing that the shorter the fight, the lower the chance of debilitating injury, the ancient masters built systems designed to stop adversaries as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. The modern rule-of-law concept and associated legal repercussions had not been invented yet. This put ‘em down, take ‘em out mentality worked great at the time. If it didn’t work, the styles would not still be around today. Those tactics and techniques worked so well that contemporary systems often have foundations built upon traditional methods.

The challenge is that the very same applications that may have kept you safe in the feudal times have limited utility today. It is not that they don’t work, but rather that they work so well that they can only be used in certain circumstances. The brutal beat-down you deliver on the other guy might well save your life, but in the wrong circumstances, it will also land you in jail. For a really long time. Or it might make your opponent and his lawyers wealthy at your expense. Conversely, if you take the beat-down yourself, you could be seriously injured, permanently disabled, or killed.

That is why scaling force is so important. It is holistic and style-agnostic. Most importantly, it works in any situation to ensure that you will choose the right level of force when you need to use what you have learned in the dojo to defend yourself on the street.

For years, police agencies have used different versions of a force continuum to teach rookies how to judiciously choose an appropriate level of force, as well as to educate citizens and juries in what constitutes an appropriate force decision. Recently, there has been a movement away from teaching in this manner. The most commonly quoted reason is that officers and juries will see the continuum as a game of “connect the dots” where each level must be tried before escalating to the next. It has never been taught this way and we know of no case where an officer or a jury explained a bad decision in this manner.

The more compelling reason for many agencies abandoning an official force continuum is that the courts do not use it to adjudicate cases. Since Graham v. Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989), it has been recognized that “the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving— about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” To many, it appears that this is exactly what codifying a force continuum is attempting to do.

Remember this: You do not work under a departmental use of force policy. You may, however, need to act in self-defense and you must act within the law. The levels of force described in this book are not prescriptive. We will not tell you, “If you are facing X, then response level Y is appropriate.” That is, and will always be, the call of the person on the ground.

In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court stated: “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment.” This logic can be applied to civilian cases and criminal prosecutions as well.

There are six levels of force described in this article. While you may never need to use all of them, what I will say to you, and what I expressly believe, is that if your training does not cover the full range of skills presented here, there are situations in which you will have no appropriate options. More often than not, that will end badly.


Even if you have never completed a woodworking project, you probably know that you could pound nails with a drill. You also know that it’s not a horribly effective method of doing it. And it is really tough on the drill. If you want to drive nails, then a hammer is a much better choice. Clearly, knowing your tools makes any woodworking project go more smoothly.

Similarly, a scale of force option gives you a set of tools for managing violence. It also provides a basis for selecting the appropriate application to use in any given situation. The first three levels — presence, voice, and touch — can help stave off violence before it begins, precluding the need to fight. The last three levels — empty-hand restraint / physical control, less-lethal force, and lethal force — are applied once the confrontation becomes physical. Choosing the right level of force lets you control a bad situation in an appropriate and effective way, increasing your chances of surviving without serious injury while simultaneously reducing the likelihood of adverse consequences from overreacting or under-reacting, such as jail time, debilitating injury, or death.

Before you can choose the proper tool, however, it is important to understand the environment in which you will use it. That’s what this section is about. If you have had police or military training, much of this material may be familiar to you. Yet it bears repeating because the sections lay out important fundamentals that you need to keep in mind. My intent is not to go in-depth, but rather to present an overview that places the various force options into the proper context.

Introduction to Violence

I’d thrown … ahem … escorted more than twenty people out of the stadium that day, but I recognized him anyway. Sometime during the third quarter, he’d taunted a Couger fan one too many times and gotten a nice shiner on his left eye for it. But the cops assigned to help us manage the end zone were busy dealing with another altercation, so I gave him the option of leaving of his own volition. When I explained what he faced in terms of minor in possession, drunk in public, disorderly conduct, and assault, he made the wise choice and voluntarily missed the rest of the game. I confiscated his ticket, marched him out the gate, and summarily forgot about him.

But he hadn’t forgotten about me.

Nearly two hours later after the contest had finished and we’d gotten the stadium cleared, I spotted him in the parking lot. Not the public lot where tailgaters were still partying, but the credentialed employee parking lot where he did not belong. Unfortunately he recognized me too.

“You’re the SOB who threw me out,” he spat. Well it was a bit more colorful than that, but you get the idea…

Then he lunged.

Hot damn, there’s a knife in his hand! I’m still in uniform, but totally alone. No backup, no radio. My mind is spinning, but my body reacts without conscious thought.

I’d been practicing Taijiquan applications for the last few years, so that’s my instinctive response.

I set a fence with my left arm, pivoting to the side. He’s still drunk. And slow.

Nevertheless, the knife looks like a freaking sword as it flashes by. Checking his knife-hand arm with my shoulder, I smash him in the face with a left palm-heel. His head snaps back, but he starts to retract his hand for another strike. I grab his forearm, place my right elbow on his upper arm, and drop my weight. He loses balance, dropping with me and his head smashes into the back of my fist with a thwack. As his eyes unfocus, I’m able to grab the knife and spin away, wrenching it from his grasp.

Eyes big as saucers, he twists away, stumbles once, nearly falls, then runs off. I look down at the knife in my hand.

Damn, there’s blood all over me!

I start shaking so hard it slips from my grip, nearly skewering my foot when it clatters to the pavement. Heartbeat pounding in my ears, I bent over to pick it up. Bile rises, puke splashing atop the knife and my boot. Ugh. I abandon the mess, race to my car, and grab a water bottle.

I can’t entirely wash away the mess, but at least the acrid taste is no longer in my mouth. I scrub my left hand clean, searching for the wound. Nothing. The blood was his.

Most martial artist’s “experience” with fighting stems from sparring, tournament competitions, or the occasional schoolyard brawl. For most everyone else, it comes from Hollywood movies and televised sporting events. You may think you understand what you are participating in, or know what you are seeing, yet the realities of violence are not what most people think. In essence, there are two types of violence, social and predatory. In the former, you are fighting over a matter of face or status, while in the latter you may be fighting for your life.

The intent when it comes to blows in a social violence situation is to affect your environment. In other words, you want to establish dominance, to “educate” somebody, to get him out of your territory or something similar. There are virtually always witnesses, because you are seeking status from the outcome, either by beating the other guy down or by making him back off. Predatory violence, on the other hand, is a whole different beast from social disputes. There are usually no witnesses unless the predator has screwed up (or they are his accomplices). While the pickpocket might operate in a crowd, the mugger, serial killer, repeat rapist, arsonist, etc., generally won’t.

It is relatively easy to de-escalate impending social violence so that things won’t get physical, particularly if you are willing to lose face. Clever words are more important in these encounters. Unfortunately, the very factors that might de-escalate a social situation will almost certainly trigger a predatory attack if they make you appear weak. It’s only possible to de-escalate predatory violence by appearing to be too dangerous to attack. If you’re alert, aware, prepared, in decent physical condition, and capable of setting a verbal boundary, those are all major warning signs to the predator. Most will subconsciously pick up the fact that you have martial arts training simply by the way you stand and breathe during the confrontation. We’ll delve into this difference later in more detail.

Social violence can be a big deal, predatory violence even more so; these are situations where you may be forced to defend yourself. Sparring, tournament competitions, and the like are often called “fights” by their promoters, yet these events have virtually nothing to do with fighting. To begin, fighting is illegal. Sure, you may be able to get away with it using a legitimate claim of self-defense, but there are no winners, trophies, or status points in a real fight. Fighting always has consequences.

Fighting versus Sport

The Raiders fan had biceps that could put Hulk Hogan to shame, and a physique that was nothing short of awesome. He stood out in a bar full of average guys, not only because he was ripped, but also because he was the only person cheering for the other team. The only one doing it vociferously anyway. For most of the first quarter and part of the second, Seahawks fans bantered good-naturedly with him, but as the home team struggled, chatter turned to insult that in turn became vitriolic.

I didn’t hear what set him off, but suddenly a Seahawks fan stood up and hurled a half-full beer bottle at Raider, who kicked his table aside and charged his assailant. Ducking a wild punch, he scooped Seahawk’s legs, planted his shoulder into the other guy’s gut, and drove forward. It was a sweet takedown; Raider clearly had some type of martial arts experience. In seconds, they crashed to the ground with Raider on top. Sitting astride his stunned adversary, Raider threw a flurry of blows into the smaller guy’s face. He seemed to be enjoying himself, right up to the point where one of Seahawk’s friends kicked him in the head. Moments later, he was curled on the ground in a fetal position as half a dozen Seahawk fans put the boots to him.

It was a sports bar with no bouncers and no one to break things up, so the beat-down continued for several minutes before some of us began calling out that Raider had had enough. When they finally let off, he lay eerily still. Several minutes later, when the paramedics strapped him onto a backboard and wheeled him out to the waiting ambulance, he still hadn’t moved.

The cops spent most of the second half of the game taking statements and making arrests.

Every mixed martial arts (MMA) competition or sparring tournament out there pales in comparison to the speed, ferocity, and brutality of a real fight. Sure, competitors train hard, achieve awesome levels of fitness, and become highly skilled at what they do. They risk injury in the ring too, but Olympic events such as judo or Taekwondo, and MMA matches such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) or Pride Fighting are first and foremost sporting events. If they were not, many competitors would not survive the competition. And promoters would wind up in jail. Or get sued out of business.

These contests have rules that either ban techniques outright or change the way they are applied. In judo, for example, you pin an opponent face up so that he has a sporting chance to break your hold. Yet in the Koryu jujutsu from which it originated, practitioners were taught to pin face down in the same way that modern law enforcement officers do for handcuffing. Done properly, the adversary cannot continue to fight that way unless he is significantly stronger than you or another person intervenes on his behalf. Furthermore, applications that are especially effective on the street, particularly if you are a smaller or weaker combatant, are not allowed because they are far too dangerous in the ring. Take the UFC for example; they outlaw the following:

  • Head-butts
  • Eye gouges
  • Throat strikes
  • Grabbing the trachea
  • Biting
  • Hair pulling
  • Groin striking
  • Fish-hooking
  • Putting your finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration on an opponent
  • Small-joint manipulation
  • Striking to the spine
  • Striking the back of the head
  • Striking downward with the point of your elbow
  • Clawing, pinching, or twisting the opponent’s flesh
  • Grabbing the clavicle
  • Kicking the head of a grounded opponent
  • Kneeing the head of a grounded opponent
  • Stomping a grounded opponent
  • Kicking the other guy’s kidney with your heel
  • Spiking an opponent to the canvas so that he lands on his head or neck
  • Throwing an opponent out of the ring
  • Holding the shorts or gloves of an opponent
  • Spitting at an opponent
  • Engaging in an “unsportsmanlike” conduct that causes an injury to an opponent
  • Holding the ropes or the fence
  • Using abusive language in the ring or fenced area
  • Attacking an opponent during a break period
  • Attacking an opponent who is under the care of the referee
  • Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of a period
  • Disregarding the referee’s instructions
  • Interference by someone in the competitor’s corner

Recognize anything that might be useful in a street fight on that list? If you’re assaulted by a larger, stronger adversary, then eye gouges, throat strikes, and the like may be exactly the right techniques to use in order to save your life. But they are too dangerous for the ring. These rules are designed not only to prevent serious injuries but also to give competitors a sporting chance to succeed. In order to keep things moving (and more interesting for the audience), the UFC takes points away from a competitor for “timidity,” including avoiding contact with an opponent, intentionally or consistently dropping the mouthpiece, or faking an injury. Unlike the bar fight during the Seahawks game, they also require that competitors challenge each other one at a time.

Then there is protective gear. UFC competitors are required to use padded gloves, mouth-guards, and groin protection. In some sports, chest-guards, headgear, and other equipment is required as well.

Sporting competitions have weight classes too. Under UFC rules, competitors are grouped into lightweight (over 145 pounds to 155 pounds), welterweight (over 155 to 170 pounds), middleweight (over 170 to 185 pounds), light heavyweight (over 185 to 205 pounds), and heavyweight (over 205 to 265 pounds) divisions. Because bad guys rarely pick fights they don’t expect to win, you are likely to be attacked by someone much larger or stronger on the street than you would be in the ring.

On the street, fights rarely last more than a few seconds, but when they do, there is no stopping until it’s done, someone intercedes, or the authorities arrive to break things up. This is very different from sporting competitions where there are set time periods. UFC non-championship bouts run three, five-minute rounds, for example, whereas championship matches last five rounds. There is a one-minute rest period between rounds. If combatants take a break during a street fight, there’s something very strange going on.

In the ring, you can win by submission (tap or verbal), knockout, technical knockout, decision, disqualification, or forfeiture. On the street, you “win” by surviving. That is quite a difference. Don’t confuse sports with combat or misconstrue entertainment with reality. Fighting is ugly. It has few, if any, rules beyond the laws of physics and many serious repercussions. Sport is entertainment.

Social Violence

“You want to take it out on the ice, kid? We can go right now. I’ll f0ck you up!” This was a 40-something-year-old guy snarling at a couple of 13-year-olds at a hockey game.

The Thunderbirds had just scored a goal and the kids were celebrating along with the rest of the home crowd. This guy, a Winterhawks fan, looked like he was about to take a swing at them.

“What’s going on,” I asked.

“You’ve got to control your f0cking kid. He does that again I’m gonna f0cking take him out!”

“What, you’re threatening a little kid. Really?” That was aimed more at his wife than him. She pretended not to notice. Others seated nearby got the message though.

“Damn right I am!”

“What did he do to piss you off, man?”

“He was screaming, clapping in my f0cking face.”

“Did he touch you?”


“Did he touch you?” I de-cloaked a little: weight shift, dead-eye stare, slight edge to my voice.

“No.” He quickly turned away, pretending to be engrossed in the game.

Sure, the “oh shit I killed him” thing can occur, so all violence needs to be taken seriously, but the intent in a social violence situation is to affect your environment. In other words, you want to establish dominance, to “educate” somebody, or to get him out of your territory.

Sometimes that goal can be accomplished verbally, whereas other times physical actions are necessary. Either way, social violence usually comes with instructions on how to avoid it. For example, if the other guy says, “get the f0ck out of my face,” he has told you exactly what will prevent escalation to violence … One key to social violence is the presence of witnesses, people who the adversary is playing to. He may be trying to establish status, deliver an educational beat-down, or even gang together with his friends to stake out territory. In most cases, however, there is an audience of his same social class to observe his actions. If he is going to win, he will want someone around to see it. Conversely, if he is at risk to lose, the presence of others may give him a way out that won’t adversely impact his reputation.

Social violence can be roughly broken into the following categories:

  • The Monkey Dance
  • The Group Monkey Dance
  • The Educational Beat-Down
  • The Status-Seeking Show
  • The Territorial Defense

The Monkey Dance

Animals in the wild have ritualized combat between males to safely establish dominance without the likelihood of crippling injury or death. Just because it’s not inherently life-threatening does not mean that accidents never occur, but the intent of the altercation is not to kill the opponent. Similarly, humans frequently delineate their social positions through fistfights and other unarmed conflict.

Most people who frequent bars or nightclubs have seen the glaring, staring, sizing-each-other-up type of conflicts, many of which start with the ubiquitous “what are you looking at” game. In many cases, there is an expectation that others will break up the fight or otherwise give a face-saving way out once status has been established.

Monkey dances are almost always initiated with someone whom the aggressor sees as close to his social level. (Although females occasionally exhibit similar behaviors, this is predominantly a male thing.) There is no status to be gained by a grown adult monkey-dancing with a child or elderly person. Similarly, regular people will not attempt to monkey dance with a very high-ranking individual. Mid-level people in everything from biker gangs to corporate management constantly jockey for position, but they do not do it with the folks in charge. It’s too much of a leap. Challenging the group’s senior leaders like that tends to be career limiting, to say the least.

The Group Monkey Dance

The group monkey dance is about solidarity, aimed at discouraging outsiders from interfering with the group’s business or as a way to establish territory. Sometimes the victim is an insider who betrayed the group or stepped way out of line. In these cases, the fight can become a contest of showing loyalty to the group by determining who can dish out the most damage to the victim, a horrific and dangerous thing that rarely ends well. Unlike an individual monkey dance, the group monkey dance can easily end with a murder, even when killing the victim was not the goal.

The Educational Beat-Down

In some places or elements of society, if you do something rude and inconsiderate, you could be socially excluded or ostracized. In others, you will have the tar beaten out of you for your indiscretion. It’s sort of a spanking between adults, an extreme show of displeasure designed to enforce the “rules.”

If the recipient did not do something horrific to initiate the attack and properly acknowledges the wrong, an educational beat-down can be over quickly and end without significant or lasting injury. Not understanding or conceding the wrongdoing or repeated behavior that is outside the group’s rules, on the other hand, can lead to a beat-down designed to maim or kill the victim.

The Status-Seeking Show

In certain segments of society, such as criminal subculture, a reputation for violence can be very valuable. This reputation can lead others to treat you more respectfully for fear of your “going off” on them. The challenge is that for someone to be truly feared and respected, they may feel a need to do something crazy beyond the bounds of “normal” social violence, such as attacking a child, disabled individual, law enforcement officer, or elderly person. It’s still social violence because it is designed to develop status for the aggressor, yet the outcome could easily be fatal for the victim.

The Territorial Defense

Defending one’s territory against “other” members of different social groups is fairly common in certain aspects of society such as gang culture. It’s an “us versus them” worldview with violence aimed at people who look, act, or dress differently than the group. The act may be as benign as driving someone out of the group’s territory or as malevolent as shooting a person for straying onto a gang’s turf. Territorial defense is a bridge between social and asocial violence because while it is a defense of the group’s turf or resources, it is often carried out in a manner that is profoundly asocial. This type of conflict is deliberately developed and maintained by the leaders of the involved group.

Predatory Violence

Venkata Cattamanchi thought he was about to get lucky. He was dead wrong. He’d met a woman online who agreed to meet him for a tryst at the EZ Rest Motel in Southfield, Michigan (near Detroit). He was surprised to discover not one, but two women in the room upon arrival, yet the romantic encounter abruptly took a sinister turn when two men showed up as well. Things went downhill from there …

Kevin Huffman, 28, and James Randle, 35, were convicted of ambushing, robbing, and killing Cattamanchi, in part due to statements by the two women who pled guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for their testimony. Huffman and Randle face life in prison for premeditated murder.

Predatory violence is a whole different beast from social disputes. Violence is either a means to an end or, in the case of process predators, it is the goal itself. Or it might be somebody who wants to do really bad things to you simply because he can. Predators are usually solitary because it is hard for antisocial people to band together for common purpose for any length of time. There are generally no witnesses to the attack, or the person is playing to someone of a different social class where his actions make no logical sense. For example, an adult playing the “what are you looking at” game with a child or elderly person is not going to gain any status from the outcome, whatever it may be.

There are two basic types of predators: resource and process.

Resource predators

A resource predator wants something badly enough to take it from his victim by force. Examples include muggers, robbers, or carjackers. Such aggressors are often armed. If intimidation alone works, the resource predator may not hurt you, such as in a carjacking scenario where if the vehicle is surrendered quickly, the victim is almost always left behind uninjured. A ten-year Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed that while 74 percent of all carjackings were perpetrated by armed individuals, only 0.004 percent led to murder. Because auto-related abductions were thrown into the mix, the homicide rate from carjackings could potentially be even lower than that.

Process predators

Process predators, on the other hand, act out in violent ways for the sake of the violent act itself. They are extraordinarily dangerous. Unless the process predator perceives that you are too costly to attack, it’s going to get physical. You do not have to win, but you absolutely cannot afford to lose. The situation needs to end immediately. It may require you take a human life to come out as intact as possible. Rapists and serial killers are examples of process predators. A fight with a process predator frequently ends with someone in the hospital or morgue.

Situational Awareness

When we came on shift, Day Shift passed on that four of the inmates assigned to the kitchen had refused to go to work. That’s odd by itself. Working can cut serious time off a sentence. Refusing to work is automatic “hole time”—a trip to disciplinary segregation. Kitchen jobs were considered a good deal and were in high demand with inmates. Odd.

An hour or so into the shift, some inmates on the kitchen crew were caught stealing cookies. That’s not uncommon. Big surprise, but most people who get to jail don’t have a lot of ethical hang-ups about stealing. What was surprising was that they almost wanted to be caught.

Still, it wasn’t my area. Another sergeant had the East End. I was dealing with the Mental Health units on the West End.

Then a backup call. When the officer tried to cut the cookie-thieves some slack and NOT send them to segregation, they refused. They wanted to go to the hole.

This was bad. If you don’t work in the system, you might not see it right away, but situational awareness is all about the situation. A jail or prison kitchen is like any other industrial kitchen. It contains a lot of things that can double as improvised weapons— knives, steam cauldrons, pots, pans, and the like. This one had 20 inmates, four civilian cooks to supervise them, and a single, unarmed officer assigned to maintain control.

Something was going to happen and whatever it was, it was so bad almost half of the inmates wanted no part of it. They were willing to go to the hole and even do extra time to not be in that kitchen on that day.

I called Lt. Turney. “This could be bad, sir. No way to be sure but it smells like a build-up to a potential hostage situation.”

“I can spare you one officer. Do what you can.”

“Can I have Craig?”


Craig was a former Marine, one of my CERT members and a thoroughly good man in a crisis. I knew and trusted his ability in a fight. More importantly, I trusted his judgment, common sense, and people skills. What we were about to do was all people skills.

Just adding two unarmed officers to the mix didn’t change the odds that much. If things went bad we would still be heavily outnumbered and out-armed. But we weren’t there to fight. For the next few hours, Craig and I were everywhere. Talking, listening, and telling jokes.

Nothing happened. I’ll never know if something was really going to happen. But I wouldn’t bet against it. And if I’m right, we changed that. Sometimes nothing is the perfect outcome.

Most self-defense experts agree that for the average citizen, the majority of dangers can be identified and avoided simply by learning how to look out for them. If you do things right, it is possible to talk your way out of more than half of the potentially violent situations that you cannot avoid. Together, this strategy means that you should only need to fight your way out of three, four, or at worst, five of every hundred hazardous encounters. With good situational awareness, you may not have anywhere near a hundred such confrontations in your lifetime so those odds really aren’t all that bad.

So what is situational awareness? At the simplest level, it is knowing what is going on around you. More specifically, it is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend factors that can be important for your safety and welfare, such as the existence of potential threats, escape routes, and weapons.

Can you remember a time when you were driving along the highway, suddenly “knew” the car beside you was going to swerve into your lane, and took evasive action to avoid an accident? Almost everyone who drives has done that on numerous occasions. It is so common that most of us forget about such incidents shortly afterward. This ability to predict what other drivers are going to do is an excellent example of good situational awareness. If you fail to pay attention to what is going on around you, fixate on one task, or become preoccupied with work or personal matters, you can lose the ability to detect important information that can place you in danger when you are in a public place. In the driving example, talking or texting on your cell phone may diminish your ability to detect another driver about to move into your lane. Distracted driving causes a lot of accidents.

Knowing when it is time to leave a party is another example of good situational awareness. Fights at parties tend to happen after a certain time of night. It’s not the hour on the clock that is important, but rather the mood of the crowd. Most people have a good time and leave long before the fecal matter hits the oscillating blades. Just about everyone who is going to hook up has already done so; they’ve found a date, left together, and are off having fun. As the crowd starts to thin, those who have nothing better to do than cause trouble are the ones who are left. Buzzing with frustration and raging hormones, those who insist on hanging on well into the night are the ones who get caught up in it when the shit is most likely to fly. If you pay attention to the behaviors of those around you, however, it’s fairly easy to know when it is time to leave. If you are not there when things start to get rough, bad things cannot happen to you.

The same dynamics happen in just about any location or situation. By surveying and evaluating your environment, you achieve more control over what happens to you. Good situational awareness helps you make yourself a hard target by eliminating easy opportunities for those who wish to do you harm. It is not a guarantee of safety because there are no absolutes when it comes to self-defense, yet good situational awareness can let you predict and avoid most difficult situations.

Situational awareness, in general, is a skill that everyone instinctively has, yet few individuals pay attention to it. In most cases, you should be able to spot a developing situation and leave before anything bad happens. Pay attention to your built-in survival mechanisms, your gut feelings if you will. Once you begin to do this habitually, you will dramatically improve your safety. Your awareness skills can also be refined and improved through practice in much the same way that predicting other drivers’ behavior becomes easier over time.

Sometimes, however, try as you might to avoid it, trouble finds you and you must react accordingly. Good awareness helps you be prepared for that as well. It can be used before, during, and after a fight.

No one can maintain an elevated level of awareness at all times in all places. There is a difference between being aware and becoming paranoid. Any time you are near others, however, especially strangers, it pays to be vigilant so as not to be caught unawares by sudden conflict. This simply means looking for and paying attention to anything that stands out from the norm, not only things that you see, smell, or hear, or in some cases touch, but also other’s reactions to things that you cannot detect directly.

You cannot walk around in a constant state of hypervigilance, however. It’s emotionally and physically untenable. Consequently, it is important to scale your awareness up or down depending on whatever you encounter around you.

Low-level awareness is essential any time you are out in public. You should be able to identify, without looking twice, generally who and what is around you. Know about vehicles, people, building entrances, street corners, and areas that might provide concealment for a threat or a source of cover to escape toward should something untoward happen.

Be self-assured and appear confident in everything you do without presenting an overt challenge or threat to others. Predators typically stalk those they consider weaker prey, rarely victimizing the strong. We are not just talking about hardcore criminals here, but also bullies and petty thugs as well. Walk with your head upright, casually scanning your immediate area as well as what is just beyond. See who and what is ahead of you, be aware of the environment to each side, and occasionally turn to scan behind you as you move.

If you become aware of some nebulous danger, something out of place, pay attention to it, but not to the exclusion of a broader awareness of your surroundings. Trouble may be starting in other places in addition to the one that has drawn your attention (for example, an ambush situation). You may have heard a nearby shout, the sound of glass breaking, or an unidentified sudden noise where you would not have expected one. You might also have seen another person or a group of people acting abnormally, someone whose demeanor makes you feel uncomfortable, somebody whose appearance or behavior stands out as unusual, or a group who appears to be reacting to something you cannot see.

Higher-level awareness is appropriate if the threat you identify appears to be aimed at you. That is where you may need to verbally de-escalate or physically control a situation. You will need to be aware of bystanders who may be potential threats or sources of aid, escape paths, impromptu weapons, and other factors depending on the tactical situation you find yourself in.

To practice situational awareness, try watching a crowd at a mall, nightclub, or other public area. Pretend that you are a bad guy and think about who you would choose as your “victim” and consider why you think that way. Who looks like a victim and who does not? What about their posture makes them appear to be a target of opportunity. How do they move? Are they paying attention to what is going on around them? Are their hands in their pockets or encumbered by packages, or are they held loosely in front of them? Are they armed? Where do their eyes move and what do they focus on? Who notices you watching? How do they react?

The victim interview

I was parked alongside a major street in downtown Seattle. My hands were full of boxes and the mid-afternoon sun was glaring in my face, making it hard to see despite my polarized glasses, so it took a couple tries to get my key into the lock. I awkwardly dragged the door open, nearly dropping some of my packages, and began shoving my purchases in to the car.

If he hadn’t spoken, I wouldn’t have known he was there. “Hey buddy, you know what time it is?”

While his question seemed innocuous, the fact that he was standing a foot away from me when he asked set alarm bells ringing in my head. I hurriedly threw the last box into the vehicle, more to get it out of my hands than for anything else, shifted slightly away from the car, and spun to face him. Simultaneously, I relaxed my posture, straightened my spine, and held my hands out low between me and him.

He didn’t look overly threatening despite his proximity, and his hands were empty, but he was wearing a timepiece on his right wrist. “Sorry man, I don’t have a watch,” I replied.

The smirk on his face disappeared as he took in my posture. Muttering something I couldn’t understand over the traffic noise, he buggered off clearly looking for a less prepared victim. As he walked away, I spotted a suspicious bulge, either pistol or large knife stuffed into his waistband beneath his untucked shirt.

Criminals like to dish out pain, but they aren’t so keen to be on the receiving end of it. Becoming injured in a confrontation not only diminishes their ability to make a living by preying on others, but also sets them squarely in the sights of other predators higher up the food chain. Consequently, before a bad guy tees off on you, he will evaluate his odds of success. This evaluation is often called an “interview.” Unlike a job search, this is one interview that you don’t want to pass.

If you are not paying attention to your environment and appear to be an easy target, you are likely to be selected as the bad guy’s next victim. This interview may be conducted by a single individual or a group of thugs. It may take place quickly or you may be stalked over a period of time. Regardless, your goal in such situations is to be both calm and resolute. Don’t start anything you don’t have to, but be prepared to fight if necessary. While most people look at someone’s size and physique, experienced predators know how to recognize a threat from a person’s posture or movement.

If you are approached by a single individual, be wary of bystanders who may join him. Don’t forget to glance behind you when prudent because he may have an accomplice(s). Use sound, smell, reflective surfaces, and shadows to sense what is going on where you cannot look. Furthermore, pay attention to escape routes should you need to fight your way free. Be wary of the other guy’s hands, particularly if you cannot see both of them because he may very well be armed and preparing to use his weapon against you.

The less you look and act like a victim during the interview process, the safer you will be. Many self-defense instructors use “woofers” who play the bad guy’s role in this process so that you can experiment safely. You learn how to deal with tense situations through scenario training where your teachers debrief your performance afterward. These drills are an excellent way to prepare for interviews on the street.

The 4 D’s

We think it was Geoff Thompson who originated this concept. The 4 D’s is an excellent, easy to remember way of describing dirty tricks that sneak attackers often use to disguise their intent, get close enough to launch their assault, and keep you from responding until it is too late to defend yourself. This concept is an extension of the interview process. You are singled out as a potential victim, and then the bad guy(s) uses dialogue, deception, distraction, and destruction to set you up and take you down:

  • Dialogue creates a distraction while letting your adversary control the distance between you. It is the setup to get him close enough to his intended victim where he can use the element of surprise to strike with impunity. That means that he must be within three to five feet away in order to hit you with anything other than a projectile weapon. The closer he is, the less warning you get and the harder it is to defend yourself. A guy with a watch asking you the time is a bit more obvious than typical, but a good example of the principle nevertheless. You may be asked for directions, the time, or a cigarette. While the other guy is talking, he will be evaluating your awareness, calculating his odds of success, and stealthily positioning himself to attack.
  • Deception disguises the predatory nature of the adversary, letting him blend into the crowd and making him appear as harmless as possible until it is too late. The idea is to assure that you will not realize that you are being threatened. Much of deception is based on body language and behavior, though it can include things like wearing clothing designed to blend in and disguise the presence of weapons too.
  • Distraction sets up the attack, typically by asking a question or otherwise using verbal techniques. It can also include gestures or body movements such as when he suddenly widens his eyes and looks over your shoulder to get you to look behind you and expose your back.
  • Destruction is the physical assault, robbery, rape, or murder. Or it can be something more innocuous like a picking a pocket. When violence is in the cards, if he can successfully distract you, he can get in at least one or two good blows before you realize what is going on and attempt to respond. It’s very tough to fight back once you are surprised, behind the count, injured, and reeling from the pain.

Despite these 4 D’s, it is exceedingly rare for the victim to be caught totally unaware. For example, even if they were sucker punched, most assault victims report that they saw the blow coming but did not have time to react. Even when long-range weapons are involved (such as firearms), fights typically begin close up. Unarmed confrontations always take place at close range once things get violent. Your level of awareness and preparedness should ratchet up a bit whenever a stranger is close enough to strike, at least until you have given him a thorough once-over and dismissed any threat.

Weapons awareness

I was watching football when I suddenly heard sirens. I live in a quiet residential neighborhood but there is a major arterial a couple of blocks away so we tend to hear an emergency response or two from time to time. They’ve historically passed on by rather than stopping nearby, but this time it turns out that a man was knifed a few of blocks away. The 22-year-old victim was stabbed in the stomach, rushed to Harborview Medical Center, and listed in critical condition according to press reports. Police reported that another man drove a getaway car, but didn’t give a description of the vehicle that I could find.

Unarmed individuals who tangle with weapon-wielding attackers often get hurt. Frequently quite badly. Armed assaults are far more dangerous to the victim than unarmed attacks, more than three times as likely to result in serious injury. In fact, 96 percent of the homicides in the US involve some type of weapon. These attacks are three-and-a-half times more likely than unarmed assaults to result in serious damage to the victim such as broken bones, internal injuries, loss of consciousness, or similar trauma that result in extended hospitalization. Because hand-to-hand combat against an armed assailant is often a losing proposition, it is important to learn how to spot a weapon and avoid it before it can be used against you.

With few exceptions, civilians who carry a weapon need to do so in such a way that it cannot be seen by those around them yet can be drawn in a very big hurry should the need arise. After all, you wouldn’t want to be stopped every five minutes by a police officer summoned by panicked bystanders who report that you are armed. Bad guys also conceal their weapons, though more often than not to maintain the element of surprise. Either way, accessibility is key. A weapon does you no good if you cannot get to it rapidly when you need it.

Most carry techniques center on or around the waist. Law-abiding civilians who own a gun usually use a holster. Holsters make the most reliable carry systems because they rigidly affix the weapon to a specific spot on the body. That way it can always be found when it is needed, even under extreme stress. Many folding knives come with belt clips designed to hold them firmly against the side of your pocket where they are easily located by touch.

Criminals, on the other hand, rarely use a holster. The two most common ad-hoc carry positions for firearms are inside the pants, either in the front alongside the hipbone or in the small of the back. Because the weapon has a tendency to move around when carried in this fashion, you can often spot a bad guy touching himself to assure that it is in the proper place or adjusting the weapon to get it back into the proper carry position.

Pants or jacket pockets are always a handy choice as well. Like the inside-the-pants carry, they are not as reliable or easy to get to as a holster when you need rapid access. Weapons can also be palmed, hidden behind an arm or leg, or held out of sight beneath a covering object such as a folded jacket or newspaper. These methods facilitate rapid access but can be easier to spot than other methods. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if the weapon is already drawn and held in a concealed position, you will be in extremely serious trouble if you do not spot your adversary’s intent. He has already decided to attack and is maneuvering into position to do so.

Weapons can also be “hidden” in plain sight too. A hot cup of coffee tossed into a bad guy’s face can make an effective deterrent. A solidly built pen can operate much like a martial arts kubotan or even like a knife. A cane, walking stick, heavy purse, or laptop computer can be used as a bludgeon. A bunch of keys on a lanyard can work much like a medieval flail, albeit far less effectively. A beer bottle, pool cue, baseball bat, or mug can be just as effective in a pinch as a weapon designed for combat.

Pay particular attention to a person’s hands and midsection, looking for unusual bumps, bulges, out-of-place items of clothing, or odd movements. Also look for concealing clothing that may be covering a weapon. Examples include a jacket worn in hot weather, a vest that covers the waistline (especially the hips/lower back), or a loose shirt that is only buttoned high.

Just because a weapon is not in use at the beginning of a fight does not necessarily mean that it won’t be by the end, particularly if the other guy thinks he’s in danger of losing. Before, during, and even after a fight, watch for the upward or sideways motion of withdrawing a weapon from its sheath, holster, or hiding place; a weapon cannot be used until it is deployed. If someone takes one of their hands out of the fight voluntarily, it is rarely a good sign.

While you will frequently rely on your eyes to spot a concealed weapon, you can use your ears too. Listen for the sound of a weapon being drawn or readied for action as well.

Weapon awareness is relatively easy to practice. Take an outdoor seat at a restaurant in a high foot-traffic area, hang out in a mall, or take a walk through a public place, and carefully watch passersby. Count how many knives, guns, and other weapons you can spot. Who is carrying them? How are they concealed? What subtle clues did you notice that helped you spot the weapon? Once you become good at consciously finding these devices, you can begin to pick them up subconsciously as well. Honing your intuition in this manner builds solid survival skills.

Situational awareness during a fight

While the goal of situational awareness is to avoid violence in the first place, if things go south it remains an important aspect of surviving the fight. It is critical to remain aware not only of openings where you might land a blow or find an opportunity to escape but also for any changes in the dynamics of the conflict such as deployment of a weapon, intervention by third parties, hazardous terrain or obstacles, etc. This can be a challenge, particularly when adrenalized as tunnel vision is a common symptom, but it is important to pay attention to what’s going on around you to the extent possible.

Sometimes an opening is nothing more than a flash of color; say a blue shirt suddenly visible behind a rapidly moving, tan forearm. Similarly a weapon might be silver or a black blur that stands out against that same shirt or the flesh of the hand that holds it. The presence of a secondary threat, such as another combatant or a moving vehicle, might be a subtle hint of movement in your peripheral vision, one that is easily ignored if you are focused solely on your adversary.

You won’t always be able to see what is going on during a fight, so you need to listen too. Sounds can be vitally important. Does the crunch of a footstep mean that another person is about to join in the fray? Is the rip of Velcro pulled apart or the click of a snap being undone mean that a weapon is about to be deployed? What about calls for help, threats of intervention, or other actions by witnesses or bystanders? It’s all significant.

Finally, your sense of touch is also important during a fight. For example, you may not be able to see exactly where an adversary is during a scuffle, particularly if you’ve got blood, sweat, or pepper spray in your eyes, but if you can grab a hold of his arm, it is a simple exercise to find his head (or other body parts) based upon that orientation. Weapons are often felt rather than seen. In a frightening example, it’s extremely common for stabbing victims to think they were merely punched, yet the feel of a blade entering your flesh is different than that of a fist connecting with your body. Be aware of sensations like that too.

Blindfold sparring and slow work are great ways to gain experience finding targets by touch, but one of the best methods for increasing your situational awareness during a fight is through a one-step drill called “frisk fighting.” Virtually everyone carries some type of weapon most of the time, be it a designed implement such as a knife or gun, or simply something they can use to hurt someone like a briefcase or a set of car keys.

The frisk fighting drill can be a lot of fun, but it also must be taken very seriously or someone will be hurt, maybe killed. An experienced practitioner needs to be in charge of safety. The drill can be performed in a training hall or gymnasium, but renting a nightclub or warehouse adds another level of realism. Either way, the drill area must be cordoned off, cleared of anything truly dangerous, and everyone must be checked to assure that no live weapons enter the arena or come into reach of the participants. There can be no exceptions to this.

Every drill introduces a known “flaw” to assure participant safety. In this case it’s twofold, equipment and speed. Equipment first: Each participant should bring the safe training equivalent of what they carry every day. With proper equipment and oversight, this could include real firearms with Simunition®, inert pepper spray, and Shocknife™ training knives, among other tools. More often than not, however, practitioners wind up using rubber training weapons instead. Alternatively, training instruments can be strewn around the practice area where anyone can have access to them. Either way, the environment around you is as much in play as the other guy, hence the focus on safety.

Now on to speed: The drill is performed as a tandem exercise done in slow motion with each partner taking turns and multiple participants working together at the same time. This is commonly called a “one-step” training exercise. One partner initiates a move and the other partner matches his or her speed making a single motion to respond. You each get only one movement before it becomes the other person’s turn. The drill continues without resetting until the allotted time expires, or you end up in a position from which you cannot continue and have to reset.

Even though you move slowly, it is vital to use proper body mechanics and targeting as well as to move at equal speed. It’s okay to speed things up a bit so long as you are both doing it, in control, and safely. Keep things slow enough that you have time to evaluate and take advantage of the “best” opening available. In this fashion you are training to habituate good techniques. You can do the exact same things on the street, only faster. This drill is not about winning or losing; it’s about refining your situational awareness during a fight. Nevertheless, you should react to the opponent’s blows so that the ebb and flow of the fight is more-or-less realistic. You don’t need to stop moving even if you’re “killed.” It is important to talk to each other so that you will learn what you are doing well in addition to discovering opportunities you may have missed during the exercise.

The basic one-step drill is not so hard, but here’s the twist: you can use your hands and feet along with everything else you find in the training area except what you brought into the game. If you can draw your opponent’s weapon in one motion, do so, but you cannot draw your own. It’s rare, but sometimes creative participants will draw a weapon from someone else in the room who is not their opponent. This kind of creativity is encouraged.

This is not a competition, but rather a cooperative endeavor, which incorporates several related skills and concepts:

  • It makes people stay alert for opportunities and openings.
  • It forces people who carry weapons to consider and practice weapons retention.
  • It gives a (very mild) introduction to fighting in an armed world.
  • It rewards an educated sense of touch—often you feel the weapon before you see it.
  • It brings an elevated awareness of the environment and the peo-ple around you.

In order to truly benefit from this drill, it is critical that each person makes only one motion during their turn. Not one block and one strike but only one action. This encourages strategic movement and angles of attack, economy of motion, and techniques that simultaneously attack and defend in one movement. The habits you learn in this type of training can make a huge difference on the street where you will often be trying to recover the initiative once the threat has already attacked you.

Identifying the threat’s “tell”

The Halloween crowd was rockin’. Spinnakers offered a thousand dollars for the best costume and there were over a hundred contestants. Encased in over 115 pounds of 16-gauge steel, I chatted up the “mermaid” next to me while waiting my turn to show off my outfit, a stunning replica suit of medieval white-harness plate armor. The girl was hot, but her boyfriend was hotter when he saw us laughing together. I headed over to grab a drink when he confronted me.

“Stay the f*ck away from my girlfriend asshole,” he spat.

“We were just talking, dickhead. Get over it!”

Okay, that wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but I was 22, a little drunk, and hadn’t gotten over that whole raging hormone thing yet. Nevertheless, his reaction was by no means unexpected. His nostrils flared. His face turned red. He snarled. And threw a punch at my head.

Normally I’m not one to favor blocking with my face, but in that instance I just grinned at him as he broke his hand on my steel helmet. Unfortunately when the bouncers tossed him out, the girl left with him. Can’t win ‘em all …

While it often seems that way to victims, violence does not happen in a vacuum. There is always some type of escalation process beforehand. While it may be a long, drawn-out confrontation that builds up to the point of attack, it could just as easily appear to be a sudden ambush. In such situations, the escalation may have taken place within the mind of the aggressor. Either way, an astute observer can identify and react to cues, such as an adversary’s adrenal twitch that precedes his attack. Unfortunately, if you do not spot these indicators or “tells” in common self-defense parlance, you are bound to get hurt.

Spotting an adversary’s tell directly requires you to notice very small physical movements and signals of the other guy’s intent to attack. These indicators are often subtle, hence easy to miss, particularly when you are distracted or mentally unfocused. For example, the tell might be a slight drop of the shoulder, a tensing of the neck, a flaring of the nostrils, or even a puckering of the lips. On the other hand, changes in an opponent’s energy are much easier to spot then any specific physical sign. You are simply looking for change. Any change of energy should be treated as a danger signal. Here are some examples that you can recognize and act on during a confrontation:

  • A person who was standing still moves slightly. A weight shift is far subtler than a step, but this change is a possible preparation for attack.
  • There is a change in the rate, tone, pitch, or volume of a person’s voice. An overt example is when someone who is shouting becomes suddenly quiet or, conversely, one who has been quiet suddenly raises his voice.
  • A person who was looking at you suddenly looks away or, conversely, a person who was looking away suddenly makes eye contact. Watch this one. As humans we focus on eyes/face to gauge attention, which we think is important, but often turning the head away, especially with an experienced fighter, loads and clears the shoulders for a strike.
  • There is a sudden change in the person’s breathing. Untrained adversaries will begin to breathe shallow and fast in the upper chest while trained opponents will breathe slow and deep from their abdomen.
  • A person develops a sudden pallor or flushing of his face (paling is adrenaline-induced vasoconstriction, reddening is vasodilation).
  • There is a change in the person’s posture. Untrained adversaries tend to “puff up,” opening their chest and arching their spine, while trained opponents tend to close down their chest, straighten their spine, and lower their center of gravity.

These seem to be contradictory — look away or lock on, puff up or compress, pale or flush. They are not. An amateur or someone engaging in social violence is trying to send a message of domination, so they get big, red, and loud. They lock eyes so that you know who beat you. A professional tries to calm himself (abdominal breathing, slow smooth movements) and not draw attention. He looks away just before the attack to check for witnesses.

Most people aren’t mentally prepared for sudden violence. Even when sucker punched, most victims see a blow coming before they are hit. But not in time to react. Those who fail to recognize the signs of an impending attack or who wait too long to take action can be needlessly hurt or killed. It does not matter why you are being attacked, simply that you are in danger. Do not deny what is happening, recognize the change of energy that constitutes your adversary’s tell, and respond appropriately to defend yourself. Worry about making sense of the encounter once it is over and you are safe.

Recently I watched Felon, a movie that makes some realistic and valuable points about self-defense. The story centers around an average guy named Wade Porter (played by actor Stephen Dorff). Porter, his fiancé and young son have just moved into their first house. After years of struggling for success, his construction business is beginning to take off, they have gotten their finances in line, the marriage ceremony is rapidly approaching, and life is good. Of course this happiness doesn’t last. One night an intruder breaks into their home and everything changes. Porter hears a noise, finds a guy in his son’s bedroom, chases him outside, and smacks him in the head with a baseball bat, killing him. Since the burglar was unarmed and died outside the home where Castle doctrines do not apply, Porter is sentenced to three years for voluntary manslaughter.

As the movie progresses, Porter soon realizes that he has lost everything over a split-second decision. The movie teaches some valuable lessons. Chasing down an unarmed intruder who’s hell-bent on escaping and attacking him is clearly not self-defense, not even in Hollywood. In fact, in most jurisdictions a person can only resort to deadly force in order to escape imminent and unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm. That “unavoidable” part is the bugger.

Let’s be honest, fighting can be fun. But there is a downside too. If you’ve been in a fight, there is a very good chance that you will be charged with a crime. The more damage you caused to the other guy, the more serious that crime may be. Consequently, it is important to know where and when you are legally justified in getting physical and when you are not.

Legal definitions and interpretations are not universal. To stay out of jail, you really need to talk to an attorney who understands the laws and nuances that apply wherever you might encounter a fighting situation. In general, the classic rule is that self-defense begins when deadly danger begins, ends when the danger ends, and revives again if the danger returns. A proactive-violent defense before an attack has taken place can be extremely challenging to prove legitimate self-defense in the eyes of the court. You will need to very clearly articulate your reasoning. Similarly, a killing that takes place after a crime has already been committed is tough to prove as self-defense. Chasing a burglar outside and attacking him does not end any better in real life than it did in that movie.

Affirmative Defense

You must understand that “self-defense” is an affirmative defense. What this means is that you are admitting to an action that is a crime and arguing that you should not be punished because it was justifiable under the circumstances.

This concept is paramount and bears repeating: claiming self-defense is admitting to the basic crime.

Scenario: You walk into your kitchen late one night and suddenly see a flash of steel, and a knife gets buried in your chest. In an explosive miracle of training, luck, and the will to survive, you lash out with a perfect throat shot. You dial 911 but pass out from blood loss before you can answer any questions. While you are unconscious, the home invader suffocates from the trachea you crushed.

The guy is dead. You killed him. That is homicide. The charge will likely be manslaughter technically, since it is unlikely a prosecutor would try to prove that your intent was specifically to kill. Don’t get hung up on the nuances, but understand clearly that if you claim self-defense you cannot deny the underlying crime. You committed homicide, but you have a really good excuse for doing it — dude was trying to kill you. The challenge is that if your self-defense plea fails, you have admitted to a crime and you will be punished for it.

An affirmative defense, therefore, shifts the burden of proof to you. The prosecution does not need to prove that someone was killed or that you did it. You did his job for him. YOU must prove that you had no choice but to react the way you did.

I.M.O.P. Principle

How do you know when it is legal to get physical with an adversary? Learn the I.M.O.P. (Intent, Means, Opportunity, and Preclusion) principle. All four of these criteria must be met before you have a good case for taking action. If one or more of these conditions are absent, you are on shaky legal ground.

These guidelines are not only useful, but they are also easy to remember in the heat of the moment on the street. That’s because they are based on common sense. You must be in danger, or “jeopardy” in order to protect yourself from harm. Obvious, right? Danger from another human being comes from their intent, means and opportunity.

The hard part is that knowing this is not enough. The presence of intent, means, and opportunity may be sufficient for you to act in self-defense. However, their mere presence may not be enough for you to prevail in court. You must also be able to explain how you personally knew that each element was present in a way that the jury will believe.


You must be able to show that the threat (the standard cop term for a bad guy) wanted to do you harm.* You must be able to tell how you knew. Someone screaming, “I’m going to kill you!” is fairly clear, at least if his body language backs up his words. If the threat balls up his fist and draws his hand back, you can explain why you believed he was about to hit you. If a threat suddenly reaches under his jacket, you may believe that he is going for a weapon and can explain that too.

Intent is critical. People have chances to kill you all the time. The waiter bringing you a steak knife in a restaurant has a deadly weapon and is well within range. But we do not kill the waiter, nor do waiters live in fear, because we all understand that without intent there is no threat. No justification for force. So we don’t act.

This goes for the guy reaching under his jacket. This is an action that people do every day, getting out wallets, keys, and loose change. The hand reach itself is not enough. You will have to explain all the elements of that moment that indicated to you why that action showed intent. Did he continue toward you after being told to back off? Were you in an isolated area or alone at night at an ATM? Did you see, hear, or smell something that brought this everyday movement to a new level?

To be a legitimate threat, the person must have intent and you must be able to explain how you knew that.


All the intent in the world does not matter if the threat couldn’t hurt you. Most people have some means at some level—fists and boots and size. Others have weapons or indicate that they have weapons.

A two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum has some of the purest intent in the world, but he or she lacks the size, strength, and coordination to do anything severe.

The means that the actions you articulate must also match the means that were presented. People who were poorly trained in self-defense mouth the words, “I was in fear for my life,” like it is a mantra or a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is a bullshit platitude. You will be expected and required to explain exactly what made you fear for your life — the intent, the means, and the opportunity. If you are claiming the threat was deadly, the means have to be deadly. A shoving match does not count.

You must be able to articulate exactly what led to your fear in a way that demonstrates it was legitimate.


Intent and means do not matter if the threat cannot reach you. If someone is screaming he is going to kick your ass from across the room, he may be a threat but he is not an immediate threat. You can’t shoot him. If he has a gun, being across a room does not matter as much. You have a pretty good argument that you were in danger. Similarly, someone waving a knife at you from inside a vehicle while you are walking on the sidewalk is not an immediate threat. If he slams the accelerator and the car lurches toward you, that situation has changed significantly.

Intent, means, and opportunity are the desire, the ability, and the access to hurt you. You must be able to show all three to justify using force for self-defense.


Even if intent, means, and opportunity are clear, there is one other requirement (for civilians and in most states) to satisfy. You must be able to show that you had no safe alternatives other than physical force before engaging an opponent in combat. If you can retreat without further endangering yourself, this criterion has not been met. After all, it is impossible for the other guy to hurt you if you are not there.

These are the questions any jury will be asked and you must be able to explain: Could you have left? Could you have run? Did you in any way contribute to the situation getting out of hand? Would a reasonable person have seen a way out or seen a way that used less force?

All of these are preclusions that would have stopped the situation from going to force. You must not only prove the threat was real and immediate, but that you had no other good options.

Clearly you should never let fear of legal repercussions keep you from defending yourself when your life is on the line, but an understanding of the law can help you make good decisions on “that day” should it ever arrive.

Reasonable force

There are no absolutes in self-defense, but your ultimate goal is to apply sufficient force to effectively control the situation and keep yourself from harm. In general, you may legally use reasonable force in defending yourself. “Reasonable force” is considered only that force reasonably necessary to repel the attacker’s force.

Unfortunately, “reasonably necessary” is a vague term usually associated with what the “reasonable person” would think necessary. The so-called reasonable person is a fictitious composite of all the reasonably prudent people in a given cross section of life.

Whether the ordinary person acted reasonably will likely be judged against the reasonably prudent, similarly situated ordinary person in the appropriate geographic area. Everyone starts out at this level, but other personal attributes may heighten their required standard of care.

Whether a martial artist acted reasonably in a fight will likely be judged against the reasonably prudent practitioner of similar skill and training in that general geographic area. This test works the same way for other experts as well. For example, whether a doctor acted reasonably in medical care will be judged against the reasonably prudent doctor of similar skill, training, and specialty.

The reasonable person standard is not necessarily used in all criminal proceedings nor is it universally used in all civil proceedings. On the other hand, some standard of reasonable and right are embedded in the mind of every person, including those sitting in the jury box. The reasonable person standard will likely also be used in any civil suit (e.g., wrongful death) filed after a criminal decision.

A trained fighter is usually held to a higher standard of reasonableness than the average person in a court of law. The martial artist’s training is believed to give him or her better understanding of the application and consequences of using a certain amount of force. Thus, where a less-skilled individual might be able to shoot a club-wielding attacker, it may only be reasonable in the eyes of an undereducated jury for the martial artist to use his or her hands for defense. For non-practitioners, most folk’s understanding of martial arts is limited to unrealistic movie and television stunts. This is why expert witnesses are so important (and expensive).

Crimes generally revolve around the “intent” to do something bad, or the “reckless disregard” of the consequences of doing something that turned out bad in retrospect. Reasonableness also enters criminal proceedings to help resolve issues surrounding intent or reckless disregard. You can never know with certainty what someone intended yet the courts can infer what was intended from evidence and circumstances. This inference involves knowledge, skill, training, and state of mind of the participants as applied to the evidence and circumstances at hand.

Exceeding a reasonable level of force may well turn a victim into a perpetrator in the eyes of the court. Justifiable self-defense is a victim’s defense to a criminal/civil charge. If one’s intent were to defend his or her self, then a reasonable person would only do so using reasonable force. Using a higher level of force infers intent to needlessly harm the other. This allows the perpetrator turned “victim” to use your defensive actions against you, the victim turned perpetrator. Even if a criminal prosecutor dismisses your actions, a civil court may not do so.

Disparity of Force

Another important aspect of self-defense is disparity of force. While there is no such thing as a fair fight in most instances, legally there is often an expectation of one. Equal-force doctrines in some jurisdictions require law-abiding citizens to respond to an attack with little or no more force than that which he or she perceives is being used against him or her. In some places, the law clearly specifies that equal force must be exactly equal. The attacked can respond with no more force than that by which he or she is threatened—slap for slap, punch for punch, kick for kick, or deadly weapon for deadly weapon.

Disparity of force between unarmed combatants is measured in one of two ways. It exists if:

  • The victim is being attacked by someone who is physically much stronger or younger.
  • The victim is being attacked by two or more assailants of similar or equal size.

Where disparity of force exists, you may legitimately be able to exert potentially lethal force to defend yourself. However, a person cannot legally respond to an assault of slight degree with deadly force. Such overreaction will land you in serious legal trouble.

Proportional Force

In practice, you will usually want to respond to an assault with a degree of force sufficiently, but not greatly, superior to that with which you are threatened. There are two advantages to this “slightly greater” degree of force doctrine:

  • It places the defender in a more secure tactical position.
  • •It discourages the assailant from continuing to attack and escalating into a position where lethal force is required.

Some self-defense experts throw out the phrase, “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” Though the sentiment is accurate — we would rather risk prison time than a cold grave — it trivializes the problem. Never forget that if you are found guilty in a jury trial, you will be spending a whole lot of quality time in a confined environment with unpredictable, dangerous neighbors who may be less than friendly when you interact with them. You may also suffer consequences with others in the community, facing challenges from family, friends, employers, and those you wish to interact positively with on a daily basis.

While you should never let fear of legal consequences keep you from surviving a violent encounter, you must keep your wits about you at all times.

The Articulation Drill

Good people tend to make good decisions. These decisions can always be refined and the decision-making process can be improved, but usually people don’t trip themselves up much in the process; they trip themselves up in the explanation.

Having justification is not enough. I.M.O.P. by itself will not get you out of trouble. Because self-defense is an affirmative defense, it falls on you to explain. You must be able to articulate exactly why you made each decision — why you needed to become involved and why you used exactly the level of force and even technique that you used.

There are two drills for this. One is simple. Go to YouTube. Watch real fights. Then pick out exactly why it was or wasn’t self-defense. Look at all the times the guy who walked away could have been fine if only he had kept his mouth shut. It was clearly a mutual fight but both thought they were defending themselves. There are times when a pre-emptive strike would have been justified, and prudent, and others where such actions land the perpetrator in jail.

The second drill, the articulation exercise, requires some background.

As we mentioned in the situational awareness section, you have a finely developed intuition. All humans do. Your senses perceive and your brain processes huge amounts of information, far more information than your conscious mind can handle. Because of this we get “feelings.” Hints. Little subconscious niggles.

Next time you get an intuition, a thought, or an idea, stop and explain it to yourself. The exercise is just that simple. And that difficult. When you see two people and think, “They are about to argue,” take the time to figure out what triggered that intuition. Body language? What specific body language? Did the voices change? How? Louder? Higher pitched?

This articulation exercise has two benefits. The first is simply the skill at explaining a fast decision. If you ever need to defend your use of force in court, it is likely that you will have made a decision very quickly, probably faster than conscious thought. And you may have to explain that decision to a jury.

The second benefit will affect your entire life. Intuition is a larger part of your brain, of you, than your conscious mind will ever be. The articulation exercise makes your conscious mind and intuition work together. It develops trust between two parts of your mind. Intuition ceases to be “mere” intuition but something you learn to trust. Not only will the drill help you to make better decisions faster, it will also help you understand and explain those decisions.

The Decision to Get Involved

On September 23, 2002, at least ten people allegedly saw 18-year-old Rachel Burkheimer bound and gagged, lying on the floor of an Everett, WA garage shortly before she was taken out into the woods and murdered. None of them stopped to help. None of them even called the police. Legally, none of them had to. Many people simply will not get involved, even in cases of life or death. Are you one of them?

You need to seriously think about what you are willing to do, what you are not willing to do, and what you are willing to have done to you far before violence occurs. Such decisions cannot rationally be made during a dangerous encounter. There is a vast continuum of responses to take should you choose to intervene in a conflict—everything from moving to a safe place and dialing 911 to taking hands-on physical action. Intervention can be verbal or physical, encompassing the entire force continuum.

Spending some time thinking about when and under what circumstances you are willing to get involved is important. While scenario training can help prepare you for such decisions, when it gets down to brass tacks every situation you encounter will be different. It’s no longer a philosophical exercise. You need to know exactly what you are walking into to make a wise choice.

Start by evaluating what you have encountered. If your situational awareness is good, you might have several seconds, or possibly even minutes, to do this reconnaissance before you are forced to take action. If it’s poor you may have to take in the scene and make a decision in microseconds. Or it may be made for you. In whatever time you have, do your best to note combatants, witnesses, sources of improvised weapons, terrain, and other important factors so that you will know as much as possible about what you are up against.

The decision to get involved (or not) and at what level is paramount. Whatever choice you make can have lasting consequences. There is a cost in terms of physical and/or emotional well-being to taking action as well as to not taking action. Only you can decide. And you’ve got to live with that choice.

Fight to the Goal

When I was twelve years old, I was walking to the bus stop after judo practice one night when four older boys stopped me. They quickly began to hassle me about the gi I was wearing, spitting on me, calling me names, and threatening to “kill” me. Verbal threats soon escalated to pushing and shoving, which was clearly evolving toward more serious blows. Although I probably stood a good chance of badly injuring one or two of them, I felt that there was no way I could win a fight against four kids, all of whom were bigger, older, and most likely stronger than I was.

Swallowing my pride, I did my best to ignore their expectorating and taunting while I tried to figure out a way to escape. As soon as I saw a car approaching, I shoved the nearest antagonist out of the way, shoulder-rolled over the hood of the vehicle, and darted across the street. The driver slammed on his brakes, stopping between where I had just run and where the bullies on the sidewalk had started to follow. While they were distracted by the irate driver, I hopped over a fence, ducked down another side street, and ran away as fast as I could. In a situation where I could not win, running was the best thing to do.

Once you make the decision to fight it is important to know why. What is your goal? Are you trying to control a situation or escape from a threat? Everything hinges on this. The strategy of control or escape will drive the tactics necessary for success.

It is very hard, for example, to capture someone who is determined to get away, even when multiple adversaries are in play. If that is your goal, simply running away may be enough, particularly if you are able to move first. If in attempting to escape, you let yourself be drawn into a fight, however, it becomes self-defeating. Knocking an adversary aside so that you can run is better than squaring up to him in this instance. After all, your goal is to escape, not to beat down the other guy, win the fight, control the adversary until authorities arrive, or whatever else you can think of.

Consider intent, means, opportunity, and preclusion when determining your goals during a conflict. Many altercations these days are captured on video, be it from surveillance systems, cell-phone cameras, dash-cams, or some other source, at least when they occur in major populations centers across the United States. Even where video is not in the picture, bystanders may witness the event. If your actions don’t match your statements you will be in serious trouble when you get to court, particularly when it comes to preclusion.

Know your goal and make tactical decisions that support it.

Dealing with Threats with Altered States of Consciousness

Alcohol muddles your mind so that you don’t fully think things through. It also relaxes your inhibitions so that you are more likely to act out. Oftentimes it gives you a socially acceptable excuse for your behavior, or at least portions of it, compounding the effect. You want to do more and think you’ll get away with it, not that you actually will, of course… According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 36 percent of all criminals and 41 percent of violent offenders are intoxicated with alcohol when they commit the crimes for which they are convicted. These numbers rise even higher if you add drugs into the mix.

Drunks can be unpredictable, violent, and very difficult to corral. Tangling with one when you are sober gives you a significant advantage. When you’re drunk too, it only exacerbates the situation. Either way, you need to do your best to keep a cool head.

To begin, never argue with a drunk. As the old saying goes, “Reason goes into the bottle faster than the alcohol comes out of it.” If you can get away with it, just smile, nod, and say “Yes” or “No” as appropriate. Oftentimes, however, liquid courage will lead the other guy to take a swing at you. That is when you will undoubtedly be tempted to strike back.

Unfortunately, hitting a drunk doesn’t work nearly as well as you might think. It is not necessarily that they don’t feel pain, but rather that they do not feel it as much or as immediately as sober people do. That is an important consideration when dealing with an inebriated opponent.

Alcohol is not the only substance you might encounter that alters the mind of those who mean you ill. People who use drugs are roughly twice as likely to engage in violent behaviors as people who do not. In general, it is best to avoid tangling with anyone who is under the influence of drugs because such confrontations can become extraordinarily ugly. Leave such things to law enforcement professionals whenever possible.

For example, it can take as many as a dozen officers to restrain someone effectively in a drug-induced frenzy without accidentally killing him because less-lethal weapons such as pepper spray, Tasers® and the like, can prove ineffective in such cases. There is a good chance that many, if not all participants, will be injured in the process.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of violent criminal offenders are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or both, at the time of their offense for which they are subsequently convicted. The drugs of choice are most often marijuana, cocaine/crack, or heroine/opiates. Stimulants such as cocaine and crack are most linked to violence, although certain psychological conditions can have similar effects. (We’ll discuss emotionally disturbed persons in the section about Level 2.) Similarly, about 30 percent of victims are intoxicated with drugs at the time they are attacked.

Pain Compliance versus Mechanical Compliance

At the end of the National Anthem, we block the stairs above the 50-yard line to let the band exit the field and take their places in the stands. This usually takes several minutes, during which latecomers cannot take their seats. Those at the front of the line can see the kickoff and first few plays of the game, but those in back can only hear what’s going on. Needless to say that makes us somewhat less than popular, yet most fans understand and wait (more or less) patiently for the band to get out of the way. Not so, no-shirt guy. Painted purple with a gold W on his chest, he shoved his way through the line and tried to push his way past the guards at the top of the stairs.

They managed to stop his forward progress, but he launched into a verbal tirade and continued to push against my employees, nearly knocking one down the cement stairwell. After helping the guard regain his balance, I stepped into the fray and tried to reason with the fan, quickly discovering that he was far too intoxicated to understand what I was saying let alone comply. After fruitlessly arguing for a moment, I reached over and slid my fingers around the top of his collarbone while simultaneously pushing my thumb into the suprasternal notch at the base of his throat and dug in hard. On most people this will cause excruciating pain, simultaneously buckling their knees. On this guy, nothing. He didn’t even notice.

Pain compliance is an excellent tool. It affords you the ability to control an opponent without seriously injuring him — when it works. Unfortunately, a committed adversary, a person whose mind is affected by certain intoxicants or who is in an altered state of consciousness, or one who is gripped by adrenaline is likely to shrug off virtually any pain you can throw at him. In those cases, pressure points or pain compliance techniques will not be enough. You will need mechanical leverage to control or injure your adversary.

If you must hurt someone in a fight, you will need to target a vital area of his body, someplace that can be damaged relatively easily. Punching someone in the stomach, for example, may only piss him off while striking him in the head may render him unconscious if you hit hard enough (and possibly shatter your hand in the process).

As we cover the higher levels of the force continuum, you will discover that targeting moves from lesser to more vital areas of the body to help assure success when dealing with a determined foe. For now, be aware that merely delivering pain may not be sufficient to control a situation.

Never Quit

On January 1, 2008, Meredith Emerson, a 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate, managed to fend off both a knife and a baton attack, holding her own until her assailant tricked her into surrendering. Gary Michael Hilton, a burly 61-year-old drifter, subsequently tied her up and carried her to a remote location where he raped and eventually killed her three days later.

Hilton reportedly told police interrogators that his petite victim nearly overpowered him when he first accosted her on an Appalachian hiking trail. According to published reports, Hilton stalked the 5-foot-4-inch tall, 120-pound woman on the trail but was unable to keep up so he laid in wait and intercepted her on her way back down. He pulled a knife and demanded her ATM card. Emerson, a trained martial artist, recognized the threat and immediately fought back.

“I lost control, and she fought. And as I read in the paper, she’s a martial artist.” Emerson, who held middle kyu ranks (blue belt and green belt) in two different martial arts, ripped the knife out of his hands. He countered with a baton that she was also able to pull from his grasp. As the struggle continued, they fell down a steep slope, leaving both weapons behind. “The bayonet is probably still up there,” Hilton later told investigators.

“I had to hand-fight her,” Hilton said. “She wouldn’t stop fighting and yelling at the same time so I needed to both control her and silence her.” He kept punching her, blackening her eyes, fracturing her nose, and breaking his own hand in the process. He figured that he had worn her down as they moved farther off the trail, but suddenly she began fighting again. He finally got her to stop by telling her that all he wanted was her credit card and PIN number.

Once she relaxed her guard, he restrained her hands with a zip tie, took her to a remote location, and tied her to a tree. Predators often take their victims to secondary crime scenes where they have the privacy to perform their depravations. Sadly this was no exception. He kept her captive in the wilderness for three terrifying days before telling her that he was ready to let her go.

Then he beat her to death with a car-jack handle and cut off her head.

Hilton made a plea deal with prosecutors, leading investigators to his victim’s remains so that they would not seek the death penalty for his crimes. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

The goal of self-defense is not to win a fight, but rather to avoid combat in the first place. After all, the only battle you are guaranteed to walk away from unscathed is the one you never engage in. Taking a beat-down can seriously mess up your life. Nevertheless, sometimes despite your best intentions, you may find yourself in a situation where there really is no alternative but to fight. When it comes to such circumstances, particularly in an asocial violence scenario, you cannot stop until it’s over.

Once engaged in battle, it is critical to remain mentally and physically prepared to fight or continue a brawl at a moment’s notice. Always keep your opponent in sight until you can escape to safety. Even if your blow knocks an adversary to the ground, remain alert for a possible continuation of his attack. Most fistfights end when one combatant gives up rather than when he or she can no longer physically continue. Weapons bring a whole new dynamic into play. Even fatally wounded adversaries do not always succumb to their injuries right away; they can continue to be a critical danger for several seconds, if not minutes. That is a very long time in a fight.

Never give up until you are sure that you are safe. Sadly, too many victims do not heed this lesson, with tragic results.

Never believe anything an assailant tells you. His actions have already demonstrated beyond any doubt that he’s a bad guy. Do not relax your guard and get caught by surprise; that is a good way to die. If the other guy thinks that he is losing, he might be more inclined to play possum or pull out a weapon in order to cheat to win. Worse yet, street attacks sometimes involve multiple assailants, many of whom may be seasoned fighters who know how to take a blow and shrug off the pain. Be mindful of additional assailants, potentially latecomers, and be prepared to continue your defense as long as necessary.

As the Chinese proverb states, “Dead tigers kill the most hunters.” Remain vigilant during any pause in the fight. You may be facing multiple assailants, an adversary who pulls a weapon in the middle of a fight, or an opponent who just won’t quit. Once you have removed yourself from the danger and are absolutely certain that you are no longer under threat, you can safely begin to relax your guard.

Account for Adrenaline

When I took a defensive handgun course several years ago, I was taught to train for handling the survival-stress reaction commonly associated with actual combat. To simulate the reaction, we had to do as many pushups as we could as fast as we could for one minute. Immediately after completing the pushups, we sprinted to the parking lot and raced around the building four times as fast as we could go, covering close to a mile in the process. We then sprinted back into the building and attempted to accurately fire down range under the watchful eye of our instructors.

While I could normally hit the bulls-eye of a static paper target much of the time at 25 feet during shooting competitions, and always put every shot in the black, the first time I attempted to do so after this stress test, I missed the paper completely. It was an eye-opening experience.

When adrenaline courses through your system during a fight, you can be stabbed, shot, or badly mangled and yet persevere, at least until the pain kicks in afterward. Your ability to think rationally is greatly reduced. The good news is that you tend to become stronger and more resilient than usual. The bad news, however, is that you will likely have degraded motor skills, experience tunnel vision, and perhaps even suffer temporary hearing or memory loss.

While precise movements are extraordinarily tough, even imprecise ones like grabbing a wrist or hooking a leg can be problematic even if you are highly trained. If you try to get too fancy, you will hurt your chances for success in a fight. However, gross motor movements, especially those that target vital areas of the adversary’s body, can work pretty well.

The more comprehensive and realistic your training is, the better you will perform in actual combat because conditioned responses can help you counteract, or at least work through, the effects of adrenaline. Conversely, the more stressed you are through exertion, fear, or desperation, the harder it is perform. Mostly. A friend of mine, who hijacks planes (from terrorists) for a living, puts it this way:

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead, it has almost everything has to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions.

“It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will. This is why divers are found drowned yet with full oxygen tanks — something happened to them and the amygdala reacted to that critical incident stress with its preferred strategy — clearing obstructions from the breathing passage. As a general rule, getting stuff out of your mouth is an excellent strategy for a land-based species in land-based confrontations.”

But spitting out your breathing tube is a terrible strategy under water. The fact is none of those drowning victims really thought they could breathe water. Something happened and their bodies reacted.

“Like a diver in duress, when you face a threat on the street you won’t be doing much thinking. Unless you have a very high adrenal threshold and/or a LOT of training. Deliberate thought is slow, taking several seconds to accomplish. That’s an eternity in a critical incident. Might as well go get a massage while you’re at it …”

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions. And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom of shit and adrenaline.”

“Training then, to me, is all about trying to give the amygdala better choices. Because you won’t consciously be deciding on much on ’that day.’ Or maybe it’s about getting your body so used to adrenal stress that you can actually think, somewhat, during pauses in the action. Or more likely a combination of the two. End of the day, training isn’t about what most people think it is.”

~ M. Guthrie, Federal Air Marshal

As Bruce Siddle described in his book, Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge, in a violent encounter your heart rate can jump from 60 or 70 beats per minute (BPM) to well over 200 BPM in less than half a second. Elevated heart rate is an easily measurable symptom of the effects of adrenaline, one that can be used to index what happens to you when adrenalized:

  • For people whose resting heart rate is around 60 to 70 BPM, at around 115 BPM many begin to lose fine motor skills such as finger dexterity making it difficult to successfully dial a phone, open a lock, or aim a weapon.
  • Around 145 BPM most people begin to lose their complex motor skills such as hand-eye coordination, precise tracking movements, or exact timing, making complicated techniques very challenging if not impossible.
  • Around 175 BPM most people begin to lose depth perception, experience tunnel vision, and sometimes even suffer temporary memory loss.
  • Around 185–220 BPM many people experience hyper-vigilance, loss of rational thought, and inability to consciously move or react. Without prior training, the vast majority of people cannot function at this stress level.

Breath control techniques can help you minimize or recover from the effects of adrenaline, particularly if you have enough time to see an attack coming. Begin by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth following a 4-count process for each step — inhalation, hold, exhalation, hold. In other words, each cycle of combat breathing includes:

  • Inhale for a 4-count.
  • Hold for a 4-count.
  • Exhale for a 4-count.
  • Hold for a 4-count with empty lungs.

When men are confronted with extreme emotional or violent situations, their adrenaline kicks off like a rocket, surging quickly and then dissipating rapidly afterward as well. In a home invasion situation, for example, when the male homeowner shoots the suspect, the killing is likely to take place near the front door. When police officers arrive, they will typically find that the suspect has been shot perhaps two or three times, just enough to make sure he is no longer a threat.

Women, on the other hand, get a much slower, longer-lasting adrenaline surge. It takes longer to get going and dissipates a lot more slowly than you find in men. In that same home invasion scenario, police often find the dead robber in a back bedroom where he had chased and cornered the female homeowner. But here’s the kicker. Rather than shooting him a couple of times, she’s emptied the gun into him, perhaps even reloading and doing it again.

Interesting difference, huh? An implication is that women have more time to think, but must often defend themselves before becoming adrenalized, whereas men get the advantages and disadvantages of adrenaline without the clear-headed ability to plan.

It’s NOT a Continuum

The rest of this article lays out several levels of force in a logical order, covering (1) presence, (2) voice, (3) touch, (4) empty-hand/physical restraint, (5) less-lethal force, and (6) lethal force. This by no means implies that these levels are stages on a ladder where you must move from one to another. Select the level you need to safely prevail / escape. If your choice is not working, you may have to change levels quickly.

  • For self-defense. Other levels of legal force, such as refusing to leave the premises after a lawful order to do so, also require I.M.O., but at a different level.
  • Law Enforcement Officers have a “duty to act” and can’t be expected to retreat. In some states, “Stand Your Ground” laws appear to remove the preclusion requirement. “Castle” laws give great freedom for self-defense in the home provided the threat feloniously enters. If someone breaks into your home, a castle law essentially grants that I.M.O. are givens.
  • The justifications for defending a third party are essentially the same as for defending yourself. Though you, yourself, might be able to leave safely if another potential victim would be left behind and helpless, you can articulate why you needed to engage.


Skillfully doing nothing.

Level 1 and Level 2 (presence and verbal) and to a lesser extent Level 3 (touch) are intended to make the threat quit being threatening without anyone getting hurt. While higher levels of force are aimed at an adversary’s body, the lower levels work through the threat’s mind.

In social violence, presence and verbal skills primarily aim at preventing or diverting the attention of someone who wants to monkey dance. Normally, that is easy—just don’t play. Walk away. Disregard the challenge. Don’t get caught in your own little monkey brain.

In asocial or predatory violence, particularly in a predatory ambush, the purpose of presence and verbal skills is to keep you off the victim list. As such they must become habits. You may never even know if they worked. If a predator scans you —which will happen several times a day in the crowded part of a big city — and decides to pass, chances are good that you will not even notice. Success, in this subject, is often invisible. If your habits of presence — how you walk, how you scan, what you do with positioning and your hands — are good, the bad guy quietly moves on, never even coming to your attention.

If you are under assault, it is too late to apply Levels 1 and 2 as primary techniques. Go ahead and scream, “Let me go!” while fighting back to help create witnesses sympathetic to your cause, but don’t be stupid enough to scream instead of fighting back. If you are in danger and taking damage, you must be working from much higher up on the force scale than verbals.

These two lowest levels (and the third level, touch) often come into play when intervening as a third party. That does not always mean breaking up a fight. The simple presence of potential witnesses can prevent much crime. More so if the witness looks like he or she is paying attention or dialing a cell phone.

Generally, your goal with presence and verbal skills will be:

  • To raise the stakes. The presence of witnesses or involved citizens may make committing a crime too risky.
  • To give the threat a face-saving way to leave. If the threat has ego invested in his bad act, he may be afraid that walking away will make him look afraid. However, walking away from a group or a uniform or whispered advice that the police are on the way is often acceptable.
  • To instill doubt. This can be a very effective strategy in that if the threat does not know who you are or what you are likely to do, he cannot be sure what the outcome of his actions will be.
  • To give the threat a better choice. Sometimes you can get past the emotion and show the threat that his actions will not achieve his goals.

The Lowest Level of Force

On the second of September 2008, I did something stupid. I hadn’t quite been in Iraq for two months and was still very much a rookie. I want to write down the story because there might be some lessons about presence in there. I’m reluctant for a couple of reasons and the reasons are important:

1.Lots of things that sound cool happened because there wasn’t a good choice. That doesn’t mean it was a good strategy. Rats don’t swim very well—they only abandon a ship because sinking with it is worse.

2.Because something worked once, especially when the stakes were high, does not make it a good idea. The fear with anything that makes amateurs’ eyes get all shiny is that they might try to do it. I wouldn’t do this again if I had any choice.

3.I especially hate telling this story because though amateurs might think it’s cool, every professional will read this and automatically (and correctly) label me as an idiot. I don’t like being labeled an idiot, especially by people I respect. But, here goes… The Records area at Rusafa Prison Complex in Baghdad is enclosed by a chain-link fence and was almost always crowded.

It’s a stressful place, with inmates being processed in and out, Iraqi military, police, corrections, advocates, politicos, and sometimes families of the convicts are present and a small handful of American advisers. It was especially crowded that day. Suddenly I heard a loud argument. I couldn’t understand what was being shouted, but it was getting really loud.

I quickly discovered that two armed Iraqi gentleman were about to go at it. And no one was doing anything. Not the Iraqi officers and not the other Americans, all of whom were backing off.

This is what I do, right? I’m a freaking jail guard and my primary job is to prevent fights.

There were a ton of other considerations as well. First and foremost, I only spoke about fifty words of Arabic and almost all of them were either formal greetings or commands, neither of which was appropriate for this situation. You do not yell commands at people you want to calm down. Second, I had no formal authority — I was an adviser and mentor. Third, I had no idea what the argument was about. And, I didn’t know who the guys involved were. They could have been department ministers, tribal leaders, or just about anything else. That means that I didn’t know what would happen if things got messy. Would it stay personal or get really big?

Other than the language barrier (and the weapons), this is what corrections officers deal with all the time. This is the regular job. Usually I can call for backup first and know it is on the way, but not today …

There were two other factors that I thought were very important. The biggest was that if things got really out of hand, we were all screwed. I could handle two people. But if one pulled a gun and the other responded and a few friends got involved and the armed security guys got nervous, there would be a bloodbath inside a chain-link enclosed area. The second was probably less logical, but important to me. The Iraqi officers we advised were under a lot of pressure from criminals, militias, and secretly loyal members of the old regime. They were not paid very much and were constantly being threatened or tempted by bribes. One of our primary missions was to teach them to stand on principle, do the right thing. It was dangerous and took a lot of guts for them to avoid corruption, more so because they were coming off thirty years of totalitarian rule where anyone who showed a spine was summarily executed.

It was probably illogical, but I thought it would be tragic if they saw all of the American advisers back down from a dangerous situation.

So I stepped in. Got between the two fighters, squaring off with the biggest, invading his space, smiling slightly but with eyes calm, talking softly and low-pitched.

It takes a lot to invade an Arab’s space; culturally it’s much closer than Westerners’.

He started moving when I put my chest against his arms and pressed with a step. All of this happened while I had a hand poised in the place he couldn’t see behind his arm, ready to control the leverage point on the back of the elbow and spin him if I had to.

DON’T EVEN CONSIDER close range de-escalation unless you have absolute confidence in your infighting skills and can take an invisible position of advantage.

I took a step forward, he took one back. In a few seconds, he was outside of the enclosure.

Then the other guy got in a beef with someone else.

I’d chosen the biggest, but he evidently wasn’t the one starting the problem. So I used the same method to get the other guy out, diffusing the situation.

My boss’s boss and I had a private talk within the hour:

“You do not, for any reason, go into a group of armed Iraqis.”

“Yes sir.”

“You do not, except in self-defense, lay hands on an Iraqi.”

“But I didn’t … yes sir.”

“You do not, ever, risk your own life just to make a point.”

Right there, he had me. That’s the lesson I want you to take from this incident and the whole article. I don’t care how cool it sounds. Risking your life for anything other than saving a life is ego, it’s bullshit, and it is childish.

Presence is the lowest level of force—not force at all if you think in terms of mechanical power — and it comes just from being there. If presence works, it is a perfect solution: no paperwork, no one gets hurt, and you don’t even have to talk to the guy.

Even if presence does not work by itself, it makes every other level of the force continuum a little easier. An order given by someone who looks like an officer or a mother works better than a pimply teenager trying to take control. You will feel the difference between a wrist-lock done with authority and one attempted with a lack of confidence. Using a stick like you know what you are doing is more likely to get a threat to back down than if you look like you are not sure how to hold it.

Even at the lethal force level, there is a qualitative difference between a professional about to use a gun as a tool and a scared civilian trying to hide behind a weapon.

There is no downside to developing presence. That said, because it is so subjective, it can be damnably hard to develop. What follows are a few small hints on a very big subject …

The Intangibles

We are going to get all metaphysical for a second and talk about stuff that everyone knows but that we often pretend is too mystical to acknowledge.

A big part of your presence is who you are. An asshole carries himself like an asshole and almost everyone can sense who and what he is. Curious people look like curious people. Someone with a good heart makes other people relax, even if the people relaxing can never really explain why.

Some can fake it — con-men are famous for it, but even con-men don’t run games on certain people. It just does not work.

In what follows, take that into account. A smaller person intimidates differently than a bigger one does, even if they are equally competent. Men cannot pull off the “mom vibe” that can sometimes be even more effective than physical intimidation. Not all tactics work for all people. Bad things do not happen around some people because they have the kind of aura that makes people want to be good around them. Take my friend’s wife Kami, for example. Folks seem to need her to approve of them and some big, rough, tough bad men call her “ma’am” and will be happy to do whatever she says. It’s been that way for over twenty years.

Conversely, people tend to be good in my friend’s presence because they sense that he will come down on them hard if they don’t. Lawrence is adept at keeping drunken frat boys from doing incredibly stupid things, oftentimes without needing to say a word.

That is the very definition of presence in a force continuum — people often quit being bad when they see other people.

There is one more intangible concept that is tied up with presence, the martial arts concept of zanshin. Humans can sense the intensity of another human being. That intensity derives from both awareness and experience. The more you have been through, the greater your intensity, your presence. The more alert you are, the more you sense and perceive, the greater your presence.

But intensity is almost never the same as tension. Kids trying to look intense give a bug-eyed stare. Truly intense people tend to be calm, relaxed, and watchful, sometimes elaborately relaxed when everyone else is on the edge of panic.

Experience will come with time, but you can always practice being more aware.

The Power of Authority

There is a certain weight that we all have as humans. When someone is being bad and other people are watching, there is a glitch as the threat wonders how he looks. Humans are social primates and a lot of evolution went into developing concern about how other people perceive us.

It is not super strong. It is strongest in asocial violence where a witness is an immediate threat to the criminal’s future. In social violence, witnesses may be the point. After all, you can’t get a reputation without witnesses.

Just being there, however, gives a chance that the situation will defuse.

There are other factors that can add to this base. How these factors affect the outcome depend on interplay between the threat, the behavior, and what additional signals you bring to the table.

A uniformed officer, for instance, theoretically brings the whole authority of society along with him. Realistically, what an officer adds to the equation is someone who will not look the other way and pretend that nothing is happening. This makes the threat decide if his actions are worth the consequences — and understand this: Most bad guys resort to violence expecting to have no bad consequences, and they are usually right. Unless someone steps in (and is willing to risk all that comes on the line in a violent encounter), most low-level violence is rewarded, not punished. Civilians can, and often do, look the other way. A law enforcement officer, security guard, bouncer, or similar authority figure typically cannot (or is not supposed to, anyway).

Different societies treat authority very differently though. For example, in most of South and Central America, if you make direct eye contact with an officer, it’s grounds for an immediate and potentially severe beating.

It is not just the uniform. Other people bring authority to the situation too, though not in the same way. In some areas, a little old lady is nearly the ultimate authority figure. This is because most of the bad elements in certain areas have been raised by their grandmothers. She is the one person who has earned their absolute respect. And love. A grandmother won’t have the same automatic response from a kid who was raised where the grandparents were people you visited occasionally, got stuff from, and who let you do whatever you wanted.

Certain professions and certain situations have more weight of personality. Take members of the clergy, for example. Or medical personnel. In some countries there is no such thing as medical malpractice. Doctors can do pretty much whatever they want.

This kind of presence has its reverse side as well.

Dark shades, a black tank-top, and tattered blue jeans, he gets on the train at one of the downtown stops next to the Parole and Probation Office. His name is tattooed on his neck, a teardrop tattooed under his eye, his gang affiliation on his shoulder. He has obviously been working out in prison until quite recently. Muscles ripple.

The other passengers lower their voices and don’t make eye contact, fearing to draw his attention.

Presence affects behavior without saying a word. It is not exclusively a tool for good guys or a way to prevent violence. People commit crimes without saying a word, through presence alone. If you turn away from the ATM with a handful of bills and see someone pointing a gun at you, does he need to say anything?


We are going to work this from inside to outside. At the very core of who you are, one of the things that people see right away and one of the things that affects everything else about you is your level of fitness.

I was still on probation about 4 months into the job, working day-shift in the East Side Jail. The sergeant came into my dorm to do rounds and stopped by the desk briefly. He then proceeded over toward the day-room area and climbed on top of a bookshelf. He then somehow scaled up the wall and over the second-tier railing onto the second floor.

I thought, “What the hell is this guy doing?” I continued to sit at my desk while he walked the second tier. When he came down he said, “See ya later,” and left.

From then on I knew he was a pretty unique guy …

Fitness is not the only thing, however. People mess with big guys and body-builders too. When my friend was working casino security at 5’9” and maybe 150 pounds, no one swung on him. Thai, one of his partners, a big, fit college football player, seemed to get swung on every week.

The math was simple — where’s the glory in beating up a little kid? Conversely, someone tees off on the little guy and loses; he just got his ass kicked by a kid. That’s not good. Swing on the big guy, however, and it’s big points if you win. Even if you lose, you get a reputation for heart. In this example, a contributing factor may have been that too many folks knew that Thai was very professional. He would do everything in his power not to injure anyone.

That’s target acquisition for social violence, though.

Fitness and size really pay off when you show up as a witness or bystander to a predatory crime. The threat did not choose you for the mathematics of reputation. He was doing something else. You are now screwing up his plan and the general perception is that big people can screw up plans better than small people.

The best part about fitness is what it does to the rest of you. The more you use your body, the more you play with it and test it, the more at home you feel inside it. The more comfortable you are and the more comfortable you look. That is a step toward remaining calm in the face of adversity. Composure is one of the signs that you know what you are doing.

Even if you have no idea what you are doing, looking calm makes people think twice about pushing you. That’s a payoff, one which you can easily throw away by hopping from foot to foot and looking nervous.

Fitness also does not hurt if things go physical, of course. Size and strength aren’t everything, but they do help. A lot.

Fitness does not always mean size and strength. People inexperienced at violence look at size first, muscle definition second. Experienced people look at movement. When the sergeant scaled the wall to the second level, he not only showed the inmates some serious physicality, but also tremendous functional strength and a habit of moving and thinking unconventionally. Climbing is a great test and demonstration of functional strength. The combined message was one of physical effectiveness and unpredictability, a combination most experienced street-fighters seek to avoid.

It’s easy enough to say “work out.”

So I will: Go work out.

But you probably want specifics:

  • Do something you enjoy. If you have to make yourself go, it’s easy to quit.
  • Do something with unpredictable requirements. Grappling or rock climbing or swimming in rivers or oceans puts unpredictable loads on you that make you adapt. That is good training so long as you do it safely.
  • Total body movement should be a huge element of training. Climbing and grappling uses total body movement, but basketball and soccer are also excellent for this kind of training. Move your whole body. Isolation work is great for building a chiseled physique, but in real life, especially in a violent encounter, you will need to use your whole body. Practice now.
  • Aerobic exercise is the king for health maintenance, but fighting for your life is profoundly anaerobic. Make sure you work your anaerobic system hard.
  • Practice something that does not let you decide to quit. Grappling matches do not let you quit when you want to, unless you like losing. The same concept applies to free solo rock climbing— you can’t just quit forty feet up. The basketball or soccer game goes until the time runs out. Even milking a cow or baling hay, you don’t get to quit until the job is done. That is an important element to training, especially going to complete muscle failure and having to find a way to continue.
  • Try to limit injuries. Injuries are counterproductive and you will regret them in a decade or so. Perhaps earlier. That is why even though rugby can be far better for combat conditioning than almost any other sport, I don’t recommend it officially.
  • Do something that requires strength, speed, endurance, and flexibility. Do not do exercises for each area, but rather do something, like (again) climbing or grappling or soccer or football where you need all these attributes to excel. It is the best incentive to develop a balanced physicality.

Posture and Stance

Posture is how you stand. You probably got “Stand up straight!” from your parents and little else. Maybe you got the “Chin up, shoulders back, belly in.” Maybe you got a martial arts instructor’s “Eyes forward, shoulders square, tuck your tail bone under, etc.”

It does not matter. Most of what matters with posture comes from fitness or grace, an ability to be comfortable in your body. A coordinated, athletic person who walks slightly hunched over gives the impression of being coiled. An un-athletic person with similar body language looks timid. An athlete standing up straight looks alert and “soldierly” while a schmoe looks stiff and awkward. You get the idea.

That is basic posture. Stance is another concept altogether. Stance is how you set and prepare your body. Posture tells something about your underlying health. Stance says something about your personality.

“I thought that was going to go bad,” Mike said.


“Because you do that thing that you always do just before someone hits the floor.”

Mike turned to face me and sort of crossed his arms, left hand across his ribs, right elbow resting on his left hand, right fingers scratching his eyebrow. “Like that. You do that when you’re talking someone down but when your right wrist cocks back, you’re about to launch.”

I don’t know whether I was disturbed or happy that the second in command of my tactical team watched me that closely. “Well, it didn’t go bad.”

“Yeah, he sensed it. He backed right down.”

That stance is sometimes called the Modified Columbo after Peter Falk’s character in the television show. It has good protection, yet you can launch any number of pre-emptive or reactionary attacks. And it doesn’t look threatening. At least, not until your friends and the bad guys start telling stories about you.

I suggest that you have two preparatory stances.

One is for when you think things might go bad. Your “spidey sense” tingles or you get a bad feeling or you are talking to someone who appears agitated but not overtly threatening or aggressive. This stance should have good static defense — if you get sucker punched, you cannot count on having time to react. You should have mobility to close, angle forward, or angle back. You should be able to attack from the stance. Possibly most important, the stance should not look threatening to the uninitiated in any way.

The next stance is for when things are going bad. It should have all the same physical advantages as the preparatory stance but can be more overt. You can fight from the Modified Columbo directly, but sometimes it is valuable to take it a step up.

Violence is a form of communication. Shifting to a ready combat stance is sending the signal one last time that you are ready and giving the threat time to change his mind. Continuing the previous example, keep your hands open and palms toward the threat. Part of that is pragmatic—it facilitates grips and infighting. Part is that it will remind witnesses that you were not the aggressor, a benefit that is lost with closed fists.

We’re not talking about stances as they are commonly taught in the martial arts. Traditional stances are incredibly valuable, but generally misunderstood and mistaught. The classic stances — front, back, horse, etc., are positions of remarkable power. Use your own falling body weight to damage or unbalance an adversary and you will almost certainly catch yourself in one of the classic stances. Your legs will be ballistically loaded to explode out of it and deliver damage on the opposite vector.

Very neat. Not for standing in and trying to look cool. These postures are dynamic — you enter them while performing some kind of martial application.

Lastly, because it still looks placating rather than challenging, BUT shows that the risk has escalated, it BOTH gives the threat additional incentive to change his mind AND a face-saving way out. This is key. With closed fists, the other guy feels like he is backing down. His ego might not let him do that. Keeping the hands open, on the other hand, he can convince himself that he showed mercy. Pretty slick, huh?

The first step for training stances is to look at yourself in a mirror. How would you attack someone in that stance? What are your vulnerabilities? Also pay attention to your expression. You may not project the emotion and intent that you think you do. Try to look angry, thoughtful, or serious and see if the look in the mirror matches the one in your head.

Then practice moving from the stance. The stances most commonly used by an art say a lot about the style, predilections for distance, angle, and applications when it comes to fighting. For infighters, the most critical movement is closing at an angle. Strikers need to control distance, so the most critical skill will be angling backward, going right or left rear. Not straight back—you probably can’t move backward as fast as the bad guy can move forward. If you are an aggressive, close-range fighter, a straight close may work for you. It depends on both the style you practice as well as your demeanor.

We’ll talk about proxemics, how you stand in relationship to another person, later, but watch your range. That means different things to different people. Infighters who have much experience reading pre-assault cues tend to work much closer than most folks should. Out of reach is usually a good idea.

Lastly, practice counterattacking from the stance. This is usually best in armor —counter-assault training should be done at speed and you should take care not to pull punches. Technically, counter-assault should be conditioned, not trained. From your preparatory stance, such as the Modified Columbo, your partner tries to sucker punch you. You counterattack at the first hint of movement.

At first you will get clocked. A lot. That’s good because one of the things you will learn is that getting hit, especially if you are moving, is not a big, scary, dangerous thing. I occasionally run into black belts in striking arts who have never been hit in the face. That’s troubling.

Appearance and Demeanor

Appearance is what you look like. Demeanor is what you try to look like with your expression. There are some things you cannot change. For example, taller people are automatically given more respect than short people. That’s the way it is, whether you like it or not. Women are generally treated with more deference than men; men with more respect (even when women are shown deference, such as opening doors, it is sometimes patronizing). Athletic people are taken more seriously than the obese. A statement from an older person is automatically given more weight than a statement from a child, unless the oldster is too old.

Pretty people are treated better than ugly people. This all may suck. And sound unfair. It is unfair like much of the natural world. But we all have to deal with it. There’s nothing you can do about some aspects of your appearance. Height and coloration and well…pretty much height and coloration. Almost anything else you can affect to some degree.

The newest rookie was tiny — short, slender with thick glasses. I looked over at Ralph.

“The new kid is going to have a rough time.”

“Yeah, he’ll either have it or he won’t. If he can hack it, get a rep, he’ll be good.”

The kid stuck it out. His first year was hell, constantly challenged, but Ralph was right. The kid had some steel.

The most important thing you can do is to be healthy. Physical appearance, specifically beauty, is based almost entirely on a few clues as to general health. Height/weight proportionate. Smooth skin. Clear eyes. Hair sheen. Scent. All of these things can be affected to varying degrees. Some people struggle with weight —if the advantages are worth the lifestyle change, go for it. Otherwise, don’t.

Skin, hair, eyes, and scent are profoundly affected by two things: nutrition and hygiene. Want clear skin? Eat right; lots of fresh (preferably raw) fruits and vegetables, protein, and stay entirely away from sugar. Then wash with soap and water. Frequently. Works for scent as well. Add regular exercise and it works for weight. Stay away from drugs and alcohol, and get adequate sleep and fresh air, and the eyes stay bright and clear.

The things you cannot change, height and coloration, can work for you or against you. We have a saying: “The difference between a hazard and a tool is who uses it first.”

Height, except at the extremes, can be psychologically enhanced or minimized. A short person with good posture (in your parent’s “stand up straight” definition) looks taller than a big person with bad posture. Choices of clothing can change the perceived height and weight of people.

Consciously or unconsciously, shy tall people tend to have bad posture, a way of looking smaller and drawing less attention. Short people often stand on curbs to look taller and many tall people like to sit when they talk to set people at ease.

Your style — the verbal and presence skills that you develop — will be affected by conditions you cannot change. If you were born tall and imposing, it’s useful to practice relaxing others by looking inoffensive. But it is important to practice intimidation, too. Mother Nature gave you a leg up. Use it.

An old boss, one of the best I’d ever seen at talking a drunk out of fighting, was amazing at his job. I asked him how he learned to do it.

“Well, son, it was all about girls. About the time I was your age, I really wanted to go out with a lot of girls. So I took a long look at myself in the mirror and I said to myself,

‘Boy, looks like you’re gonna have to be a talker.’”

Small people can develop some skills that take advantage of their size. Take walking quietly, for instance. A relatively small guy, who suddenly appears out of nowhere, even if he is friendly, can make bad people rethink their plans.

Hair and eye coloration can be changed. Generally, hair coloring should be subtle. Specific changes in appearance that draw attention or seem intended to draw attention send very specific messages. Sadly, it’s rarely the message that the person intended. Facial tats or eye-blowing hair color intended to shout, “I’m an individual!” are usually (almost universally) interpreted as, “What underlying insecurity caused such a pathetic plea for attention?”

Eye color can be changed via cosmetic contact lenses if you really want to go that route. Skin coloring is harder to change. Any skin color can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the audience and how you play it.

Demeanor, expression, is our primary means of communicating emotion and intention to others. Not words, demeanor. If someone is crying and says, “I’m fine. Everything is fine,” we do not trust the words. Expression is king. That means, for the most part, most people are pretty good at reading expressions. It also means that most people are terrible at lying with their expressions and body language.

Lying? Is that too loaded a word? In a conflict situation, you may feel fear or nervousness. Those are not, generally, the message you want to send. The feelings you choose to project may not be what you actually feel. So you can pretty up the language any way you want, but we are talking about lying with body language.

In some situations that is a very valuable skill. The reason that most people are poor at it has nothing to do with evolution or some mystical need to communicate emotional truths. It is really as simple as the fact that most people don’t look at themselves when they are talking. Use a video camera or simply practice in front of a mirror. Actors become good at it. So can you.

Choose an expression and try it on yourself in a mirror. It may not look like it feels. For example, one of my students used to practice a tough guy stare. Because he felt tension around his eyes and his mouth, he thought it was a hard glare. From outside, the twisted up eyes and white lips looked like a child trying not to cry. Clearly not what he wanted to project.

Practice your expressions and your body language. They will be stilted at first —that’s the difference between a good actor and a bad one, practice or take an acting class. If possible, video some of your regular interactions and “read” yourself. Watch the legalities of this though. It’s possible that when you think you are projecting confidence, you are projecting something very different.


How you dress tells a lot about you. Look at shoes. People usually buy the best shoes they can afford, so their footwear not only suggests a lot about their socioeconomic level, but also what is important to them. Is it a fashion statement or something that is comfortable to walk in? Steel toed and non-slip? Flip-flops?

One couple came in with three kids, one a babe in arms and two young boys. Black hair, dark eyes, olive skin—this station serves a relatively heavily Hispanic neighborhood but the vibe wasn’t quite right.

I glanced at the woman’s shoes and there it was — an Arabic family. I eavesdropped shamelessly. I wasn’t sure about the accent at first, a couple of hundred words in Iraqi Arabic hardly qualifies me as a linguist, but I caught part of a slang term, “shaku maku” and I was pretty sure.

The man was dressed in beige 5.11 pants, the unofficial uniform of the contractors working over there. I was wearing a pair myself.

Clothing has a lot of impact as a message. It can tell people about your ethnic origin, (hijab, keffiyeh, tartan) give hints to your religion (yarmulke, crucifix, Thor’s hammer), and your economic status (Wrangler, Levis, Jordache). It can indicate membership in a group (red or blue scarves, Masonic rings). It can tell your profession (5.11 pants and an untucked shirt, surgical scrubs).

It can even indicate something about your values — is comfort more important than appearance? Is it more important to blend in or stand out?

Does this have a lot to do with presence? It can, but aside from a few jobs (most of which provide a uniform anyway) using your presence to prevent bad things is not realistically going to be the primary reason to choose clothing.

It doesn’t hurt, though, to be aware of what you are projecting, especially if what you are actually projecting is very different from what you wish. Each generation has a rebellious group who want to be different and individuals who all seem to wind up looking the same. Okay if that is your intent. Sad if it is not.

Here is one piece of very good, but possibly expensive advice for you. It is especially useful if you rarely think about personal style or have trouble getting attention from the opposite sex.

Save up about a month’s worth of wages. Then get one or two good friends of the opposite sex to take you shopping. They are to get your hair cut or styled and pick out clothes for you. Your job is to keep your mouth shut and trust their judgment. Having an idealized version of what you could look like sets a goal and opens up new opportunity.


So far, presence has all been about how you appear. It is time to talk about what you are going to do. Remember that the goal at this level is not to hurt anyone. You don’t even go hands on. Going hands on when you do not need to is “excessive force.” This information will interact powerfully with all that has gone before and the next section on positioning. Nothing stands alone; nothing works in a vacuum.

The young, aggressive inmate had somehow managed to get assigned to a dorm with primarily vulnerable inmates — some very old, many mentally ill. It was like a shark in a goldfish bowl. The officer on duty had received a lot of complaints, but hadn’t caught him violating a rule. It might be days before we could arrange to move him to a housing unit with a tougher victim pool.

I went up to the little shark’s cell and keyed my way in. I didn’t say a word. “Hey, you can’t just come in here.” He was wrong about that. I didn’t say a word. I started looking through his property, through his books.

“If this is about that candy bar, the old man gave me that. I didn’t take it. No matter what he told you.” Still no answer. I picked a book from his collection and started reading it. He got more and more nervous. Most people don’t deal with silence very well.

I put the book down after a few minutes and left. Never said a word.

Had we been dogs, I would have pissed in every corner of his cell. The effect, and the message, was the same. This was my territory, not his. He was not the big dog. By acting so far outside his experience of how people should act, he became uncertain. He could no longer calculate the costs and benefits of his own actions.

The dorm, as a result, was much quieter and much safer.

Behavior, appearance, and speech interact. Sometimes silence is communication as well. When it is, your behavior has to rise to the level of performance art. Communication is about getting a message or impression from your head into the other person’s. With or without words, that takes practice.

Lots of things come out naturally in your behavior — your physicality, your comfort with yourself, how you feel about people. That’s just in the way you move. How you stand shows whether you are prepared or unprepared, if you are on top of things or lax. It also shows exactly what you think of the person you are addressing:

  • Ignoring someone indicates that they are unworthy of your attention.
  • Eye contact and a stance readied to move forward indicate that you see a challenge.
  • Likewise with hands up or forward, you perceive a threat.
  • Focus on the face, but not particularly the eyes, shows interest.
  • Combined with an open stance, shows trust (possibly misplaced).

The list goes on. The hard part with teaching yourself to influence others through behavior is that everything is a matter of degree. Restless movement can be read as eagerness. Or as nervous fear. Relaxed body language can seem a sign of cool competence or of ignorance or laziness. This aspect has come up before in this section but it bears repeating here — inside your own head is not the place to figure out how you look to others.

Watch videos of yourself. Listen to your recorded voice. The best advances either of us made were in instructor development courses where experienced teachers dissected our teaching and presentation styles. They were not only able to say what we failed to get across or how our behaviors distracted students, but specifically what action(s) caused what reaction.

You will find, like many skills — breathing, walking, talking, or writing, to name a few — that when everyone does it to some degree, most think that they do it well. That’s simply not true. In each of these skills, you will find professionals who do have a system and practice the skill at a much higher, much more conscious level. The professionals for this skill are high-end teachers and actors.

There are additional things you can do to work at projecting what you want to, other than taking acting classes:

  • Watch animals, particularly pack animals like dogs. Animals don’t have the luxury of speech and do most of their communication through behavior. Watch, learn, and interpret. Then pick up some books on canine behavior for explanations. You will find much of it applies to people.
  • While you are at it, pick up some books on how monkeys behave in the wild. You’ll be amazed how many of the behaviors you spot in your friends and classmates or co-workers.
  • Watch some old black-and-white movies. Look for where the actor is trying to send a specific message or make an impression. Break down how he does this. In the silent-film era, there were specific gestures and stances that made an emotional language of sorts. These still have power today.
  • Watch yourself and get honest feedback. If someone says you look nervous or tired or upset, ask what specifically makes you look that way. It’s not just demeanor, it will also be the way you stand and move and what you do.

Positioning and Proxemics

Positioning and proxemics (how you stand in relationship to another human) are how you control space. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) advocates maneuver warfare, being in the perfect place at the perfect time so that the enemy is aware they have no chance.

The training scenario was to rescue an officer down who was covered by a barricaded bad guy. Danny played the bad guy and he had a metal desk for cover at the end of a long hallway, a classic “funnel of death.” Even against a snatch team of four SWAT officers, Danny had the advantage.

It took us two days of brainstorming before we figured out how to storm that hallway with a good chance of success.

No, I’m not going to tell you how.

Three of the keys of positioning are the ability to (1) control a space, (2) observe a space, and (3) access escape routes. It is hard to physically control a large space without weapons, but this section is about presence anyway, not weapons. The advantage of thinking this way, choosing your position with respect to power, is that the most experienced violent people will recognize what you did. They will not know if you are armed or not; it is generally a foolish thing to confirm or deny, but they will take note. And it will affect their behavior.

The position of physical dominance should also be a place where people cannot easily reach you. It is subconscious, perhaps, but the big desk in the company president’s office or the podium in front of the speaker are barriers and dead zones. They create shields between the person in the power position and everyone else. They are also placed facing, for the most part, the entrance(s) and the majority of the people. The guy at the podium is almost always in a power position.

The same point in a room also tends to give the best observational advantage. You should choose a place that allows you to see as much of the room as possible, especially as many entrances as possible. Ideally, it should be difficult for people to get behind you.

The third element is available escape routes. Being ready to fight is one skill. Being ready to run is another. Being ready to do either is just plain practical.

Positioning tactically augments your presence because it looks like you know what you are doing. Much of presence is an air of competence. The more competence you develop, the more presence you will show. Nor is this just an abstract game. The ideas that we talk about here can have huge payoffs when and if a situation goes bad.

Officers may need to dominate a room with their weapons. They must be in the right position to accomplish this. Being in that position, for that reason, sends a signal that makes bad things less likely to happen. A citizen positioned with an eye toward escape routes may be doing it as part of his program to look tough, but that escape route will become damnably handy if some disgruntled former employee walks in blasting away.

Presence on one level is a show, but you do not do these things for show. That is a side benefit.

Where you stand can also augment different aspects of your chosen style of presence. If you are going for quiet and unobtrusive, you may look for places where you are hidden from the power points in a room. If you want to be seen as more commanding, you can try for places that make you look taller.

Generally, in North American middle-class culture:

  • About 21 feet is where we make it clear who we are going to approach or talk to. It is the “first contact” distance. This is also the distance of the famous Tueller drill. An attacker can cover 21 feet faster than most officers can draw and aim a weapon. Coincidence?
  • About six feet is where we like to be standing with strangers. It is very close to the “critical distance line.” The stranger, if he becomes a threat, must take a step to attack, giving you a little bit of time.
  • Four feet or a little less is where we like to talk socially. Some people forget who is a stranger once the talking starts and move closer. Predators who rely on charm to access victims use this tendency.
  • About eighteen inches is the intimate distance, how close you like to be when talking to your closest friends. Action being faster than reaction, at this distance it is extraordinarily difficult to stop an unexpected assault.

Proxemics is the study of manipulating these distances.

Couple of caveats: Different societies have different ideas of appropriate distances. Hispanic and Arabic cultures both interact much closer than folks from North America are used to. Another point is that these distances are ingrained and you have an emotional reaction to them. That means that when you work with a culture with a different idea of intimate distance, their “friendly” may be your “creepy.” You must adjust.

These distances are measured front to front. People frequently sit with strangers at their sides or behind them (think concerts and sports stadiums) at ranges that would be completely unacceptable face to face. Watch how people stand in an elevator to manage this emotional problem of proximity.

“S” had been working in Iraq for a while, but he’d never really gotten use to the cultural norms, like men holding hands or kissing cheeks. He was very uncomfortable with how close Iraqis stand when talking. He had some business to do with Haider.

Haider liked S, so he took a step closer so he could comfortably put an arm over S’s shoulder. S took a step back. Haider stepped closer. S took a step back.

They somehow got the work done, but to an outside observer, it looked like Haider had been chasing S all over the office.

You use proxemics to manipulate your comfort, the threat’s comfort, and your safety. Distance is time, and the farther away you are, the safer you are from sudden attack. Twenty-one feet eliminates the sucker punch and gives you plenty of time to put more distance if the threat reaches for a weapon. Safety is always a factor, but it is not the only factor.

You will have a certain comfort level with each person you encounter. That comfort level will show in your preferred distance. That’s instinctive. You must be aware that sometimes your instincts are wrong. If you notice yourself moving closer because of a fascinating conversation in a place and time and with a stranger that would normally have you on alert, take a step back. You may be being suckered in.

Safety and comfort are covered. Now on to the threat.

Depending on your purpose, proxemics can be used to either make a potential adversary comfortable or uncomfortable. If you want the other guy to relax, give him distance. Don’t crowd. If you are listening to the other guy’s problems, it may be appropriate to move closer as the emotional content transitions from outward-directed and angry to inward-directed (guilt, self-pity, or sorrow). If you close unobtrusively and non-threateningly, the other guy will often perceive your proximity as a measure of your friendship.

The emotional brain is stupid (hence easily deceived): “I only let my bestest friends get that close. You’re that close? You must be my bestest friend.”

You can often get very close by angling. Instead of being directly in front of a potential threat or someone you are trying to calm down, be a little to the side or just off his shoulder. Standing comfortably, like buddies, shoulder-to-shoulder.

The advantage is that as the threat opens up, you can help deal with core issues, settle problems, and prevent violence. There are two disadvantages, however. If it does go bad for some reason, it takes a lot of skill to defend yourself at close range. Second, you may end up with a sloppy, occasionally violent and dangerous drunk who thinks you are his best friend and follows you around like a puppy dog. In some ways that could be worse.

You can also use proxemics to intimidate. This isn’t for everybody. For example, Rory who is an infighter by nature and training, routinely steps into intimate distance with violent felons. Most immediately take a step back, which establishes dominance, allows them to skip the verbal sparring, and gets right to solving the issue. The ones who don’t instinctively step back are usually infighters as well, in which case there is almost always a mutual respect. But not everyone can pull that off. For example, Lawrence, primarily a striker, is more comfortable working at a slightly longer range.

Throughout this book some of you will have a tendency to say, “Oh, yeah. I can fake that. I can do the tough guy vibe or just step into his distance.” Don’t. Especially here. DO NOT BLUFF that you can go toe-to-toe at biting range. You will be tested and if you react in the slightest bit wrong, you will be mauled and eaten alive.

Crossing lines, say going from stranger to social distance, causes an emotional response in the other person, and usually causes him to react. He has to decide: “Does this guy think we’re friends?” “Are we friends?” “Is this guy trying to get into striking range?” “If I back up, will I look like a chicken?”

The power, no matter what he decides, is that he is reacting to you. When someone crosses your lines, you will have the same emotional reactions and the same thoughts.

Practicing positioning is just a matter of reading terrain. When you enter a space, look for avenues of approach and exits, places where you can stand or sit where you can see as much as possible.

Identify what would qualify as:

  • An obstacle (would slow down a someone trying to get to you or chase you if you leave).
  • Cover (would stop a bullet).
  • Concealment (not much in the way of physical protection, but you could hide behind it).

Pay special attention to reflections and shadows. With practice, they can cancel out many of the blind spots around you so that you can watch areas without being noticed. Between looking and listening, you should be tough to catch off guard.

Proxemics is harder to practice safely. You will creep people out if you are constantly trying to violate intimate distance just to gauge a reaction. Still, take a seat at a mall or public place and start noticing the correlation of distances between people and the depth of their relationship. Once you become good at it, you are likely to notice some things, like who has started secretly dating, long before your friends or coworkers do.

Display of Force Option

The highest level of pure presence is to give an unmistakable signal that you are willing to go much higher on the force continuum. It raises the stakes and gives the threat one last chance to choose another way.

“Steve,” I slid the report back to him, “What the hell did you do?”

Steve was chuckling. “The guy didn’t want to come out of his cell, said he’d fight. I didn’t want to fight, so I got the Taser and gave him a Taser class.”

“You gave him a class?”

“Yeah, I said ‘This is an advanced Taser X26’ and I sparked it so he could see it arc.

Then I said, ‘It’s 50,000 volts but almost no amps, so it hurts like hell but it won’t injure you. See, I pull the trigger and these two darts shoot out, like needles, but they’re barbed, sort of like fish hooks. The current runs between the two needles. It hurts a lot and you can’t move while the Taser is cycling. People think they’ll pee in their pants but no one has yet. Oh, and it runs for five seconds. That can seem like a really long time.”

“You gave an inmate a class?”

“Yep, and he decided he really didn’t want to fight any more.”

Displaying a force option is a potentially high-risk tactic. Courts have ruled that for an officer to threaten a higher level of force than he would be authorized to use IS excessive force. What this means for civilians is that if you draw a gun and could not justify lethal force, you have just committed a crime. If you pull a knife or a gun, even with the intent to prevent things from getting violent, you MUST be able to articulate why the threat had the intent, means, and opportunity to present a lethal threat. And you must be able to state why you had no other option. I.M.O.P. all apply.

There is another safety issue with displaying a force option. Once again, you cannot bluff. If you pull a knife or a gun, or simply raise your fist and threaten, and it does not work, you will have to use what you have threatened. Otherwise, the weapon will be taken away from you and used against you.

This issue is really critical and bears repeating: If displaying a force option fails to intimidate, you will almost certainly be forced to use it.

Force options can enter into presence in four basic ways:

1.The presence of a weapon can be implied. 2.The weapon can be displayed. 3.The weapon can be brandished. 4.The weapon can be used to threaten.

Most people who carry a concealed weapon check it from time to time. The checking gesture is one of the things you look for and can be as simple as squeezing your weapon-side elbow against your waist to make sure the holster hasn’t shifted or sliding a thumb under your jacket.

If the threat is paying attention, this same type of gesture can imply that you have a weapon. Is there any advantage to the implication? It depends. If the threat has already decided to use force no matter what, he now knows a little more about what he has to accomplish first. Namely, neutralize you and take control of your weapon. You have just raised the stakes.

If, however, the threat is uncertain, the presence of a potential weapon may make him change his mind. Using violence to achieve an end, for the predator, is a pretty cold-blooded risk/rewards calculation. The presence of a weapon vastly raises the risks to the predator. He may decide it’s not worth it.

It works less well with social violence, and that goes both ways. In a developing monkey dance, there is no place in the steps for a weapon. Unless you consciously break the cycle you don’t play the dance, the dance plays you. Consequently, someone caught up in the monkey dance may believe that you will not use the weapon you’ve displayed. Thinking you won’t violate the steps and consequently push the situation, you may very well wind up with a “What are you going to do, shoot us?” scenario.

Those tend to end badly.

On January 27, 2005, actress Nicole duFresne was robbed at gunpoint by 19-year-old Rudy Fleming who stole her friend’s purse and pistol-whipped her fiancé. What was supposed to be a simple property crime turned tragic when the 28-year-old actress confronted the teenaged robber. She became furious, shoved Fleming, and snapped, “What are you going to do, shoot us?” She died shortly thereafter in her fiancé’s arms.

If you are caught in the dance, especially if you mistake predatory violence for social violence, you might disregard the gun as well. We know, we know. Sitting in the comfort of your living room, reading this book, you know you are a logical sensible person. So let’s do a thought experiment. You are down at a local restaurant eating with some friends. A couple of the guys have had a beer or two. One of them pulls out his new gun and points it at you. What do you do?

What do you do?

If your absolute first answer wasn’t to run like hell, do not be so sure that you would do the reasonable thing. If the thoughts that ran through your head included wondering if the weapon was loaded or which one of your friends had it or how your friends know better, you might well start thinking — trying to engineer a social response — in real life. The monkey brain is deep and powerful.

And sneaky.

Displaying the weapon is making sure that the threat knows the weapon is in play. It is not a hint to his subconscious or a subtle change in the flavor of the encounter. It is a message. Whether deliberately showing the holstered weapon or drawing it, deliberate displaying a weapon is very serious. It will likely force the threat to make a decision, either to back down or to attack immediately. Threats, being people, he will probably think about it for a second:

  • A predator will do the math, which may include a guess about how fast you can draw.
  • A social violence threat may ponder the consequences to his reputation. Backing down from a weapon, in most circles, is considered common sense. It is a face-saving exit. But that’s not universal.

If you display a weapon, you are forcing the decision. You have to be ready to act immediately if attacked. At the same time, don’t feel you have to do something yourself if nothing happens for a second. In a situation where weapons are out, nothing happening is good. If you don’t need to move, wait. Calmly.

Brandishing a weapon is a step beyond this and, generally, is stupid. Waving a gun or knife around to look dangerous or get someone to take you seriously marks you as an amateur, an insecure child. It doesn’t make you less dangerous — stupid people with knives are dangerous, too. What it does do is send the signal that others may have to defend themselves; that you are not mature enough to be reasoned with. That means that it justifies massive force to be used against you.

Threatening with a weapon — aiming the gun, raising the club, pointing the knife within striking range at the stomach — is the last step before applying overwhelming force. It should, at this point, not even be considered presence. You are actually in the act of killing. If the threat immediately and unequivocally stops, he may save his own life.

It is critical to think of it this way because there is no half-assed way to do it. You can’t change your mind and say, “Just joking.” If you do, the threat knows you don’t have the guts to use the weapon you are relying on; the witnesses know that you are unstable and dangerous and need to go to prison.

Displaying a force option can be very, very effective. It can also backfire with spectacularly disastrous results. Weigh your options carefully. Remember that any display of a weapon will remove the advantage of surprise if you later need to use the weapon.

Level 1 Conclusion

From mystical to practical, presence is one of the major factors in force incidents. Some people stop fights just by being there. Some start fights. Some people are marked as victims, some as predators. All by presence.

Presence doesn’t exist separately from the rest of the force options. When it works on its own, that’s perfect. No one gets hurt; there are no lawsuits or paperwork. It augments every other level as well. Stern commands from an authoritarian demeanor work better than the exact same words spoken by a squeaky-voiced teenager. Appeals to reason sound more believable coming from a priest than a psych patient. Scolding works better from a mother figure than a cop.

A joint lock snapped on with authority works better than one applied hesitantly. Someone fist-fighting or using a club who looks like he knows what he is doing makes the adversary more cautious about fighting at all and changes his focus from victimizing to not becoming a victim.

Even at the lethal-force level, a .45 pointed at your head where you can see the bullet at the bottom of the barrel and it looks like a freight train coming at your eyes gets a faster response than an air rifle. A team in black armor working together is more intimidating and much more effective than a bunch of sloppy individuals.

Remember that even at high-end uses of force, you are fighting a mind, not (or perhaps in addition to) a body. Unless the brain-stem or upper spine is damaged or every long bone in the body is broken, a threat could physically keep fighting. Bad guys (or good guys or even armies for that matter) are not beaten. They give up.

A powerful presence makes it easier for the threat to give up.


Categories: Martial Arts

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