Scaling Force in Self-Defense – Part 2


The inmate was about 6’4”, 240 pounds of muscle with a short Mohawk and USMC tattooed on his neck. He had just come out of our Psych ward and fought three officers on the way. He had been placed in an observation cell. We had just got word that he was to be removed to another facility. He didn’t want to go. He wanted to fight.

It’s not my area, but they call me. He is in the cell, slamming the Lexan with his fist and elbow, making the walls echo. Medical staff wants him moved to another facility. This means that officers will have to enter the cell, take him down, cuff him, and carry him to a transport vehicle.

So I wander down to the dorm where the sergeant in charge of the area is making the entry plan and a rookie deputy is running around getting belly chains and leg irons. I pull up a chair across from the Lexan door, sit down and get comfortable. First rule: If no one is getting hurt, there is no reason to rush. It’s not a macho game - whether I could or not, I have no business going into the cell in some kind of contest. I’ll wait, stack everything I can to my advantage and go in fast when the time is right.

The guy is screaming, spit flying out his mouth, slamming his fist again and again into the door, eyes locked on mine. Understand that this is calm for me. There are huge subconscious things going on with dominance and aggression that give most people an adrenaline surge when threatened even if there is no real danger. If you’ve ever gotten worked up over a phone call or an internet flame war, you know what I mean. For whatever reason, non-standard emotional wiring or experience, I don’t get excited.

I’m sitting there, legs crossed, leaning back, hands behind my head and say, “What happened today?”

“I lost it!” He screamed, “I fuckin’ WENT OFF! I need some fucking HELP! MENTAL HELP!”

“That’s pretty clear,” I said, “Why’d you lose it today?”

He kept screaming, but he was puzzled. The way his world works is this: You get loud and angry, the other person gets loud and angry and then you get violent before he does.

I wasn’t working by his rules.

At this point I could feel a palpable rage. I’d been able to smell the adrenaline from the rookie, but this was different. There were waves of rage coming off the inmate, not just rage at me but rage at himself, pure human anger. I decided not to work with the anger.

As he was talking about his breakdown and making threats, I said, “You did good. You did good for a long time. I know you don’t like being in a dorm around people but you did it and you did well for a long time. No one can ever take that away from you. You did well and I’m proud of you.”

He paused for a second and I said, “It’s time for you to go. Will you let me put handcuffs on you?”

He said “yes.” He even said “thank you.”

Realistically, communication does not exist on a force continuum. Force exists on a communication continuum. Each level of force is simply a more emphatic way to say “No!” We spend more time in this article on physical force because the stakes are higher. You can handle many situations with a kind word. But not a knife coming at your belly.

Before we can begin with the tactics, there are some fundamentals of communication that need to be addressed:

  • Range and Style
  • The Players
  • Rate, Tone, Pitch, and Volume (RTPV)

Range and Style

The verbal level is more complex than all of the other levels combined. We are humans; we are communicating creatures. We talk and gesture so much in so many different ways that no single article could cover them all, much less a single section.

With regard to preventing violence, verbal skills can range from sweet reason to shouting nonsense while foaming at the mouth (chewing Alka-Seltzer makes a very convincing rabid foam). Logic has its place. So does screaming. Whispering sometimes engages interest when nothing else will. The tactics you might use can range from asking to ordering to commanding to pleading to hinting to confusing.

You will also have a personal style. Some of it will not be under your control. For example, if you have a high-pitched voice, you will have a very difficult time calming people down. Being small is no bar to taking command, but being shy or awkward (or showing the body language that implies shyness) will cancel out your voice no matter how authoritative it is. This is because when your voice sends one signal and your body language sends another, people will assume (quite rightly in the vast majority of instances) that the body language is the truth and the words are a lie.

What this all means is that you already have a personal style of communication. Make sure that your style is congruent with other factors - like the image that you want to project, your mannerisms, and your appearance. If you find that people often dismiss what you have to say, if you are frequently misunderstood, or if you are easily ignored or even ridiculed, your verbal style is almost certainly out of synch with your appearance and presentation.

Unlike higher levels of force, presence and verbal are two integral aspects of your everyday life. It is not just about self-defense. These are things in which you can develop skills. Once you have those skills, every aspect of your life will improve. So, how do you get better at using voice? Here are a few exercises:

  • Have a friend describe your voice. Record your own voice and listen to it. Pay special attention to the RTPV (Rate, Tone, Pitch, and Volume). What do you think of that voice?
  • Turn off the sound and watch a video of yourself. Look at the characteristics described in the chapter in Level 1 on presence. Does your body language go with that voice?
  • Record yourself in normal conversation and, if you can, in stressful conversations, and with different people. Do you get nervous when you talk to your boss? How does it show in your voice? Do you turn into a babbling idiot when talking to members of the opposite sex? What do you sound like on the recording?
  • Analyze the voices you hear. Generally, how does each person sound? Cool? Calm? Logical? Strong? Shy? Hesitant? Is what you hear from your own voice what you want to project?
  • Watch movies. Older movies are better for this. Ignore the soundtrack, the special effects, and the lighting. Look for those moments when the communication is crystal clear and believable - when the command is a command, when the sympathetic noise really works. Don’t get caught by the movie; bad acting can be overcome by a solid script, where everyone sounds as if they are believable. When everything really comes together, ascertain what combination of voice and expression made the line work.
  • Then reverse it. Look at the times in the movie when a character says something that just falls flat. Dissect why it fell flat.

The Players

No matter what levels of force you need, the players stay the same. It is critical to be able to read the players.

The threat dictates the situation. You must understand the problem before you can choose a solution. A charm predator is one thing. A drunk wanting to show off for a girl is an entirely different problem. You must learn to read threats and threat dynamics.

I cannot emphasize enough that everything hinges on this:

  • Your goal (Escape? Prevail? Get help? Draw attention?)
  • Your strategy (Run? Talk? Hide? Fight?)
  • Your tactics (Scream or reason? Strike or lock?)
  • Your involvement (Is this your problem?)

Threat dynamics will be not just influenced, but dictated by the problem. You do not get to choose the problem. You do not get to deal with the things your training is good for and skip the rest. The problem chooses you. You must adapt.

Part of understanding the threat is listening, a concept that is covered in the section titled “Listening” later in the article. Another part is monitoring. Whatever you choose to do, pay attention to make sure it is actually working. You may have a wonderful plan, but as the old adage goes, few plans survive contact with the enemy. The other guy has plans too.

Long ago and far away, we had a small group of officers with extra training who were supposed to talk down violent inmates who had made weapons and barricaded themselves in cells. The reasoning was that a person talking is far cheaper than calling out a team.

One of the newer members of the team was intelligent and very personable. Loved to chat. Did really well in classes and had almost a zero percent success rate in real incidents. The officer had never really understood that Crisis Negotiation Teams (CNT) are not really about talking people down as much as they are about listening people down. As long as the officer was talking, she felt that everything was going well. The officer also seemed to be completely unaware that she had never talked a single inmate into surrendering. The tactical team had to fight every last one she worked on.

You, of course, are the first part of the equation. Much of what you need to think about is covered under the section “Range and Style,” earlier in this article. How do you handle this situation? How do you present yourself?

You will also have a role to play. If it is a predatory assault, the threat has already assigned you the role of victim. If it is a dominance display (“You lookin’ at my woman?”), you have been assigned the role of rival. Before the assault during the verbal stage, you may be able to pick your own role. By the time the threat becomes physical, it is too late.

In the opening example, the inmate wanted the catharsis of a fight. He wanted to hurt and be hurt. He didn’t want to fight one officer because he knew he was going to lose and wanted to lose with what he saw as honor. He would have preferred to fight five or six or ten officers, so he played his script and got angry and loud. He expected Rory to play the other half of his script. To get angry or indignant and rush to call a bunch of officers in for an epic fight would have led nowhere. Rory didn’t.

Staying on a script is subconscious. When the script changes, when you don’t play your role, the other guy has to think. If the conflict is based on anger, getting the adversary to think can lower his level of tension. With a predator who is deciding to use violence for logical ends, you want him worried, concerned that there are risks of which he is not aware.

The role you choose can be an “end run” around your personal style. Role-playing, even in a real situation, can be effective. How would a drill sergeant handle this? How would a chaplain? You automatically recognize that those are two very different but very effective communication paradigms.

Caution! DO NOT cast yourself in the Billy Bad-Ass role:

  • It creates more problems than it solves, especially with witnesses.
  • There is a huge price if your bluff gets called. And it frequently will.

Criminals have much more experience bluffing citizens than citizens have bluffing criminals.

The third player in any use of force is the witness or witnesses. When and if the police show up, when and if you are standing in court, the witnesses will be critical to how your act was perceived.

Neither of us is a very emotional fighter, which is good. But even if we did get angry, we would do our best not to show it. Witnesses need to see a professional reluctantly but competently doing what needs to be done. Any abusive language or profanity or threats or even yelling puts that image at risk. Any words or tone that you use before or even during a confrontation can be remembered and will be used to reinforce or to undermine your claim of self-defense. Fear is okay. Showing anger always hurts you.

Legally and ethically, your motivation matters. You shoot someone to stop him from killing a child and you are a hero. You shoot someone because you thought he was an ass, you’re a criminal - despite the fact that a guy trying to kill a child is an ass.

Rate, Tone, Pitch, and Volume (RTPV)

The third über-fundamental is RTPV, the rate, tone, pitch, and volume of your voice. This is how people read your emotion, your intent, and your commitment.

Rate and volume are indicators of intensity. The more excited someone is, whether anger or fear or even love - ever watch two teenage girls trying to whisper about romance? - the louder they tend to be. And the faster they talk.

Tone and pitch indicate the quality of emotion. Tone can be difficult to define in a meaningful way, but take the example of a flute and piano both playing the same note (pitch) at the same volume. They still sound different. That difference is the tone. Or maybe the timbre. Whatever. With humans, it is easier - anger sounds different than fear. And different angers have different tones - icy, hissing contempt (“What are you doing here?”), or outrage, (“Knock it off!”) to name a few. There is something in the tone that even reads as sincerity or follow-through. For example, the guy who is angry and will act on it sounds different than the guy who is really angry but is afraid and will back down. Reading these nuances takes practice, but doing so is very valuable.

Pitch shows fear. Specifically, it shows that the stress hormones have hit the system. People become high-pitched and squeaky under stress, which can be funny … except you might not want funny when talking someone down. This is why having a low-pitched voice is an asset in calming others. It projects a lack of fear, and a lack of fear is safety. A high-pitched voice, on the other hand, makes it almost impossible to successfully work with people in crisis. Subconsciously, it is read as fear, and humans, like all primates, find fear contagious.

Always monitor the potential adversary’s RTPV. Especially look for changes. If pitch goes up, so has adrenaline. You just moved one step closer to action. If the tone switches from injured to angry, the other guy has just decided on whom to vent his frustration. If rate goes up, the threat is becoming more excited and the situation could break soon, for good or bad. Same with volume.

Control your RTPV as well. These are the elements underlying your speech that indicate to the adversary who you are. Words are merely tricks, in a way. The other guy will decide whether your words can be trusted based on your RTPV and your demeanor. In other words, the threat will not respond to your words so much as he will respond to YOU.

One RTPV trick: When I get called to deal with agitated bad guys, I initially match their level of intensity. If they are loud and screaming, then I scream too, but just for a second. The first word a touch louder than the threat, and then I drop the rate and volume: “HEY! Hey! Hey.”

It is remarkably reliable how the threat will then slow down and quiet down to match me. Sometimes it takes a few repeats. Note that this is volume and rate only. I want the pitch low, showing no fear and offering safety, and the tone is neutral - not angry, fearful or, especially, judgmental.


“A wise old owl sat in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?” - A poem done in cross-stitch that used to hang on Rory’s mom’s kitchen wall.

“A man has two ears and only one mouth so he should listen twice as much as he speaks.” - No idea who said this first.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever changed anyone’s mind by arguing, but I have changed some by listening.”

It is amazing how smart and caring people think you are when you keep your mouth shut. People like to talk, and talks often become little ego battles. He said something, which made you think of something else and you cannot wait to tell the story, and then she cuts in with a snide comment and you are afraid the subject will move along before you get to tell your story. Most of the time, in most people’s heads, any given conversation is all about them. Not that other people are talking about us. Oh no. We want to talk about us. We want to hear our own voices and tell our stories.

And all the time, everyone is playing this game. It becomes amazing how much talking and how little communicating actually happens. We recognize, at some level, that no one is really listening. Few of us realize that we aren’t really listening either.

And in this mess comes a huge opportunity. If you can truly listen, you become some kind of mythical half-human, half-god that people flock to. We are not overstating it. People love to talk, so they talk. But they love to be listened to, to get attention, to think that they are reaching someone - and this aspect is not in their control. It is rare, and makes them feel good. When they come across people who listen well, they spend time with that person. They believe, absolutely, that this quiet, thoughtful, interested person is incredibly smart and compassionate. Sometimes they tell others.

That is the touchy - feely side of listening. It has a definite value. Here’s the killer tactical side: listening is intelligence gathering. What people say, how they choose to say it, the subjects they avoid and the ones they can’t let go, what makes them uncomfortable, the things they lie about all tell you who they are and what they believe. They give you the understanding, which gives you the tools to decide whether or not bad things will happen.

Listening is intelligence gathering; every time you open your mouth, you give some of this away.

I’m not proud of this one. When an inmate threatens suicide, he or she is placed on “suicide watch.” All of their items, including clothing, is taken. The inmate is placed in a bare cell. We take the clothing because truly suicidal people can get very ingenious with hanging themselves. We replace it with a paper suit (in the old days) or a quilted, untearable smock.

When I came on shift, this particular inmate had given up everything but her underwear. I was ordered to fix that. Both because it was an order and for the safety of the inmate, I had no choice - she was going to give up her drawers. By force if necessary. I absolutely did not want to write a report about a group of mostly male officers stripping the underwear off a female inmate. I was willing to push as far as I could to prevent a use of force.

She was tearful, angry, only recently arrested and still high. I talked to her for most of an hour and got nowhere. I then got one of our female officers, C to talk to her. C gave it a heroic effort, but after an hour still nothing. I had, however, heard what I needed to hear. I took C aside and said, “I’m about to say something really brutal and then leave. When I go, you play good cop and beg her to give you her stuff. Got it?”

The inmate had mentioned that she had been a victim of sexual violence. That probably contributed a huge amount to this whole scenario. I got loud and faked a lot of anger, told her that I had had it and this had gone on long enough. That she wasn’t going to waste our time and jerk us around anymore. That I was going to get the five biggest officers and we were going to go in there, throw her down and tear her underwear off. I stomped off.

C had the underwear out in less than a minute.

I shouldn’t feel guilty about this. I deliberately invoked fear in a fragile person, but only to prevent actually using force, which might have injured her as well as triggering the exact same flashbacks as my words. I used everything that she told C (the inmate didn’t know that I was out of sight, still listening): the fact of her sexual assault, I even “accidentally” said that the officers I was going to get were the same ethnicity as her attacker.

Was that necessary? It was a lot of pressure, a lot of leverage. It worked. But did I have to go that far? I can’t know. If I had used any less and it had failed, we would have been back at square one with the force issue. I do believe that using force would have been worse. I’d do the same thing again.

The point, though, all internal ethical issues aside, is that listening gave me what I needed to avoid force when talking had failed.

Active listening is a skill widely taught in colleges and police academies. It is incredibly simple. It is effective. It helps with everything from dealing with violent offenders to getting along with your significant other. There is no downside to this skill, yet most people do not use it, because it is too important to feel special and the special one is the talker, not the listener. Everyone knows that. Sure.

The basics of active listening are:

  • To pay attention. Look at the person talking. Let them see you looking at them. Do not glance at the clock or your watch. Do not start typing on your keyboard, texting on your cell phone, or looking out the window.
  • To really, really pay attention. Shut down your own mind. Just listen. In most conversations, person A says something and half way through the sentence, person B has decided what is about to be said, has formulated a reply, and is mentally rehearsing lines. From that point on, person B is not listening. Real communication has already stopped. Listen. Listen all the way through. Then pause and think about it. A pause before answering can also work as a “pattern interrupt.” Because you are obviously thinking and listening, the other person must slow down to figure out what is going on and should not count on his own mental scripts. Conversations tend to be deeper and more useful if both people are thinking, actually fully engaged.
  • To ask open-ended questions. Remember that this is intelligence gathering. You want to ask questions that cannot be answered with one word. “Did you have a good time Friday?” is closed. “What happened Friday?” is open. The latter encourages a story. You don’t just learn from the narrative of events. You also learn about the other person by what he or she emphasizes or leaves out, what makes them excited or subdued.
  • To pay attention to the emotion and demeanor as well. When the words say one thing and the emotion says another, bet on emotion for true motive. It can also be a clue when you paraphrase. For that matter, pay attention to your own emotions. Sometimes they are hints, subtleties your subconscious noticed that have not yet made it to your conscious brain.
  • To use feedback/paraphrasing/reflecting. It has a bunch of names. The essence is this: Double-check your understanding. “Let me see if I got this. You were just minding your own business when …” It is good to clear up any miscommunication early.

This is also the time to point out body language or incongruities that make you doubt the words (if that is tactically appropriate. Otherwise, it is just a data point). For example, “Dude, you say you’re over your ex but every time her name comes up you start grinding your teeth.” You can get huge amounts of information when people try to clarify - especially when they are trying to explain away obvious emotion while trying to seem calm.

If you ask, “What happened between you and Cecilia last night?” and your friend answers: “I shouldn’t tell you this, I promised Cecilia I’d keep it quiet but …”

Cecilia’s story isn’t the only information here. The fact that your friend seems eager to give up secrets may be far more valuable information, especially if you expected him to keep any of your confidences.

Active listening is something you can practice every day. It is a discipline, very much like sitting meditation. You become comfortable and you listen, totally focused. The only difference is that you are focused on another person and might just make his or her day. The same as meditation, when a distraction intrudes, you acknowledge it and return to your focus, this other person.

Feedback is the hardest to practice because it is the one that can sound stilted and gimmicky. Just practice anyway. You will find that feedback follows easily if you have been really listening. If you let yourself get caught up in the story, the paraphrasing will become very natural. “Oh my god! Are you serious? You told the boss to …”

Practice active listening with colleagues and peers. But practice with children, too. The little nippers see things that adults miss. And seniors have seen things that most of us never will. Listening to their memories is good for your soul and good for theirs as well. Really listen to strangers.

There is one downside. People don’t get listened to enough, and some can become really attached to you. Basically, some will follow you around like puppies. If you find that annoying, you will have to be able to set very clear boundaries.

Strategic Verbal De-escalation

It’s easy to say “talking people down” but you must understand that de-escalation can require very different tactics, depending on the characteristics of each encounter. De-escalating in front of an audience has many more options than de-escalating when you are alone with a threat. De-escalating a process predator (a rapist or thrill killer) is a completely different situation than talking your way out of a barroom brawl.

In all verbal self-defense, you are working directly on the threat’s mind. Not always on the same aspect of his mind, however. Largely, you will be working with emotion, the social context, or the threat’s equation of risks and benefits.

Changing the Emotion

Anger and fear are the primary emotional reasons that a conflict might escalate to violence. Not always. The predatory violence of a professional criminal can be completely devoid of emotion. When the violence is emotional, however, you can count on anger and fear.

Fear is the easiest in a self-defense context. If the threat is afraid of you, it probably is not self-defense and you can just let the guy leave. There are exceptions. The mentally ill and people on drugs, particularly stimulants and hallucinogens, can be quite dangerous when they are panicky. If you turn the tables in an assault and begin to win, your adversary can panic into a thrashing bundle that becomes very dangerous. Lastly, if the other guy leaves while still afraid but needs some kind of closure or feels humiliated, he may return with enough firepower (or friends) to overcome his fear.

Remember that the lower levels on the force scale are in play before things get physical. In this sense, when dealing with fear, you are talking down an agitated potential threat.

Generally, to ease fear you lower stimulation levels and remove dangers. That means low, slow, quiet voices. Only one person talking. Dim lights help, as does turning off the radio or TV or anything that might increase noise, light, or movement. These actions do not include closing doors or even windows, because doing so will make it appear that you are cutting off avenues of retreat. No sudden movement. Do not touch the threat unless it seems necessary. Low-level agitation may ease with a hug from a friend. Animal panic may explode if the person is really afraid. If you are going to touch the person, tell him what you are going to do first. Short words, clear sentences.

The inmate had stripped naked. He had banged his head against the door for a while and then started chewing on his tongue. Now he was howling and spitting blood at the window. Big red flag. Danger, Will Robinson! We call this excited delirium. They sometimes break handcuffs or throw four times their weight in officers around or fight until their heart gives out and then die. Fighting an Excited Delirium (ED) case rarely ends well.

There are only a few people I would have considered adequate as backup. Clyde was one of them. He waited just out of sight as I opened the cell door.

“Hey. The nurse wants to see you.”

The inmate glared. But he didn’t approach, which was a good sign.

“She’s worried about you. You’re a mess.” No emotion, just fact. RTPV all mellow.“I’m going to handcuff you and take you to medical.” Not a question or a conversation. Just an observation, like talking about the weather. He didn’t flinch or bristle; good signs. It was just like soothing an injured animal.

“I’m going to reach out and touch your left arm. Then I am going to put on a cuff.” I moved very slowly, not starting until after I had said everything. No questions, no request for permission. He looked at my hand approaching his arm like it was a snake or an alien.

The first cuff went on. This was familiar to him. This was also the crisis point. If anything was going to set him off, it was going to be contact. If it were contact with the cuff and I only got it on one wrist, well, a handcuff swung like a medieval flail can do a lot of damage. I would be at extremely close range with an Excited Delirium case (I’d been there before. I’d been warned about the superhuman strength, but the superhuman speed was a shock the first time). Clyde might be a couple of seconds hearing something go wrong and getting through the door. A lot can happen in a couple seconds.

“Please turn around. Then I’ll put on the other cuff.” He complied. “Clyde, could you hand us a blanket?” That gesture may not have penetrated to his conscious mind, but somewhere he took it as care-taking, respectful of his dignity.

Nothing bad happened.

Be aware of what the threat is afraid of or angry about. If you can remove those elements from the equation, you can go a long way toward preventing an escalation to violence. The most common fears that lead to violence are social. If the threat perceives a challenge, he is likely afraid to back down in front of his friends.

Give him a face-saving way out. “Man, if we did fight, you’d probably kick my ass. Let’s just skip that step and have a beer.”

If you increase the humiliation, you increase the fear of social fallout. “Punk, if you don’t want to spend the night in the hospital, walk away.” That approach might work. Or it may force the other guy to save face by fighting. Or to hedge his bets by bringing friends or weapons (or both) into the situation. Possibly more importantly, you played Billy Bad-Ass and witnesses will remember that. Proving self-defense will be difficult at best.

To gauge the social stakes, look at the witnesses:

  • If the witnesses include (for a young male threat) women, he will be far more afraid of losing face than otherwise. Belittling and challenging is rarely, if ever, a good tactic, but it’s guaranteed to backfire here.
  • Same with a father or mother in front of their family. If they see you as a threat to their children, they may ramp up the violence well beyond a level you are ready for.
  • If the threat is part of an identifiable group (gang colors, guys all wearing the same team jackets), the group will give you clues. If they are watching hungry, he may be their dedicated roper, the guy who picks fights so that everyone can join in. If so, give no hooks (actions the threats can use as an excuse to attack you) and get out through a very public and well-lit place as soon as possible. If his group, however, is looking over like they are embarrassed, he is probably the newbie looking for a reputation. If your cold-conversation skills are good, strike up a conversation with the leader of the group. This exchange does not have to be about the threat. It puts you, socially, out of the newbie’s reach. It then becomes up to the leader whether you merit special treatment.
  • If you are a member of an identifiable group (e.g., if you have friends with you) and a threat approaches, keep an eye out for his friends. It may be a set-up (very unlikely unless you are a cop, a college athlete, or a gang member), but more likely he is just drunk and stupid. Do not humiliate him because your being with a group increases his internal justifications to get a gun out of his car, but do include your friends in the conversation. A good wing man can step in and completely distract the threat just by starting a conversation about anything except you.
  • If there are no witnesses, put yourself on red alert. Social context drives social violence and it usually requires an audience. If there is no audience, especially if the threat has approached you, set your brain for predatory violence. There are very few good reasons for a violent criminal to want to be alone with you. It is not just that, unlike in social violence, the predator is not playing to an audience. He is actively avoiding witnesses. In this case, default to the steps under the section “Changing the Equation” below.

There are two ways to defuse anger and they depend on the type. There is anger, and then there’s asshole anger. People get angry, and then they want to hit things. Some assholes become angry, decide they want to hit somebody, and then go fishing for an excuse.

If someone is just balls-to-the-wall enraged, screaming and throwing things, and knocking over tables, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Is this my problem? Unlike police officers, citizens generally have no duty to get involved. Unless you are an immediate potential victim, a guy throwing a temper tantrum is not your responsibility. There may be cases when you feel differently. If the threat is a friend or relative, you may feel a need to intervene before someone calls the police. If the guy is wrecking your place of business, you should definitely call the cops first, but you may feel a responsibility to talk the guy down for the safety of your other customers.
  • Is he mad at me? A guy in a generic rage (dropped his own beer after losing his paycheck gambling and his wife is leaving) is one thing. A guy pissed at you (just figured out that you spilled his beer, you beat him at pool, and his wife is leaving him for you) is something else.
  • Do I need to be here? Preclusion is paramount in claims of self-defense, and definitely here. Can I leave? Better the threat break every plate and all the furniture in the house than to injure a person.

De-escalating someone who is mad at you as an individual is challenging. Most people screw it up because they subconsciously shift from trying to eliminate the anger to trying to get an affirmation.

Get this: If the guy is screaming, “Get out of my house or I’ll kill you!” the best de-escalation is to leave without saying a word. Anger is adrenaline-based and very few men can keep up a good rage for more than half an hour. Women can.

The worst de-escalation is to say something like, “Okay, I’ll leave, but I want you to know I’m really sorry and I hope we can be friends again someday.” Get it? That’s not about the angry guy or the situation. That is an insecure schmuck trying to get someone who is really pissed to tell the schmuck that he is a good person. Don’t be a schmuck.

It’s natural, because almost everybody feels the need to get the last word in, to “find closure,” and to be affirmed in our value as human beings. Natural, but highly inappropriate here. Seriously, if your value as a human being is measured by what a raving, frothing enraged person thinks of you, you probably need help.

A lot of anger-based conflict comes with instructions: “Get out of my face!” “Shut up!” “Get the hell out before I hurt you!” Follow the instructions. And leave. Give angry people time to cool down and remove whatever they are focusing their anger on. If a guy is personally mad at you, it is often best to get someone else to talk to him. The inability to recognize when you are a major part of the problem is dangerous.

When the rage is more impersonal, assuming it is inappropriate to leave, there are a few things to do. Just like with fear, lower the stimulation level. Control your own RTPV. If possible, give time and silence. Anger takes a lot of energy and most people exhaust themselves quickly.

If you are going to talk, don’t be judgmental. DO NOT tell the person what to think, do, or feel. Has someone ordering you to calm down ever worked? It is irritating enough when you’re not already furious. If you are going to talk at all, ask a question. Ask a relevant, reasonable question. “Paul, you’re clearly pissed. What happened?” Then shut up and listen.

This approach does two things. Talking takes time and time burns off adrenaline. The rage decreases. Second, and possibly most important, it is hard to tell a story or explain things while enraged. People love to talk. Especially about themselves.

There is some danger, especially if a threat is in a drug-fueled rage or other altered state of consciousness, that you may become the focus. It’s a risk. One tactic that often works is to say, “No. You weren’t mad at me when you came in, but you were already mad. This isn’t about me. What happened?” Presented with calmness, sounding like you’re willing to help (but not willing to go along with bullshit) works on relatively sane, sober people. Many tactics can work when dealing with altered states of consciousness, but none work with perfect reliability.

Asshole angry is a different matter. These are guys looking to pick a fight. It is a very specific pattern with all the worst elements of whiny entitlement and bully arrogance. The whiny entitlement comes into the situation with the insults. When an asshole calls you a “motherfucker” or a “piece of shit,” well, that’s free speech. If you return the insult, you’re oppressing him and deserve a beating. See the pattern?

Locally, a while back a teenager decided to screw with another driver. For several miles, he boxed the driver in against the rail, speeding up to prevent him from passing, slowing down when the driver tried to slow down. He thought it was great fun, until the other driver pulled a gun.

The kid who was cutting off the driver was getting off on the power of making someone else angry. Drawing a gun was wrong, there will be consequences, but only a moron would be surprised that provoking anger led to - you guessed it - anger.

That’s the game of the asshole. When he wants to fight, he may have picked you or just thinks you have potential, so he tries to provoke you into justifying what he wants to do already. It is like fishing. You can think of the provocations as hooks. Understand that he has (possibly subconsciously, but almost certainly consciously) already decided what he wants to do. His pre-assault game is to find an excuse, a justification, something that when he is bragging with his buddies later will make him sound like less of an ass. “I beat up this guy for no reason,” does not play well, even in criminal circles. “I beat up this guy because he insulted me,” sounds much better.

Most of what I are writing in this article is stuff that has worked for me. Some of it I hesitate to recommend. This is one that requires finesse and caution but is extremely powerful: I call people on lies directly. In the environment where I worked, calling someone a liar was an almost guaranteed fight-starter. But I did it, reliably and very successfully.

First off I never said, “You’re a liar.” Unless the guy asked directly. I usually said, to a specific statement, “That’s not true.” Or “That’s not right.” He would freeze for a second and I would explain my reasoning, “If you were diagnosed with paranoia, you wouldn’t have come up to talk to me, you wouldn’t be standing this close, and your body language would be entirely different.” While he was digesting that, I’d kick it back, “You told me that because you wanted to make a point. Let’s start with the point, with what you want, and I’ll see if I can help with that.”

Because the statements were non-judgmental (as much as possible) and calm, my reasoning was out on the table, they could not argue with it (though some tried). I made it clear that I was willing to help with the underlying problem, if it were reasonable.

This approach worked very well, and many inmates found it easier to talk to me directly and just skip the lying and games. But it’s not for everyone…

The asshole game can mimic the early stages of the monkey dance with the hard stare and verbal challenge (“What you lookin’ at?”). It can follow all the steps of the monkey dance with the exception that the asshole will strike early, hard, and for damage. He wants to deliver a beating, not establish dominance. He likes giving pain.

Differentiating between an asshole and someone monkey dancing can be easy. There are standard ways to back down from the monkey dance - lowering your eyes and apologizing, changing the subject, and treating the challenges as thoughtful questions. If these fail, if the person pretends to be insulted no matter what you say, be prepared for an asshole. You will see this dynamic in a lot of places, including boardrooms and road rage. If it is up close and personal, the person will be an experienced street fighter.

An asshole without an audience should be treated as a predator. He is, in fact, a low-level process predator who, instead of rape or murder, enjoys beating. If there is an audience, play them to create witnesses. Making statements that the audience can hear helps create witnesses who will be sympathetic to your cause if or when the police arrive or you have to go to court, and can even bring on intervention on your behalf occasionally. Whatever you say, make it low key and make sure that everyone hears it. Do not give up a hook - keep the language clean, don’t insult, threaten, or brag - but get some attention.

“You’re obviously trying to make me angry. I don’t even know you. Leave me alone.”

Cockroaches don’t like light and assholes don’t like witnesses (unless they are roving in packs). When dealing with a pack, it is not something you are likely to talk your way out of unless there is an authority figure nearby. Even a large crowd is not much protection. A single friend might pull someone back, whether monkey dancing or asshole fishing. But very few people will interfere with a pack. Get out. It will turn into a group monkey dance once you are in the sights. And you will be hurt.

In the aspect of seeking justification for something they have already decided to do, you will see a parallel with some rapists. They have a need to blame the victim.

Changing the Social Context

As previously mentioned, social violence happens in a social context. Generally, disputes arise over status (including “respect”), territory (including symbols), and rule-breaking. Some types mimic the violence of a predatory assault. Others, especially when a group turns on an individual, can be horrific.

Disputes over status rarely escalate to violence, except with young men. It rarely escalates because friends step in and separate the two. This is one of the reasons why an audience is so critical - there are others. An un-witnessed victory is not a victory. Status always occurs within a group. The people you are trying to impress should be present. The group’s function, their part of the “social contract,” however, is to prevent damage. Separating two fighters (or two almost-maybe-thinking-about-fighting people) is the classic face-saving exit.

Both participants can claim that only the intervention of others prevented an ass kicking and they can now share the same territory without much growling.

There are a number of strategies for de-escalating status violence. You can leave. You can, almost always, simply apologize. You can treat any challenge as a thoughtful question. For example, a response to “What you lookin’ at?” might be “Sorry, bro, the brunette cocktail waitress was right over your shoulder. Wasn’t staring at you.”

Sometimes, you can co-opt a challenger, especially if you are new:

“That’s my chair.”

“Figures. I’m new here and don’t know the players. Fill me in?” It is almost impossible to ask someone to teach you disrespectfully.

You can remove yourself from the society. This is not a physical action, or doesn’t need to be anyway. Most status challenges are between young men in the same basic group. The first to get a job or go to college or join the military puts a distance between himself and the rest. It is now expected that his challenges will be in that group. Violence can arise from other reasons, usually asshole reasons, but openly gay men are largely excluded from the monkey dance. Women and children are exempt, except in the minds of some very twisted or confused people. No one likes to monkey dance with the mentally ill because they may not follow the rules and there is little status to be gained. Being an off-duty cop takes you right out of the running. Claiming to be one if you aren’t, however, is a crime.

Playing the “older and more mature” game can work as well. Like with all verbals, the game must fit your style and you have to do it sincerely. If you are a jerk deep down, none of this will work for you. If you aren’t a jerk, and you’re the right age (or appear to be), you can play a wise father figure, “Son, we have no quarrel. I think you want to impress that pretty young thing over there. You want some advice from an older man? Go pay attention to her. Dance, whatever. Don’t pay attention to some old stranger like me.”

You can also manipulate the audience directly. When a young inmate seeking a rep started to push, I would often turn to a well-respected older con and say, “This young man could use some advice about how to get along in the world. You mind having a talk before he gets himself in trouble?”

More generally, loud enough for many to hear, “This isn’t a grade-school playground. We aren’t children. We aren’t going to fight.”

You must be careful to avoid humiliating the other guy, but sometimes just ignoring works very well. He begins the first step of the monkey dance, you look at him and go right back to talking to your friends or whatever you were doing. If he escalates, he looks silly. If he approaches, he draws attention. If he does approach with the, “Are you ignoring me?” you can say, “No, I was just busy. Did you have a question?” Or, depending on style, “Yes, I was.”

Either of these (the first because of the “have a question” tag line) is off script enough that he will have to think to respond. Getting the other guy to think is half the battle. Remembering to think yourself is more than half the battle; if you are acting on emotion, none of this will work.

The monkey dance and the educational beat-down and other social violence patterns are subtle. They don’t take a lot of time or involve vast areas of the participant’s lives. Other patterns are more all-encompassing. There are victim personalities. Some children are not only raised with abuse, but groomed to be acquiescent and think that abuse is normal, even love. There are abusive, codependent relationships where the moment of violence or the immediate precursors are just a small part of a larger dynamic.

These are not the kinds of problems that can be solved with techniques. No self-defense class or verbal skills will do more than slow down these train wrecks. What has to happen is deeper, more difficult, and usually fails. The victims MUST do the deep work to change who they are. “Victim” is not just a label; someone is not a victim just because of what happened. When they have been raised and trained to be a victim, victim-hood becomes part of their identity. They think, act, and understand as victims. Not merely as people who have been victimized but as people who make it easy for others to prey. They are not just people bad things happen to, but people who live in and seek out the bad things. Is this blaming the victim? No more than saying malnourished children will have predictable health problems later in life.

If you are stuck in one of these destructive patterns, you must change. It will be an immense act of will. It can be done.

Another type of social violence happens when you break a rule. This is especially critical when you are out of your environment. Every place and group of people have unwritten rules. You know the ones where you live, work, and play even if you could not list them. You know how close you can stand to a stranger, what words are not permitted. Whom you greet and whom you ignore.

All groups have these rules and all groups enforce them. In some circles, they are enforced with a raised eyebrow or a “chat” or a memo. In other groups, the rules are physically enforced. If you are a member of a group that uses physical force, this is not news to you. If you come from genteel and educated people in a highly civilized part of the world, this fact may be a shock.

In some parts of the world, breaking social rules are punished with sanctions ranging from a spanking to getting punched in the arm or thwacked on the head, to a beating to being buried alive, to being murdered and mutilated in front of an audience. Those last two, obviously, are not for the benefit of the offender, but to send a message to everyone else.

In September 1992, shock jock Howard Stern insulted Filipinos on his radio show by saying, “I think they eat their young over there.” He was promptly challenged to a duel by Rene Santa Cruz, a DJ at radio station DZXL in Manila (whose employer, Radio Mindanao Network, agreed to pay his expenses to the duel site). This wasn’t a publicity stunt, but rather an actual death-threat in keeping with Santa Cruz’s cultural upbringing. Stern later apologized. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Filipino-American Citizens group also sued Stern for $65 million in New York court over the incident.

This is all in the nature of an educational beat-down. When you step into a new group, you don’t know what the rules are or how they are enforced. Pay attention. Stay low key. Keep your mouth shut.

This approach is a good rule for business too. Do not challenge anything or make waves, even with the best intentions, until you have been there for a while. Start by asking a lot of good questions, learn the norms of the group, show you are intelligent and have a good attitude. Then make a contribution. There may or may not be good reasons for things running the way that they do, but if you start off all hellfire to make changes right out of the gate you may cause more problems than you are trying to solve. And you will almost certainly piss people off. They may not beat you physically, but ill-will can make you just as miserable in the boardroom as it can in the barroom.

The best verbal defense to an impending educational beat-down is a sincere apology. Not an excuse or an attempt to mitigate responsibility, but an apology.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. It won’t happen again” is acceptable, while “Sorry, but I don’t think you should blame me. No one told me I couldn’t do that” is not. It’s weaseling. The reason apologies work, when they do, is that you have shown that you understand that you did wrong, feel bad about it, and won’t do it again. Weaseling, trying to evade or attempting to shift blame, is proof that you don’t get it. That invites a beat-down.

Apologize, sincerely. Then go someplace where you can make a mistake without bleeding.

Changing the Equation

I’d worked late, but not that late; it was a bit after 6:30 at night. Nevertheless, the garage was nearly deserted. Four cars beside my own were still parked on the third level, none within a dozen feet of my vehicle.

I heard him before I saw him, and something about his gait made me look up. He was tall, almost painfully thin, and dressed in ratty clothing. He didn’t quite look like a transient, but not by much. Wasn’t wearing an ID badge either; I couldn’t imagine that he was a fellow employee. More worrisome, his body language was wrong. He was closing too fast, and his focus was way too intense.

Then one hand strayed toward his waistband.

Blading my body, I prepared to use my laptop bag as an impromptu weapon. And wondered how the hell I’d be able to explain to my boss why I’d broken a company computer. Had I backed it up before leaving? How hard it would it be to get my data back…

“I wonder how long they keep the tapes in those security cams,” I mused aloud. Startled, he glanced up. And stopped advancing.

I quickly climbed into my car and started the engine. He just stood there while I drove away.

Predatory criminals do not work off emotion, if you disregard feelings of power and satisfaction that predators get from raping, murdering, or beating someone. Nor do they give a damn about social status. They care a great deal about not getting caught. The predator wants what you have. He wants to get it in the safest, easiest way possible. That means that he will gather some intelligence on you. All it may take is a glance:

  • Isolated place? Check.
  • Victim that fits the profile? Check.
  • Victim not paying attention? Check.

That’s all a robber, serial killer, or rapist may need to know. The question is not whether he can take your stuff. Or do bad things to you. By the time most people grow into full-blown predators, they have had a lot of experience and are pretty confident about their skills. The question is whether or not they can get away with it.

Sometimes it takes more. We’ve covered this in the ‘Victim Interview’ section of “Situational Awareness,” but will go into a lot more depth here: it is called the victim interview when a criminal approaches a potential target and tries to size him or her up with a conversation. It can be as simple as “Buddy, got a match?” The professional threat will look at how you answer - not at all, terse, or wordy and apologetic. Wordy and apologetic is a good sign that you would be easily dominated.

The pro will look at your attention:

  • Looking away - easily dominated.
  • Scurrying away - easily dominated but not worth chasing if it will draw attention.
  • Turning full on to face him - exposing your underbelly, probably trained to be easily dominated.

But this impression can be modified by hand and foot position.

  • Blading - turning the body so that one side is more toward him and feet are ready to launch - and keeping him in peripheral vision - not worth the trouble.
  • Scanning the threat then checks the area - player.

The pro will look at what you do with your hands. If you dig your hands in your pockets looking for matches, you are helpless. If you make a big show of checking all your pockets for a lighter even though you and the threat both damn well know you don’t smoke, the threat knows you are a pleaser, not only easy to victimize but likely to “donate” with just a little hint of intimidation. If you keep your hands free and ready, not usually a good choice. If you blade one hip slightly away and check for something under the jacket at the belt line - well, the professional threat knows when he is outmatched.

Communication at this level is much more than just talking. When talking is involved, there are a few points that most people have trouble with. You do not need to say anything. This is not a conversation that you started. Silence is an answer. Will it piss him off? Maybe, but here’s the deal: This isn’t a monkey dance. A monkey dance will not begin with someone asking you for something. It makes no sense in a domination contest to ask for a favor. If you ignore a predator in an interview, he may try to mimic the monkey dance or call you names, but that is not his intent. His intent is to engage you.

Here is the way this conversation might go:

“Hey, man, you got the time?”

You ignore him.

“What are you? Some kind of stuck-up prick who won’t help a brother out? You too good to talk to the poor?”

If he hits your buttons (and he is good at it, this is what he does to get money for drugs and he needs a lot of money to feed his habit every day) you might feel suddenly guilty and say, “Oh, no, nothing like that. I didn’t mean to seem rude.”

And the threat follows up with, “Man, I was just going to ask if you could help me out with a couple bucks to get home.” You guilt button is already hit. You may pay up. If you don’t, the threat can repeat step two until you pay up or tell him, assertively, to back off.

This is called “aggressive panhandling” in many jurisdictions. It is somewhere between a shakedown and a con; there is an art to it. It follows the same dynamic as many robberies, so get to know this pattern; it is very similar with many street-level criminals. One of the beauties is that the victim rarely reports a crime and the prosecutor could never make a case stick. The criminal knows there is zero chance of jail. Low benefit, maybe just a couple bucks, but also zero risk. And who knows, the victim may flash a wallet with a couple hundred in it while digging out the two bucks. Then it might be worth it to draw the knife and escalate - if there are no witnesses.

“No” is a complete sentence. So is “Back off.”

The second point is that people talk too much. It is probably not conscious, but criminals very well know the difference between social and asocial violence. If you are talking, trying to explain yourself, the predator knows that you are thinking in terms of social conflict. That means that you are (also subconsciously) expecting a specific script to play out with a specific, predictable outcome. You also believe that violence won’t happen unless certain conditions are met, and if violence does happen, it will be mild and the damage likely cosmetic.

If that sounds like too much to think about, don’t worry about it. You are not thinking it. This is the way you have been programmed from birth and the way humans have been wired since we roamed the savannah. You have separate programs for dealing with threats from people and danger from lions. These abilities are internal and unconscious. If the threat knows you will treat him like a person but intends to act like a lion, he has a huge advantage.

So just say “No.” Or just say, “Back off!” Don’t explain yourself. Don’t answer questions. Don’t debate. Statements like these are boundary-setting, not conversations. If you start talking, you compromise your boundaries.

Once boundaries are set, you will need to defend them. If you say “Back off!” or “Don’t touch me!” and the threat closes anyway, you will have to get physical. Remember I.M.O.P.? Closing or touching after these statements shows clear intent. The threat, by closing, is gaining opportunity. His fist, boots, and possible weapons are the means. You must choose an appropriate level of force, but if your boundaries are violated you will need to use force. If you don’t, the boundaries were never real to begin with. Worse, your adversary now knows this and will never believe that your no means no. Now you’re screwed.

This is paramount, so it warrants repeating - two things people have trouble with are:

  • Choosing not to talk at all.
  • Keeping it short and harsh when setting boundaries.

Taking your money is a job, like any other. The threat weighs the risks and the benefits. If the benefits far outweigh the risks, the bad guy takes the job. One of the best strategies you have is to make the predator doubt his equation. Just like your equation, the threat’s equation is based on the victim, the threat, and witnesses.

You have little chance of casting doubt on the threat himself. He knows what his track record and abilities are when it comes to taking people down. You can, however, cast doubts on his assessment of you. It’s all about risk and reward.

For example, if you talk to yourself, loudly and angrily (even better if you talk to someone who is not there) while making gestures and staring around, the threat will have to re-evaluate. Unless you have a Bluetooth in your ear. Crazy people are unpredictable when attacked and tend to carry little money. (This must be congruent with your attire, however. Crazy in a $2,000 silk shirt doesn’t sell horribly well.)

If you know how to set boundaries, you raise the risks for the threat.

If there are no real witnesses, you can allude to them anyway. Talking to someone on the cell phone, is a good example: “I’m at Fifth and Hornesby. No, it’s pretty quiet. There’s just one guy here, he’s at the bus stop. I don’t know, average I guess. Pockmarked face, green hat, and a jeans jacket…”

You can really work on his paranoia, provided it is early in the interview. Or you can pre-empt the interview by starting it yourself: “Is something going on? That’s the second unmarked cop car I’ve seen cruising by in the last five minutes.”

If you can indicate that the environment is going to change soon, such as by talking to yourself, then the threat will have to work fast or not at all. “Dammit. Frank and Jim were supposed to be here ten minutes ago.” Successful tactics here either must be real or extremely well-played. If the threat gets any idea that you’re bluffing, if he believes you are talking for his benefit instead of out of frustration, it will increase his confidence.

When intervening as a third party, such as trying to break up or prevent a fight or assault, you can add information - “I think I hear sirens.” “I saw someone drive by and start punching numbers on a cell. I think it was 911.” “Hey, someone called the cops.”

Very disturbing, because this tactic works better on criminals: “Dude, I don’t think he’s breathing.” For someone who is not used to fighting and thinking about the legalities, it would take a while for the significance to sink in. For many violent professional criminals, they spring away. The stakes have gone way up - assault has become manslaughter, may become murder if the threat stays.

Raising the Stakes

Sometimes inmates don’t like to be released. Sometimes it is because they have no place to go and it is cold outside. Sometimes because all of their friends are inside. Sometimes because they are afraid to call their parents for a ride home from jail.

I was taking an inmate to release. He was a young man and had made it very clear that he didn’t want to be released just yet and thought it should be his choice. As we stepped on the elevator he said, “I bet if I hit you I’d get to stay in jail.”

“Technically, no. You’d still leave. Just to the hospital.”


“Hit an officer, go to the hospital.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Oh, no,” I sounded apologetic and tried to sound self-effacing. “It’s just policy.” It wasn’t of course. Even under assault, most officers were pretty good about keeping cool.

He looked me up and down as the elevator moved to the ground floor. He couldn’t figure it out. I was smaller than him, calm and relaxed, talking about hospitals and cause-and-effect.

I pushed for resolution. I didn’t want him to decide not to hit me and then later decide to lash out with the release officer. “Looks like you need to make a decision. I get a paycheck whether you go to the hospital or not. What’s it gonna be?”

“I won’t be any trouble.”

Raising the stakes is a tactic that works at several levels. If you do the math, it is impossible for a small woman to resist a committed attacker. He will be stronger, bigger, and have surprise and a plan on his side. Purely crunching the numbers, the victim does not have a chance.

But victims have won.

Many, many times they have fought their way to safety, or scared off, or incapacitated the threat. So what’s going on? The math (size + strength + predator surprise) of what should happen in an assault doesn’t match observations from the field.

There is a certain inherent risk in being a predator. The predator does everything he can to minimize the risk, that is his job, but the risk exists. Sometimes the rabbit turns on the fox. Sometimes the cat scratches the dog instead of running. When the eight-pound cat scratches the eighty-pound dog and the dog runs, it is not because the dog couldn’t win. It is because the dog decided the price was too high.

Raising the stakes is merely setting the price higher. Sometimes the threat will decide the price of admission is too high to stay in the game. In general, a threat will rarely pick a larger, stronger, alert victim. But that’s not the way the game is always played.

Countervailing force can backfire. An article written in the eighties provided a statistic that fighting back against a rapist decreased the chances of rape by around 80 percent and increased the chance of being killed by 13 percent. (Reading statistics is a skill, and this one was unsourced, so it couldn’t be analyzed. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that 13 percent of rapes turned to murders. That would be an astronomical number, whereas a 13 percent increase from the current murder rate in a rape is a much smaller number.)

At the verbal level of the force continuum, raising the stakes is a tactic that entails letting the threat know that the fight he thinks he is getting may not be the one he will get. It is not the game that Marc MacYoung refers to as “escalato,” where each person in the monkey dance throws a little more ego in until they are too committed to leave. Escalato is largely internal; both parties make bigger and bigger threats, but the reason they stay in the game is fear of looking cowardly if they quit. Both parties become too emotionally invested to quit. And unless there is an intervention, someone gets hurt.

Making a big threat is a form of raising the stakes. The threat can scare off the other guy.


But remember that you are also creating witnesses. If you boldly state that if he does not back down, you are going to kill him, chop him up, and mail his bloody body parts to his wife and children, or rip his head off and piss down his throat, or tear his arm off and beat him to death with it, you won’t be able to claim self-defense later. Statements like that allow the other guy to claim self-defense. Legitimately.

Better than a challenge or a threat, you can raise the stakes simply by implying that what you have to fight for is pretty precious. “Partner, I’m on parole and I am not going back to prison for some little fight. Leave me alone.” If you are going to prison whether the fight is serious or not, there is no penalty for making it serious. This is the kind of tactic, however, that works better on criminals who understand the words than it does on ordinary civilians.

Or the classic - “Today is a good day to die.” It has to be sincere, believable, but only if you are ready to die to make someone pay for what they do to you. That is a level of commitment that most won’t want to match.

Raising the stakes can be risky, but it can also keep conflict at the verbal level when the other guy wants to do more.

Tricks and Tactics - Miscellaneous Stuff

There are thousands of little things that help with communication. Everything ties together. After Hostage Negotiator Training (HNT), officers were advised to read books on salesmanship for follow-up reading. It was really the same thing, talking someone down and closing a deal.

Everything works both ways

That applies to both learning and application. If you read about con-men preying on the gullible, you are learning. Your inclination will be to identify with the victim and try to figure out how to see a con and protect yourself. Reverse it. How did the con get the person to trust? What in his tactics can I use to get people, especially potential enemies, to like and trust me? It sounds manipulative, but it is the highest order of strategy to turn an enemy into a friend.

The same thing applies in an application: If you have considered raising the stakes, be alert for the potential threat who tries to raise the stakes with you. It is a sign of his fear. The other guy’s fear gives you opportunity.

In Gavin DeBecker’s book, The Gift of Fear, he lists and describes verbal tactics that a predator uses to talk his way into a victim’s good graces - and into striking range. The tactics that he lists there - forced teaming and loan-sharking in particular - are exactly the tactics that work to develop rapport, to keep a criminal from becoming angry, and get the other guy to open up.

Forced teaming

Forced teaming is simply the tactical use of the word we. “We don’t seem to be getting along. Why do you think that is?” “What should we do about this problem?” Using the word “we” is a way to imply that you and the threat are a team, in this together. Part of the same group. A predator uses the tactic with the intention to betray that trust. You can use it to develop trust and turn a threat into an ally.


Loan-sharking is the simple act of small favors. Done by criminals, it creates a feeling of debt and evokes vulnerabilities. Done by people of good heart it is “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” This is a critical concept, not just for everything in this article but for everything in life. There is no division between “good” tactics and “evil” ones, nothing that criminals use that good guys do not also use. Bad people can and will use anything (charities, civil rights legislation, compliments, etc.) for bad ends. Good people will use the exact same things for good ends.


Co-opting is getting someone on your side before they have decided that you are a rival. It prevents a lot of social violence and it is a key skill when you are on unfamiliar ground. When you do not know the rules of behavior it is easy to unintentionally insult people. The problem is that if you don’t know the rules, you also don’t know how the rules are enforced. If you come from a society where a social blunder is treated with a sneer or silence, you are probably completely unprepared and will freeze if a mistake is treated with a beating or a blade.

Co-opting requires sincerity, a little curiosity, and humility. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m new here. What are the rules?” It immediately indicates that you won’t monkey dance for status. Asking to be taught designates the other as a teacher and acknowledges a higher status. A sincere request to be taught is rarely taken as disrespectful.

As the relationship progresses, be sure to ask about power structures too. It is important to know who is in charge and who works with and against whom.


Congruence is having your total message come through with power. You are congruent when your words, RTPV, demeanor, and body language all send the same message. It is received as both sincere and serious. This concept is important because most people do not speak with a lot of congruence most of the time. You should never have to say, “I’m serious.” Your body language and tone should say that for you.

Congruence is one of the standards that you evaluate by seeing yourself communicate. Watch yourself on video when you can. Also evaluate good actors, the ones who make you believe a speech. How do they achieve congruence?


Incongruence can be just as useful as congruence provided it is used consciously. Basically, if your words and body language do not match, the adversary will believe your body language. There are a few exceptions. Certain mental illnesses prevent the sufferer from reading expressions. Saying, “I don’t want to fight,” while rubbing your fist and grinning like a maniac feels like a trap to the threat. It increases doubt.


Sometimes saying something outrageous, something that makes no sense, can freeze an adversary for a second as his brain adjusts. If you realize that de-escalation is not working and that you will have no other choice but to fight, it may also be possible to cause your opponent to make a mental twitch, providing a moment of opportunity to counterattack while he mentally shifts gears. This twitch is brought about by dissonance between what the person expects and what you actually say or do.

A common example is asking a question. While the bad guy is focusing on your words or thinking about an answer, you have a moment in which to run or strike. This may be particularly useful when confronted with multiple assailants. Ask something completely unexpected like, “What time is it?” or something really odd like, “What was Gandhi’s batting average?” Cognitive dissonance is powerful. During the opponent’s momentary confusion, you will have an opportunity to act.

Similarly, if you believe that you must strike preemptively, you can hit an aggressor while he is talking and it will take him about half a second to mentally switch gears from communicating to fighting. That is a pretty long time in a fight, particularly for a seasoned boxer, martial artist, or street fighter who can throw as many as half a dozen full-power blows in a half-second.


Boundary-setting is critical when dealing with potential threats. Boundaries are especially important when dealing with people who are not overt threats but are in a position of trust - people you are dating, for instance. If communication is good and the cultures are shared, hints may be adequate. A little silence, a brief stare are often enough to let someone know that he or she has crossed a line.

There are two situations where hints do not work. A predator, even a low-level predator like a passive-aggressive co-worker, may pretend not to see the hints in order to push and make you either vulnerable or at least feel vulnerable. The second situation is dealing with people from different cultures or people who were never socialized into your culture.

In either case, you must set boundaries and they must be stated explicitly. Doing so can be very uncomfortable for most people. Telling people the rules, especially when they should already know them, sounds bossy and places you in a “parent” role. Low-level predators will use this feeling against you: “What’s up your ass today? When did you get so insecure?”

Replying with reasons is what the predator wants. As long as you are responding, it is a negotiation and the predator still has some control. Boundary-setting is never a negotiation. The only additional information should be a clear statement of the penalty.

“I’ve told you to leave the door open when you come into my office.”

“What’s your problem? Are you afraid to be alone with me?” Trying to joke, trying to make the boundary setter defensive. Do you see the predator dynamic here?

“Open the door.” Simple, direct statement. No argument, no reasoning, nothing in the voice that could turn it into a question. One of the worst phrases is “I need you to do X for me” as it places all the power on the threat and sounds like a plea on two levels, “need” and “for me.” Do not use this tactic when dealing with potential predators. It will backfire.

“Whatever. I wanted to talk to you about…”Disregarding “no” or pretending to ignore boundaries is a huge red flag that you are dealing with a predator.

“Open the door.” Staying on message.

“Geeze, can’t you stay on the subject?” Again, trying to shift blame/responsibility, implying that the predator is the one who wants to get the job done and the potential victim is hung up on something minor.

“Open the door or I will file that complaint. Now!” The only thing added to the statement of boundaries is the penalty. “Now” acts as an ultimatum. Once you take this verbal step you must be ready to act on your threat. If the threat ignores you (some will, most won’t) and you fail to follow through, you will have marked yourself as easy meat.

We’re not going to pretend that a scenario like this will end well every time. Predators are often very successful in an office environment, playing passive-aggressive games and using low-level bullying tactics. The threat will open the door, do his business - and as soon as he leaves tell everyone who will listen, “You won’t believe this. That bitch in the office threatened to write me up for closing a door.”

Setting boundaries with the very young, the mentally ill, different cultures, or improperly socialized individuals is a little different. (Some kids raised in poverty or foster care or with extremely dysfunctional parents have simply never learned certain social rules, even fundamental stuff like how long to shake hands, or appropriate and inappropriate eye contact.) You still must be very clear and direct. Unlike low-level predators, this group usually appreciates an explanation.

The Iraqi officer said, “If you have a daughter, I would like to marry her.”

I took it as a compliment. It was out of the question, of course. A fifteen-year-old bride might be acceptable in the Middle East, but it wouldn’t fly at home. Still, my daughter could brag forever that she had her first marriage proposal at fifteen.

“I’ll ask her,” I said. “See what she thinks. Can I send her your picture?”

“Oh, no, no.” He seemed very embarrassed and ended the conversation faster than usual. I looked at D. H., my translator. He shook his head.

“Over here,” he explained, “Women don’t have anything to do with the negotiation.

We don’t get that.”

“Oh, well in America…”

“He would be okay with you saying ‘no’. It would be very bad to have a woman tell him ‘no’. Do you see?” I, being socially retarded by Arabic standards, did appreciate the explanation.

Ask, Advise, Order, and Check

This is a cop thing, but it works well whenever you are in a position of authority, including dealing with children. Ask, advise, and order are the standards. The check phrase is an advanced technique that works really well.

  • Ask: “Sir, please lie down on your belly and spread your arms to the side.” It works most of the time. To change this to kids, just replace the ‘sir’ with a name and change the instruction to something more relevant such as cleaning up a room or doing the dishes.
  • Advise: “Sir, if you don’t lie down on your belly and put your arms out, I will have to use force… ” I usually describe the force I am authorized to use, like a Taser. In some instances that were very high risk, the description might even be, “I’m going to get a group of officers, armor up, and we’re going to go in there and pepper spray you, slam you into the ground, and drag you out. I heartily advise you to simply surrender.”
  • Order: “Get down! Get down now!” Strangely enough, I have had more success with the order step than the advise step, even when the advice included some pretty graphic descriptions. At this point, for an officer, force is authorized. However, I’ve learned to add a check phrase.
  • Check: “So, sir, you’re telling me I have no choice but to use force and that is what you choose. Thank you. That makes my paperwork very clear.” With a kid threatened with a timeout, simply, “Jay you want a time out then? Okay.” The beauty of the check phrase is that if you give them just a few seconds to think they realize that they are completely responsible for what is about to happen. Most, in my experience, change their minds and decide to be good. The ask/advise/order/check protocol is an excellent example of boundary-setting.

Altered States of Mind

We will refer to threats in this subsection as “EDPs.” That’s cop-speak for Emotionally Disturbed Persons. They can still be threats. The special danger in EDPs is that they are far less predictable than most people. Not always more dangerous or more violent than normal, but harder to see in advance if violence is on the table.

People who are very angry or afraid, mentally ill, or under the influence of drugs do not think like other people. Dealing with altered states of consciousness presents some challenges.

Firstly, this is not something you want to get involved in unless you have no choice. One of the big fears I have when I write an article like this is that someone will decide that reading is enough and walk into a situation that he or she could and should have walked away from. A few hours of reading will never protect you from your own bad decisions.

Secondly, now that that is out of the way, you must also set your goal. Why are you engaging? To talk them down? To talk yourself into a position to escape? To find out what is going on? To try to stabilize them for a few minutes until help can arrive? Once you start talking, you may get emotionally bonded. Double-check yourself to make sure you are still working toward your goal.

Thirdly, it would be very convenient if criminals were criminals and EDPs were EDPs. Someone can be schizophrenic or autistic or have almost any mental disorder you can name and still be a predator. Some people have a tendency to raise their guard when dealing with an EDP, to become a little more scared. Sometimes they also lower their guard in a different area. “Harmless” crazy people can also be thieves or con-men who have a long history of faking mental illness to put victims off guard. Be aware.

Here are some additional concepts to keep in mind:

  • A truly mentally ill person does not have a chance to choose his actions. A schizophrenic sees and hears what a schizophrenic sees and hears. There is no choice in the matter and so there is damn little choice in what he can do about it. A person with severe obsessive compulsive order does not want to stop and alphabetize all the books on a shelf or flush every toilet in a public restroom in order; they can fight it for a while, sometimes, but they do not have control.
  • One of the signs that someone is faking is control. A truly mentally ill person tries very hard to be normal. They usually don’t talk about problems until they trust you. If someone makes a point of telling you, as a stranger, about his mental illness (which is a deeply personal issue), be on your guard.
  • Mentally ill does not mean stupid. Do not treat them like children or idiots.
  • Do not take what they say personally. Do not get caught in a monkey dance.
  • Do not get caught up in the drama of their lives.

There are exceptions, such as friends and relatives, but for the most part very few people are prepared for the sacrifices necessary to make a relationship with a severely emotionally disturbed person work.

  • Be prepared at all times for sudden changes, including explosive violence.

Much of what has been covered already, including RTPV and listening, are critical in dealing with EDPs. Slow, quiet, and low-pitched (think soothing, but not patronizing) are important. When listening, the goals are twofold: to get a sense of the EDP’s internal logic and to find the common ground.

Mental illness and other states that mimic it like drugs and extremely emotional outbreaks are not some hodgepodge where the rules change every second. The person will have an underlying belief about how the world works that includes and explains what they are seeing and feeling. As you get a handle on this internal logic, you will get better at predicting when things will become dangerous.

Do not challenge delusions or dismiss what the EDP is thinking or feeling or seeing. If a schizophrenic is seeing blue men, he or she is seeing blue men. Not pretending, not imagining. The blue men are seen just as clearly as the article you are reading right now. Sometimes with drugs, you can challenge the delusion. If a guy on meth is convinced everyone is trying to kill him, telling him he has taken too much meth might help, but it will work better if he figures that out himself.

So you work from the common ground. “Carl, you know I can’t see the blue people, so let’s talk about what we both can see.” Don’t patronize. With the exception of the first episodes of adult-onset mental illness or someone who has been drugged, crazy people know that they are crazy. If you pretend to share the delusion, they know you are lying. It destroys trust.

Many people have lived with their mental illnesses or addictions for most of their lives. Respect that. They have survived and often thrive with a problem that might easily have crushed someone else. They can be their own best resource. Co-opt: “Carl, you’ve dealt with this your whole life. Has it ever been this bad before? What did you do then? What can we do now? How can I help?”

Here are some tactics and tips for dealing with EDPs:

  • Match the initial energy. As long as it is not too weird or dangerous, enter the conversation at their level of intensity. If the EDP is pacing, pace alongside. If the EDP is sitting on the floor, humming and rocking, sit next to them, far enough away that they won’t see you as a threat. Stay in their peripheral vision. Do not hum and rock, however. Sitting is normal behavior. Pacing is normal behavior. Rocking and humming is not and it will look like you are mocking.
  • Once you have started talking, slow down. If you were pacing fast before, slow down and the EDP will usually both slow down to match your pace and calm down to a degree.
  • Avoid direct eye contact. Especially with autistics, but for any EDP who is running on fear or anger or drugs (primarily stimulants) that mimic the signs of fear or anger (gross motor activity, elevated blood pressure, etc.), direct eye contact is often interpreted as threat behavior. Practice using your peripheral vision.
  • Use positive speech. This is not cheerleader pep talk. Positive speech is simple and directive. Tell them what to do. Avoid telling them what not to do. Say, “Talk quietly,” instead of, “Don’t be loud.”
  • Keep things simple. Small words, short sentences. Listening is the most important. If you are listening, the threat is talking. If he is talking, he’s not attacking. So far, so good.
  • Set clear boundaries. This topic has already discussed in the section titled “Boundaries” above. There is an additional aspect with EDPs, especially the mentally ill. They want to be normal and, if they trust you and like you, they will work their asses off to be normal around you. Friends are rare and they will work to keep friends. This also means that they will be looking to you for advice on what normal is and how to act. Part of learning normal is making implicit boundaries and rules explicit.
  • Give them control. Being out of control of your own mind means the world as well is out of your control. Feeling helpless like this is terrible. Whenever you can, show the EDP what he or she can control. “I know she made you angry. You can’t help that. But you don’t have to show her you are angry. Then she will think that she’s won.” Small steps of self-control have big payoffs, both for the EDP and for you.

Mark was once the subject of a two-page special feature in the local paper about the failure of the mental health care system. Over three hundred pounds and aggressive, Mark was paranoid schizophrenic, bipolar, and learning disabled. He was constantly in and out of custody in our county and the neighboring counties, notorious for staff assaults, and put in Administrative Segregation - where we put the people with a history of extreme violence or other reasons, like intel on a possible escape attempt - and needing to be moved with multiple deputies.

Five or six years ago we’d just started an “open booking” process. Instead of going from cell to cell to cell, constantly either restrained by handcuffs or contained in a cell, we were experimenting with booking fresh arrestees in a setting that looked like an airport waiting area. There were a handful of ‘Separation Cells’ for special situations, but otherwise there was no secure containment.

We were a little nervous, of course. Open booking (or direct supervision) is the ultimate test of people skills and it usually works well, but the math is bad. Five deputies and one sergeant (all unarmed) responsible for controlling as many as fifty arrestees, most still drunk, high, angry, delusional without any containment or separation.

That night Mark came in. Mark usually left jail into the care of a social worker, and came right back to jail when he threatened or assaulted the social worker.

I talked him through the basic process: search, fingerprinting, digital picture, medical assessment, and interviews with classification and release officers. Within a few minutes of sitting in the common area, he was glaring at a female inmate, mumbling.

I sat down next to him, in the inmate chairs.

“She’s looking at me, Sarge. I’m gonna lose it. Make her stop looking at me or I’m going tear her up.”

“Mark, you’re letting her get to you. Yes she’s staring at you, but if you react, you’ll be the one to get in trouble. Don’t let her control you.”

“She’s laughing at me!”

“And if you go off, she wins, Mark. Don’t let her win. Ignore her. Show her she can’t get to you.”

The other inmate was laughing at Mark. Mark was huge, greasy, filthy. Like a lot of schizophrenics and developmentally disabled, he couldn’t take care of himself. I took the other inmate aside and told her that Mark was “retarded” and it wasn’t his fault and it was cruel to laugh at him. She apologized.

I spent probably an hour with Mark, kept him calm. Then I went to lunch. Within five minutes, the call came over the radio, “Sarge, one to sep.” Mark was going to a Separation Cell.

When I arrived, he was screaming and kicking the steel door, frothing at the mouth and yelling death threats. I keyed the door open, stepped in and asked him to have a seat. I listened, mostly, but I stayed on message. “You need to calm down. I have civilians like the nurse out there and I will not let you out of this cell if you are acting out in any way.”

It dawned on Mark that he outweighed me by over a hundred pounds and I was alone with him in a tiny concrete cell and showing no fear. You could see him try to puzzle it out, using all of his available cunning to guess what my secret security came from… He asked a lot of questions and finally asked if I’d been in the military. I said, “Yeah. Army.” And he relaxed. This poor kid, who never got any closer to the service than a Rambo movie, relaxed. I wasn’t afraid because I was a soldier. Of course.

I remember him trying to remember everything he was taught in therapy and classes about socializing, about how normal people make friends and Mark reached out to ask a question, the kind of question he imagined friends asked friends, “So what did you like best about the Army? Living in the barracks with all the guys or the uniforms?”

“Honestly, Mark, the only thing I miss was crawling around in the mud and shooting people. I enjoyed that.” On one level, that was a screwed up thing to say, truth or not. But it gave me one of the best moments in my career.

Mark said, “Man, that’s not right. You should talk to someone about that.” Mark, the paranoid/schizophrenic, bipolar, developmentally disabled, violent and assaultive criminal was giving me fatherly advice. He recommended a counselor.

We talked some more, and he promised to be quiet and keep control even when I wasn’t there watching. He kept his word all the way up to housing.

  • I found out a couple years ago that Mark had died. I don’t know when or where or the exact circumstances; it was just one of those passing comments in briefing: “By the way, they found Mark R. dead a couple of weeks ago.”

He probably died alone. Hypothermia or OD on an attempt to “self-medicate” or maybe his diabetes got out of control. I wonder who knows or cares; who, outside of a handful of social workers and jail guards remember him. I wonder if anyone else has a good memory of Mark.

Cold Conversation Drill

Talking is talking, and if you are like most people, you probably do too much. There is an exercise we want to leave you with. For the next week or month or year, possibly for the rest of your life if you get addicted, we want you to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

To get you started, observe the stranger and look for a hook, something specific and preferably personal: “That looks like a good book.” “Where was the picture on your desk taken?” “I noticed your shoes. Are you a runner?” Then shut up and listen. People love to talk about themselves and many are fascinating - but you have to listen.

The cold conversation is a skill and it will improve with time. You will learn how to ask questions and how to give enough information yourself to keep things flowing.

“Oana, I can’t place your accent. Where are you from?”

She grinned evilly and made claws with her fingers. Emphasizing the accent she said, “I am from Transylvania.”

“Really? I heard the Carpathian Mountains are beautiful.”

“You know of the Carpathians? Let me tell you…”

Voice is the second lowest level of the six force options, but it is arguably the most important. Unless you work in certain high-risk professions or are really unlucky, the chances of your needing to face violence on any given day are pretty small. But everyone communicates with others all the time. There’s no down side to being good at it.

  • I was pretty sure Marine regulation prohibited visible tats, so it was likely a fake. Lots of criminals find an advantage in claiming elite military experience.


Touch is a quasi-level. It is still communication, still attempting to influence instead of force, but it involves laying hands on someone without permission. That makes it legally fuzzy, since “good” touch and “bad” touch can very much be a matter of interpretation. We all know the power of a touch, a hug that calms a frightened child, or a quick grip on the shoulder in a moment of grief or indecision. It can be a communication beyond words.

Touching can also be a mistake.

Touching, at any level, is also something that an experienced threat can use as a hook:

The two brothers had backed me up against a fence. It was late, I was on my way home from work, and I was triangulated. One reached for my chest and I gently parried the hand away, trying to be smiling and conversational: “Just on my way home guys, don’t have time…”

When I parried his reaching hand away he snarled, “Don’t touch me!” and swung.

The fight was on.

Unless you know the subject well, touch has the possibility to trigger memories that you cannot be aware of. It is generally ineffective to comfort a stranger who has been raped by enfolding her in a big hug. In most cultures world-wide, touching across genders is never appropriate between strangers.

Outside of the US and Northern Europe, even shaking hands, wait for the woman to offer her hand first. The same thing goes for certain orthodox religious communities in the US today.

You must be aware that touching has taboos. Unless you are attempting to dominate someone on a massive scale, you do not touch him or her above the shoulders. Placing a hand on the head or the neck is something done to children or lovers at times; otherwise it will have a very bad reaction. It shows dominance or intimacy.

Touching may also be a bad strategic decision. You cannot touch without being in the threat’s striking range. Because of the action/reaction gap (your ability to defend will rarely be fast enough for a non-telegraphed, close-range attack), you are extremely vulnerable. Attempting to handle a potentially hostile or volatile threat with touch is betting everything on your skill at reading intent. If you are wrong, expect to bleed.

In a potentially volatile situation, any touch must be done with respect for your own safety. To look into someone’s eyes while placing a manly hand on the shoulder puts almost all of your best targets right in range, takes one of your arms out of the defensive mix, and may trigger explosive action. It is not a safe move.

As long as you don’t surprise the threat, it is actually less likely to trigger an emotional response if you approach from the side. Remember in “Presence,” discussing proxemics? The intimate/threat ranges are measured face-to-face. People can stand far more comfortably with strangers behind or to the sides. That may not make strategic sense, but look at the way people stand in crowded elevators.

The ideal contact point for a touch is the back of the elbow. The distal end of the humerus is the maximum leverage you can put on the arm and, although there are limits, with that one contact point you can either move a much bigger and stronger person or prevent that person from moving. The natural motion against the leverage point, pushing the threat’s arm across his body, also rotates him around his spine and puts you on his rear flank, one of the best places to be in a fight, should a fight happen.

If you go to touch, be prepared at all times for things to go bad.

Generally, there are effectively four ways to use touch: calming, directive, distractive, and projection.

Calming Touch

Calming touch ranges from patting someone’s hand (something you see at funerals a lot) all the way up to a hug. It is just making a human connection with another human who you feel is dealing with pain, fear, grief, or anger. It must be sincere. The reason that the manly hand on the shoulder and direct eye contact leaves you so vulnerable is because there is no way to blade the body and place your off hand in a defensive position that does not ruin the comforting effect.

Calming is about sharing and thus diffusing emotion, making people feel safe enough that they do not have to do anything immediately and thus giving time for the adrenaline (or drugs) to leave the system. You cannot calm someone down if you look like you are preparing for combat. Any calming touch must be done with a caring demeanor and usually backed with sincere and sympathetic words presented in a low, slow, quiet voice.

Calming touch will succeed or fail depending on your read of the situation, your timing, and your social skills. Calming touch only has a chance to be effective when you are dealing with emotion. You cannot hug a mugger and make him feel so much better about himself that he won’t mug you. If he is mugging you for money to buy drugs to stave off withdrawals, a hug really does not fill that gap.

So first, read the situation. Number one, is this an emotional threat? Number two, is it the kind of emotional threat that can be calmed by touch? The Monkey Dance is emotional, but it is damnably hard to hug your way out of.

Is this really your problem? Notice that we ask that a lot? Are you the one to deal with it at all and, if so, do you have the relationship or is this the type of situation where calming touch will work?

The reason touch is a quasi-level is because there are so few situations where it is appropriate, so few where it might work, and the majority of those are things you could walk away from with no ill effects.

There are two exceptions:

Rory has comforted suicidal people. That may sound cool, but it is dangerous as all hell. Suicide is homicide and if someone really wants to kill himself, he has already gotten over the social conditioning and moral issues of killing a person. That includes you. Touch may help here, to build rapport, and put you in a position to disarm or disable the threat, but do not for a second think that because someone wants to kill himself, he would hesitate to kill you.

The other exception is that touch can be used for absolute naked intimidation. What we said before about not hugging your way out of a monkey dance? Once upon a time, there was a guy going off, swinging his arms, calling the officer’s “cocksuckers,” and daring them to fight. Rory walked over, gave him a hug and told him he “may want to rephrase that.” That is possibly the most he has ever scared a human being. The arrestee was extremely polite for the rest of his time in custody.

Directive Touch

Directive touch is simply steering. A light hand on the back or the elbow-leverage-control point and you direct the stumbling drunk toward the exit. Of the touch level variations, directive touch is the most likely to be effective and safe.

You are close, so you must be prepared for things to go bad, but most steering positions put you in a safer situation than trying to comfort. Applying directive touch, especially with a drunk, is the crisis point. If the drunk was planning on leaving quietly, he would have left when presented with presence (the bouncers show up) or verbal, “Sir, you need to leave.” That he did not presents the possibility that resisting might be on his mind. When directive touch is applied, you will know for sure, one way or the other.

There is no leverage applied or pain compliance with directive. If that needs to happen, you have jumped to Level 4. This is just simple guidance.

Distractive Touch

If you’ve ever had your significant other kick you under the table to keep you from saying something stupid, you are already familiar with distractive touch. People pay attention to touches, even when they should be paying attention to something else. Sometimes it makes them shut up, usually it makes them look to see who is touching them and why.

Distractive touch is used to bring the threat’s attention to you or a part of you. If the threat is focused on someone he intends to hurt and you tap on his shoulder, the threat will turn to you. His intended victim can escape. The obvious downside of this is that once his intention turns to you, you might become the new intended victim. You must read the situation to determine if this is likely and whether you can handle it.

Distraction, unlike calming, can be used as a surprise and often works better that way. Watching a cat stalking, you see a perfect predator: graceful, efficient, all senses well beyond what a human can do, and totally focused. It is easy as anything to sneak up on a cat that is stalking something else and grab its tail, and the cat will jump in complete surprise. People are similar, and often any serious surprise can disrupt the most hardened predator.

But USE YOUR HEAD! While it is true that an unexpected touch can disrupt a human threat or a cat, so can a shout, and a shout can be done at a safer distance. Sneaking up on cats is cool. It applies to people. Nowhere in that set of facts is any indicator that it is the best way.

Distraction can also be used to make lower levels of force work. Many martial arts teach a light, distracting blow before applying a lock. You must be careful, because the law does not really distinguish between a “distracting blow to the head” and any other “blow to the head.” Using a Level 5 technique to make a Level 4 technique work is decent, tactically, but legally you have to justify the Level 5 - and if you can justify Level 5, you need Level 5. What the hell are you doing at Level 4?

Projecting Touch

It was my last week working the jail before leaving for Iraq. I kind of wanted something epic to happen, just to say goodbye. So I was eager for the backup call and took off at a sprint. By the time I got there, the incident was controlled. The threat, a very big, experienced con, had let himself be handcuffed. I walked him to the disciplinary cells.

One of the downsides of working with a really professional force is that sometimes the inmates aren’t used to it. They expect to get their asses kicked and when we don’t, they sometimes mistakenly assume it is weakness. As I walked the inmate to his new cell, he got more aggressive, trying to push and pull and talk some pretty wild shit. In the enclosed cell, I had him put his head against the wall to disrupt his balance and started to take the cuffs off.

As soon as the first one came off, he surged off the wall twisting and swinging. I just pressed in and up under and behind his armpit before he could complete the spin. He found himself helpless, barely balanced on one foot. Not only could he not turn or punch, but he couldn’t even put his foot down. His balance was so shot that a slight push would plant his head in the concrete wall, and an out, up and downward tug would face plant him in the floor.

I kept my voice calm, deadpan, as if he hadn’t just attempted an assault, “Sir, it’s usually a bad idea to move fast, especially when the cuffs come off. Just one officer in here, I might misinterpret and over-react. Okay?”

“Good advice, sarge.”

Projection gets into a very fuzzy area. There are ways to apply a very light force or simply to direct the force the threat is applying that can have serious effects but do not fit neatly into control or pain or damage categories. If someone punches you in the face and you barely tap it so that he misses your head and shatters his fist against the wall, what level of force have you used? Less energy was expended than in simply steering a drunk. Making him miss your face protected both you and the fragile bones of his hand (if there is no wall or similarly solid object behind you) and had intent similar to keeping a drunk from stumbling into a wall.

The cool thing about projections, though, is that they are a very low level of force that can work particularly well for one of the primary goals in self-defense: getting away. Perfect projection is nothing more than getting out of the way skillfully.

In this sense, projections are ways to move a threat or get the other guy to move with minimum force and without applying that force to any part of the threat’s body likely to result in injury.

There are three principles to making projections work:

  • Use the threat’s momentum.
  • Use the threat’s structure.
  • Control the threat’s contact with the ground.

Whenever the threat moves, whether pushing, pulling, or charging, he is putting energy into the world. That energy has a strength and a direction. To stop the strength requires at least as much energy. Changing the direction, however, requires very little power. The more strength, in many ways, the easier it is to misdirect the power.

As an example, imagine a baseball bat swung at your head. In order to stop the force with your forearm, you would have to hit the bat at least as hard as the bat is hitting you. Further, your arm would have to be sturdy enough to withstand the combined force of the bat and your block, not just one of those forces, both. On the good side, when your forearm shatters, the bone breaking will bleed off some of the energy of the bat. Your floppy shattered arm sticking to the bat will add some drag, slowing the bat even more and when the combination of forces from your shattered arm and misshapen broken skull equal the power of the baseball bat swing, the bat will come to a stop.


The same swing, tapped at a ninety-degree angle to the direction of travel will jump off of its intended plane. In other words, it will miss with a relatively small application of force. That’s kindergarten stuff.

Power applied to the side and with a drawing motion, keeping the bat as close to the intended plane as possible while still missing and adding to the momentum, transfers the force both from the swing and your draw or pull to the threat. The threat loses his balance.

That is just an illustration, but this is one of the primary principles of projecting: The threat does the work. Not you.

Second, use structure. Structure is a way to maximize leverage and use bones to move other bones. If you push on the side of a big man’s stomach, the flesh will squish out of the way. If you push on his shoulder or hip with the same power, his body will twist.

Shoulder girdle and pelvis are both fairly rigid and attached to each other through the spine. They act as lever arms to control the spine and as such can manipulate each other as well as arms and legs.

Sound complicated? If someone goes to kick with his right foot and you press down on his right shoulder, he has to abort the kick and put his foot on the ground to avoid falling. Now add that ‘drawing’ aspect mentioned above and you can really toy with someone.

In the example at the start of this section, when the inmate turned on Rory, Rory knew he could not beat the guy’s strength. He was just too big. But a light push up and under the armpit used the shoulder girdle as a lever arm to force the spine sideways. A sideways tilt to the spine forces one foot to dangle in the air and, with the spine extended, robs the threat of any core strength. Even if he were a good kicker, in that position he couldn’t develop power.

Using your own structure - a continuous chain of power from the ground to your point of contact - is too big a subject to go into here. If you’re interested in delving deeply into the power chain, how to align the body to hit with maximum force, consider The Way of Sanchin Kata (both book and DVD) by Kris Wilder. Suffice to say that whenever possible, you want to hit with bone and if someone tries to push you, you want them pushing rigid bone instead of muscle. Unless, of course, you want to just evade the force and project the threat into a wall.

The last principle is to control the threat’s contact with the ground. Our first impulse was to say “disrupt the threat’s contact with the ground” and that is true most of the time. However, in the example that opens this section, one of the threat’s feet was actually trapped on the ground.

Most projections will have a sideways vector (to make the incoming attack miss) and a drawing vector (that disguises the fact of a miss, adds force to the miss, and subtly disrupts the person’s instinctive way to control the force). If you add even a slight upward vector, the drawing force (especially if the threat is putting a lot of power in) can take the threat completely off his feet.

So how are projections used in self-defense? Most of the time they are used for escaping. When an attack comes in and you shift to the side or the threat focuses away, or you choose to intervene in an attack on a third party, sometimes a simple push in the right direction will give you space and time to escape, something that might be far more difficult to accomplish using fists and elbows.


Levels one through three are essentially communication. At Level 3, touch, even though you are placing hands on the threat, you are demonstrably guiding, assisting, or comforting. At Level 4, you are placing hands on the other guy, but what you are doing, if not legally justified, is assault. You are going to force the adversary to move or to stop moving or, through pain, influence the other guy to move or stop moving.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a crime. You may only do this if your justifications are clear. Not just clear to you in your emotional state at the time, but something you can make clear, if necessary, to a jury.

Level 4, while ubiquitous in the tournament ring, should be the rarest of self-defense skills. The locks, takedowns, holds, and pressure points common at this level are rarely fight-enders. They do not stop the threat so much as discourage the threat. Unless you break the joint (a higher level of force), a joint lock merely discourages a threat. You cannot hold the lock forever, and when you let go, the other guy is completely capable of attacking again.

As such, though locks and pins temporarily take away means, they depend on altering intent. That works best on weak intent.

Level 4 techniques are also unlikely to work against an aggressive, dangerous threat. It is very hard to actually snatch an incoming fist out of the air and apply a lock. It is difficult and dangerous to close on a knife for a take-down. Pressure points do not work nearly as well on infuriated threats as they do on eager, curious classmates.

These factors combine to make Level 4 rare outside of the law enforcement and security communities. Specifically, Level 4 techniques are not fight-enders, work best against less-dedicated threats, and are difficult to pull off without getting hurt. Civilians do not have a duty to act, so most things that can be handled at Level 4 can also be handled by walking away.

That bears repeating: Most things that can be handled at Level 4 can also be handled by walking away.

Most often, in a civilian setting, Level 4 will be used on people you don’t want to hurt, your friends and relatives. These are people who are unlikely to sue you or press charges anyway. Breaking up a fight at a family picnic, taking the keys from your inebriated roommate, immobilizing an out-of-control child, these are all legitimate uses of Level 4. Attempting to disarm a drug-crazed lunatic is not.


Level 4 includes a wide variety of techniques that are designed to gain compliance through pain or force compliance through leverage, with a relatively low risk of injury. Even though you are not intending to do lasting harm to the other guy, if you use these techniques in the wrong circumstances, you are very likely to be charged with a crime (e.g., assault, unlawful imprisonment).

The techniques will only stop a fight temporarily at best. Pain points hurt, but that’s all. If the pain does not wilt the attacker, the fight is still on, possibly with more rage thrown into the mix. Joint locks hurt and can either force or prevent movement, but you must either let them go, break the joint, or wait for help to arrive. That may take some time, perhaps a lot of time. If you have someone under control, a break or dislocation requires a whole new level of justification.

Under what circumstances could you show that someone in a lock was still an immediate threat to the degree that serious injury was appropriate? Not a rhetorical question. When we throw these questions out, think them through. In this instance, if you have someone locked up and they draw a knife with the other hand, you betcha a broken joint becomes justified.

As such, Level 4 is appropriate when you are very, very confident that you will prevail. If it turns out to be false confidence and things go sideways, they will go sideways very quickly. By attempting to apply a Level 4 technique, just like at Level 3, you are very close, well within reach of the threat. The very fact that you were sure you could handle it at this level indicates that you will be surprised when you fail.

If you decide to go in at Level 4, be prepared to immediately jump to a higher level if you start taking damage. Do not hesitate.

Joint Locks

What I love about teaching cops is that they have absolutely no bullshit threshold. If something works, fine. If not, don’t waste their time. I was advocating small joint locks for our deputies, specifically expanding our DTs to work finger-locks. When it was demo time, Ski stepped up. About six foot ten, over three-hundred pounds, he used to play the line for a professional football team. Shit.

I shook my head sadly and went to shake his hand. He responded and I turned my hand, catching one of his massive fingers in the web of my thumb and wrapping my little and ring fingers over the joint in his index finger. I immediately pulled forward and down, careful to keep pressure on.

In a second, Ski was stretched out on the floor, arm fully extended. I was stretched out as well, facing him. Staring into his cold blue eyes. “It’s a good thing I love you like a brother,” he said, “because if I didn’t I’d kick your ass as soon as you let go.”

People over-complicate joint locks. We’re aware of one style that claims to have over three hundred named wrist-locks. Impressive. Looked at from another point of view, since there are only eight possible ways to lock the wrist, it seems pretty excessive.

Here’s the skinny on locks. There are only three kinds of joints in the human body that can be locked:

  • Ball and socket (shoulder, hip, base of the fingers and toes)
  • Hinge (elbow, knee, and finger)
  • Gliding (wrist)

We are staying away from the spine, because a spine lock is a Level 6 (lethal force) technique. We also did not mention the ankle. It’s a gliding joint, like the wrist, but so muscle-bound that torque applied to the ankle almost always threatens the knee instead.

Each type of joint locks in the same way. A hinge joint lock works by hyper-extension. A ball-and-socket lock works by rotation on a lever arm. A gliding joint works by applying force, preferably along two planes simultaneously. Simple, right? It is. Don’t get caught in the big words and concepts.

Understanding locks is a much faster way to apply them in a fight than memorizing locks.

There are a few principles that make all locks work. The two most important for applying locks in a dynamic situation (like a fight) are gifts and basing.


The only way you will get a lock or a take-down is if the other guy gives it to you. Take heart. The beauty of these classes of techniques is that the threat is always giving you something; you just have to learn to see it.

For an example, unless you are much, much stronger than the other guy, you will never get an elbow-lock on an adversary who is pulling his arms in. If he pushes, however, he is giving you the elbow-lock. You just have to apply it. The pulling that negates the elbow-lock sets up the shoulder-lock and often the wrist-lock. The key skill to applying locks (and takedowns) in real life is the ability to recognize and exploit the gifts that the threat presents.


A lock is only a lock if the threat is moving or is based. You cannot hold a lock in the air unless the threat lets you. In every simple lock, there is a natural direction to move that makes the lock disappear. To combat this, you must be able to move the lock fast enough to keep the force ahead of the threat or plant the threat into a hard surface, such as the floor or a wall, so that he does not have weasel room to escape from the lock.

Putting the threat into a hard surface is called basing. A variant of basing is stacking, where you apply two locks that work in different directions. An example is a shoulder-lock with finger assist.


Maximizing your leverage is basic physics. The longer the lever arm, the more force you can apply. When applying a lock to the elbow, you want one hand on or just above the joint (the fulcrum of the lever) and the other as far down the arm as you can get, until you hit the wrist. As your hand moves toward the wrist, the lever arm becomes longer and the technique more effective. As it moves closer to the elbow, the lever arm becomes shorter and the technique less effective. With a twisting wrist-lock., your longest lever arm is diagonally across the back of the hand.

Let gravity do your work for you whenever possible. Try to keep your body weight over your technique. In an emergency, you can even drop your full weight onto a lock.

Two-way action

Two-way action is one of the fundamentals of Wally Jay’s Small Circle Jujitsu. It is critical. Many people are taught to immobilize one half of the lock (say the fulcrum) and push or pull with the other. Push and pull both ends of the lever. Push the fulcrum and pull on the lever arm (or vice versa). It is more than twice as effective as doing either alone.

Applying joint locks

Once you understand the joints, gifts, basing, leverage, and two-way action are the basics of making a lock work. The next question becomes, how do you use them? Joint locks are versatile and have several purposes.

They hurt, when properly applied. Pain as a specific tool will be addressed under pressure points in the “Specific Points” section below. It is enough for now to say that joint locks cause enough pain that many threats may decide it is not worth the risk to continue to be threats.

When joint locks work, it sends a message. Very, very few people can actually apply a joint lock in a real fight. When you do (and good joint locks, even when accidental, often look effortless), it sometimes gets interpreted that you must be a really, really good fighter. That can make the other guy rethink his decision to start trouble.

Mechanically, locks that are not based are used to make a threat move. Finger-locks are great for forcing people to stand up. Come-along locks are called “come-alongs” because they make it easy to walk someone out of an establishment. A lock that extends the threat’s center of gravity outside of his feet becomes a take-down. Based locks are used to prevent someone from moving, to freeze the threat in place while maintaining your safety until help can arrive.

Lastly, joints are easier to break than bones. To deliberately dislocate a joint is a higher level of force than Level 4. If damage is justified and you have no other options, joint locks can be adapted to higher levels of force. It takes skill, though. Until you learn to see and exploit gifts, it is very, very unlikely that you will be able to pull off a good lock in a full-scale, chaotic brawl.

Hinge joints

Hinge joints include the elbow, knee, and the joints in the middle of the fingers (and toes, but c’mon. How often do you get attacked by a barefoot guy outside the dojo? And those little suckers are tough to get a grip on. And they stink). When you see the gift of the extending or extended limb, you apply pressure at two places - the fulcrum point and as far down the lever arm as you can. It is that simple. We can show you dozens and dozens of elbow and knee locks, but they all boil down to that:

Apply pressure at two points. Simple.

A food port is the rectangular slot in a steel door in a jail cell that allows particularly dangerous inmates to be fed while keeping others out of arm’s reach. Occasionally, inmates try to attack officers, other inmates and, for some reason, especially nurses, by grabbing them through the food port and pulling their arms in to mangle.

Because the inmates in these cells are high-risk, it was policy to cuff them through the food port. It prevented force and injury if the inmate put his hands through and was cuffed before the door was even open.

A particularly dangerous one let one hand get cuffed and then tried to pull my partner’s arm through the food port. T. yanked back. I grabbed the threat’s arm. I could feel him surging; he had a foot braced against a door. I shifted direction and pressed, putting the back of his elbow against the edge of the food port. The threat continued to fight until his arm was ready to break and then gave up.

Force needs to be applied at two points. That’s all. It does not need to be hands or legs. You can apply one or both of the force pressures with your head, shoulder, furniture, or the wall. Even with the threat’s own body.

The exception: There is one other way to lock a hinge joint. Because of the way they are constructed, you can place an object in the fulcrum, at the fold (e.g., inner elbow, back of the knee) and bend the joint over it until it pops. The figure-4 leg lock is the best example of this. People often give up because of the pain trying it on an elbow, even when the joint is nowhere close to danger. The fact that fingers have two hinge joints with a length of bone in between allows for a variation of this concept.

Ball-and-Socket Joints

Ball-and-socket joints are almost too easy to write about. But they are hard to apply in action because you have to be very close (which sometimes makes the threat escalate to a higher use of force), and these locks require big motions that frequently tie up both of your hands. So there are disadvantages. That said, they are sometimes effective.

Distal (that means away from the body) to every ball-and-socket joint is a hinge joint. To make a really effective ball-and-socket joint, you bend (or find already bent) the hinge joint to ninety degrees and turn it like a water faucet. The closer the bend is to 90 degrees, the better your leverage. Twisting in one direction will lock the joint faster than the other direction, but both will get a lock.

Remember that only the hand on the leverage point applies force to the lock. The other hand stabilizes the stem of the “water faucet” to maintain the ninety degrees.

There is also an exception to the rule that ball-and-socket joints work from twisting a bent hinge joint. Because of the structure of the hinge joint, you can also create an elevated shoulder-lock, using the whole, straight arm to lever the shoulder joint apart. The leverage point on the back of the elbow can also be applied to attack the shoulder in a different direction.

The leverage point on the back of the elbow, the distal end of the humerus, can also be used to lock or tear the shoulder. If the threat’s hand is raised (the gift), the leverage point can be pushed up and back. There is a similar dynamic and the same physics in aikido’s shiho nage (four-direction throw), where the wrist or forearm is pulled down and back to attack the shoulder or take the threat to the ground.

Hips are also ball-and-socket joints. Although the principles are the same, the hip is so strong that in a healthy person, locking the hip will almost always result in just rolling the threat over, not in a great deal of pain or a dislocation.

Gliding Joints

One of the processes when you get arrested if you won’t be immediately released is “dress-in.” It’s different in different facilities, but in this particular case a group of four inmates and two officers went to a separate room. The arrestees stripped off their street clothes, hung them in labeled bags and put on their jail uniforms. Three of them did anyway.

One of them, still drunk, started talking shit, trying to provoke a reaction. You know, “Dickhead” this and “Your mother” that. The usual stuff. Just testing the water.

It was late, we were tired and frankly, we didn’t really care. As long as he got in his little jail uniform and we could take him upstairs, and let him sleep it off, he could say anything he wanted.

He didn’t see it that way. What he saw was that he wasn’t getting his ass kicked, so he started yelling his insults. We were professionals. We were actually bored. This was nothing new. So he still didn’t get his ass kicked.

So he took a swing.

I generally don’t advocate wrist-locks against punches. It takes an incredible edge in speed and precision. But this dude was a little drunk, a lot of stupid, and not particularly fast. It was the very predictable overhand right-looping punch. My hand went cross body in a circle, taking his hand from the outside, parrying it away from me. When he drew his fist back, my hand just stayed where it was, gripped and twisted.

I learned the technique as sankaju, but have heard it called sankyo. It is a rotational wrist-lock. with the hand down and the elbow above the shoulder, the forearm straight down.

I held it one handed as the inmate tried to jump up and down, yelling and thrashing.

I turned to my partner, “You got the rest of these guys, Nick?”

“Yeah. No problem.”

I marched him out with the wrist-lock. He was naked and struggling for all he was worth. I had to march him past a group of other inmates on the way to the separation cell. They started laughing. I made a point of taking a sip of coffee as we walked. That was when he realized that I’d never put down my coffee cup (I didn’t have time anyway). He calmed down when he saw that.

The wrist is a gliding joint. There is no bone-in-bone socketing. Applying a wrist-lock. is simply a matter of tightening the ligaments that hold the wrist together. The ligaments can be tightened by bending the wrist or by twisting the wrist. That’s it. Bend up, bend down. Twist clockwise, twist counterclockwise. It is almost always more efficient to bend and twist in combination.

Simple, huh? Bend up. Bend down. Twist clockwise. Twist counterclockwise. Bend up and twist clockwise. Bend up and twist counterclockwise. Bend down and twist clockwise. Bend down and twist counterclockwise. There are only eight possible wrist-locks, unless you want to get complicated just for the hell of it and bend at different angles.

The hard part about wrist-locks is that your gripping surface is usually a fist or a hand that tends to be small, sweaty, and slippery. Hard to grip and hard to apply much leverage to. This challenge makes it critical that you work the gift instead of trying to muscle the lock. If you do muscle the lock, the usual effect is not that the threat gets injured, but that your hands slip off.

If the grip is applied directly to the wrist, your own fingers create a splint and make the wrist stronger and your lock weaker.

Small joints, such as wrists and fingers, are exceptionally effective as pain-compliance techniques. They hurt a lot, which tends to make it easier to use to force a threat to move. Wrists are also rarely injured. No bone is directly affected, so the injury that would be most likely is a pull or tear of the tendons or ligaments. Most people do not have the grip strength to pull this off - their hands will slip before the threat’s tendons snap.

From a liability standpoint, that makes wrist-locks a great choice and something taught to most officers and many martial artists. The downside is that they are very difficult to pull off against someone who’s attacking.

Wrist-locks do not have the mechanical leverage or anatomical ability to control the entire body, such as some elbow-locks can do. As such, if the threat does not respond to pain, you cannot rely on a wrist-lock.

If you are unfamiliar with locking, get a partner and play with each other’s wrists. See how far you have to twist it before pain occurs. Notice that you may have to twist much farther clockwise than counterclockwise (or vice versa) depending on position. Do the same thing with bending in all directions. Then combine bending with twisting again, all bends plus each possible twist. Practice this from different positions and with different grips. You must rely on your partner for honest feedback.

Repeat the above, but feel where the joint “sticks,” where the tendons have tightened to their limits of motion without stretching. This should be very near the point of pain, but it is this feeling you will be looking for when you apply the technique on a threat.

Wrist-locks will never be a primary assault survival technique, but they are useful, especially if you can gain surprise, as come-alongs.


Fingers are tiny marvels of engineering. And they give many opportunities for play and pain. Each finger is a ball-and-socket joint with two hinge joints and set close enough to other fingers that they can be twisted across each other. In addition, a hard object placed between a threat’s fingers and squeezed can give some excruciating pain, and so can any ring a threat happens to be wearing.

Fingers are delicate, easy to break. They are very sensitive to pain in most people, and when a drunk is feeling pain nowhere else, he can often still feel some in his fingers.

Conversely, some finger-locks. are fine motor skills and you may have some difficulty pulling them off under stress. Not always, though. Just latching onto something is a primate stress ability and if it is a finger or two, that’s fine. You may not be able to make the threat dance with exquisitely nuanced pressure, but you can still twist the damn things. You may also find in some close fighting, particularly on the ground, that, if the gift presents itself, fingers are easy to latch onto.

To use the hinge joint aspects of the fingers, catch the tip of one or two fingers in the web of your thumb and curl the other fingers over the back of the threat’s fingers. The ring finger often makes contact at the point of maximum leverage. If the threat has really large hands, it may be the little finger. Either way, try to keep your other fingers out of the way. If they grip, they act as splints and decrease the effectiveness of the lock.

Maintain constant pressure on both points of contact. Hands are squirrelly and the threat will try to move unless you base him (by planting him in a wall or over a table, for instance) or base the lock, which you can do by pressing the palm of the locked hand against an unmoving surface, including you or the threat. If you cannot base, the easiest way to maintain pressure is to concentrate on pointing your index finger at the threat’s elbow.

The reverse of this grip is to get the pads of the threat’s fingers into your palm, or under your thumb, and use your other fingers to apply pressure to the joint.

The ball-and-socket joint aspects of fingers can be manipulated by twisting a bent finger. Straight fingers can also be twisted around each other for a similar effect. Fingers are a pretty effective tool. Done right, they can be leveraged to control bigger and more powerful adversaries.

Practicing Joint Locks

The key to using locks in a real situation is to recognize the opportunity to apply the lock. Physical skills are much easier than observational skills.

The Joint Lock Flow Drill requires a partner. It is a non-resisting drill. Both partners stand facing each other. You apply a lock of any kind to your partner (not fast, not hard, don’t hurt each other). The partner analyzes the lock and escapes (you do not prevent the escape by changing or adapting; that is not the drill. You must cooperate to learn the most from each other).

The most common ways to escape include going with the pain, sliding the locked limb off one or both of the contact points, or turning/rotating the locked limb at ninety degrees to the lines of pressure. You can use a free limb to apply this technique, but usually the trapped limb can extricate itself.

Once the partner has escaped, both of you will be in a different position. The partner then decides what locks your position presents and goes for the most efficient option. You then escape and the drill repeats for as long as you want. Stay in contact and move slowly enough that you are using technique rather than brute force. Done properly, this becomes a moving drill that will have you locking and escaping locks from a wide variety of positions. Don’t focus on getting a tight lock or a perfect lock; you are training your eyes to detect an available lock and your body to feel it.

You will also find as you increase the speed or if you gradually decide to increase the force that you learn a lot about what locks actually are, what it takes to make them work, and how to escape from them more efficiently. Remember that this drill is not a fight or a simulation. It is not about winning or losing. It is simply about learning to see and feel.


When someone wants to fight in an elevator, you push his face in to a corner. That simple. You don’t give him the space to kick or throw an elbow. You keep your weight pressed into his back and he can’t usually get the leverage to push away. Hell, if he does push away, you go with it and just pivot him face down to the ground.

Sometimes all you can do, or all you need to do, is to stop someone from moving. When we are talking immobilizations, we are not talking about sport pins or positions of dominance, but forcing the threat into a position where he cannot move and you can. Like locks, these are not fight-enders. These are techniques that you use to buy space or time to escape.

Immobilizations can be used to buy yourself a second to escape, to hold the threat until help can arrive, or to put him in a bad position so that you can use another technique. Oftentimes the follow up will have to be performed at a higher level of force, but not always.

Freezing the threat can be done with a tiny bit of effort, but it is not easy and takes good timing. The most common is pinning on the heels. When the weight is on both heels, right at the point of imbalance, the bad guy must recover his balance before he can move.

Humans are what a tracker would call a “direct register” animal. That means that when you are walking naturally, if your right foot is forward, your right hand is back. A sharp tug, straight down or slightly down and back, on the rear hand forces the center of gravity back and plants both feet. You can use the same technique with the back of the collar on a threat standing with his feet and shoulders square. If you watch American football, you have undoubtedly seen a horse-collar tackle, same principle with a twist at the end…

A threat can also be frozen in a state of unbalance. Bringing a threat up on his toes, or up onto his heels (subtly different than pinning on his heels), or posted on one foot prevents him from moving or striking effectively until he has recovered. This technique can buy you valuable time in a fight, and can also facilitate your ability to redirect or control an adversary.

The most common immobilization is to plant someone into a solid object - a wall, the hood of a car, the floor. There are a few tricks to making this more efficient. If his face is on the wall, the farther his feet are away from the wall, the less power he will have in trying to throw himself back. He, will, however, have a big triangle of space that he can use by collapsing or stepping in. Skilled opponents will escape that way. If he is pressed against the wall so that there’s little to no space, on the other hand, he can apply much more power toward pushing himself off, and likely has the balance to kick backward or elbow effectively. Unless he is against the wall, his arms are not between him and the wall AND he is on his toes. Then he’s pretty much screwed.

The best solution, often, is full length into the wall but up on his toes. You need to control both shoulders, probably with your forearm across his back, to prevent him from twisting.

It is okay to shove someone into a wall who is facing you, assuming all other justifications are in place. It is stupid to try to immobilize someone via wall or floor who is facing you. Immobilizing does not necessarily tie up arms or legs and puts you in prime striking range while keeping your own weapons busy. Going for a face-up pin in a real fight is a sporting artifact that can get you killed.

If the threat is this close in, this hands on, and especially if the threat takes you to the ground, this is not a polite game. The reason you can sometimes get away with a level of force as low as an immobilization is that you are not in danger of serious immediate injury. If you are in danger, use another technique. Escalate to the next level or even higher up as the situation warrants.

Even if you take someone to the ground face down, be careful about being tied up there. The situation can turn bad very quickly, particularly if the threat has friends nearby. If your goal is to escape, do so. The immobilization just buys you a second or two. You do not go all the way to the ground with the threat.

If you intend to hold the threat while help arrives (for instance a mentally ill child having a severe episode), be absolutely sure that you have enough of an edge in strength and skill to make it work. There can be an awful lot of pain and injury to hand out at that range. Be sure you need to do it and be sure you can handle it. And make sure there is no other threat that will put the boots to you while you’re tied up.

There is a physiological lock that works on the ground with relatively low risk, although if the threat thrashes around enough he might injure himself. With the arm fully extended ninety degrees away from the body and the back of the elbow up, pressure just above the elbow can pin the whole body to the floor. The threat must be prevented from thrashing, particularly from moving the body closer to or away from the pinned arm. Nevertheless, this lock tends to be pretty reliable.

In real life, the winner in a ground fight is not the strongest, the meanest, or the most skillful. The winner will be decided by whose friends get there first.

Another technique that buys time, immobilizes the threat, and has minimal risk of injury is to step on the other guy’s clothing when he is down. Baggy pants, in particular, immobilize both legs and the lower spine when you step on the saggy part just below the threat’s crotch. Similarly, stepping on his collar with your foot inside his shirt can keep him from getting up and reengaging.

Some institutions, particularly those dealing with children, the mentally ill, and people in fragile health that are sometimes combative, advocate a “therapeutic hug” as a self-defense technique. At high levels of threat, particularly if weapons are involved, this policy is suicidal. At very low levels of threat, hugging someone until they calm down might work. It may also drive them into a panicked frenzy.

The key to making a “tactical hug” work is to control the elbows, knees, and head. You may still get pinched, but try to avoid bites, fingernail claws, and elbow or knee attacks. Possibly the best advantage of the hug is that if you are strong enough or in a good position, you can dump the threat on the ground and get away quickly.

Less impressive, but just as important, can be immobilizing a part of the threat. The elbow has enough leverage to control a threat’s entire upper body. You can often control the legs with pressure on the shoulder. And there is always standing on a foot…

Elbow control works either through the crease of the elbow or the back of the elbow on the upper arm. A sudden grab thrust into the creases of both elbows freezes everything for a second. But just for a second, and you are in prime striking range. Unless you are better at wrestling, use the time to get out of there or transition to something else. And watch for head-butts.

The leverage point on the back of the elbow can be used to pull the threat off balance, turn him. Since we’re talking about immobilizations, it is worth noting that you can place your body or even neck against the back of a threat’s elbow to deny him the ability to turn or the distance he needs to develop sufficient power for an effective counterstrike.

There are limits, of course. Leverage increases power, but it isn’t magic. The shoulders apply leverage across the spine and can affect the arms and the legs. If you apply force down on the threat’s right shoulder, especially down and with a slight vector lateral to his body, that threatens his balance. And he cannot lift his right foot. A pull, twisting his right shoulder forward, can prevent him reaching you with his left foot or left fist. A little more force in any of these vectors can pull the threat off balance. Most people can’t strike effectively when falling.

Pushing and Shoving (and Assisting)

We’ve more or less covered this in the projecting touch section already, but here is a bit more explanation. Pushing someone away can create space and time. In business, time is money. In a fight, time is safety. The threat must recover the distance, and that is one element of time. He will probably have to recover his balance and reorient as well. That’s bonus time.

If a threat is pushing or charging, don’t meet force with force. Unless the threat was stupid and decided, for some reason, to become aggressive with someone bigger and stronger, a strength contest with an adversary is a losing game. There are three principles that are critical for pushing someone who is bigger than you:

  • Push from your strength into his weakness.
  • Push with an upward vector.
  • Exploit his momentum.

Push from your strength into his weakness

This may sound mystical, but it’s just physics. No matter how you stand, your posture affects the directions you can move with power and the directions you can be easily unbalanced. If you stand with your feet together, you are vulnerable in every direction and cannot apply power. Any stance where your feet are farther apart than the length of your foot gives you a strong direction and a weak direction. The line from foot to foot is the strong direction. You can easily leap in that line. You can push.

A punch that ends directly in line with your strong line (or parallel to it) will have structure. A punch at an angle to that line will be weaker. A punch at right angles to the line is more likely to push you off balance than to hurt the threat. Perpendicular to that line and running right between the feet is the weak line. Use these stance variations to your advantage. If you push into the weak line, the threat is more likely to lose his balance.

Quick physics quiz - a strike into the strong line is apt to do more damage. Why?

Strong and weak lines are the grade-school explanation of what is going on here. But these descriptions are adequate for pushing people. So the first principle in pushing people is to push from your strong line into their weak line. Note that this is all about foot position. Hip and shoulder position are completely irrelevant. Unfortunately, most folks use hips and shoulders as a clue to where the feet are. That is wrong most of the time and is a specific reason why takedowns often fail. Force in the wrong direction is wasted.

Push with an upward vector

The second principle is to push with an upward vector. Not a lot; a very slight upward angle is enough. Pushing down can actually set the other guy on a firmer platform, keeping him from falling. Pushing straight across turns into a strength and weight contest; if you are the smaller combatant, you’ll lose. A little upward vector breaks the threat’s connection with the ground and makes everything more effective. It is also easier for short people, so take advantage of it.

Exploit his momentum

Exploiting momentum is a variation on the “gift” principle mentioned in the section “Joint Locks.” If a threat is coming straight at you and you go straight at him, it will be a strength and weight contest. If you hit him at an angle, don’t try to stop him but just make him miss; his own momentum, his own weight and speed become part of the force he must overcome to recover. Using the other guy’s force against him is a time-honored strategy of the grappling arts. Time it well and you can be out of there by the time he turns around.


There wasn’t much of a fight. The backup call came in and it was over before I could get through the four doors and up the stairs and sprint the 200 yards. One inmate, talking shit and making threats. He was already handcuffed. Four or five officers surrounding him, generally ignoring the rant, leading him off to disciplinary segregation.

As I got close, he made that distinctive hawking noise deep in his throat. I lunged forward, driving my thumb into the glands under the jaw, forcing his head to the side and up.

“Do NOT spit,” I said. “I’m not sure I could save your life.” It was also a felony.

Spitting rarely ends well in corrections. Saliva is not a win-win.

“I wasn’t gonna spit on you, sarge.” As if who mattered.

Pain is unreliable and idiosyncratic. Some people curl up in a ball and start crying with a pinch. Other people - or even the exact same person on a different day - may not even feel a limb torn off in an accident. Endorphins? Sure. You don’t think people get a boatload of endorphins when they fight?

When something worked really well in class, never forget that it worked on a healthy, sober, sane person who was not enraged, terrified, or drugged up.

Causing pain, especially in a survival fight, cannot be a primary goal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not; nevertheless, it almost always makes other techniques easier. Things work better, often, under the influence of a little pain.

And pain has one good side: Pain is not injury.

When you look at the force options, you see how important that concept is. The entire idea is to do the least harm to achieve the goal. It is best to have everything happen in the threat’s own head. He sees a witness or a poor target choice and he moves on. Presence. Next best are a few words. It might hurt his feelings or disrupt his world view, but it does not even violate his personal space until we get to touch. Only at Level 4 do we make things happen or stop happening by pushing, pulling, locking, dropping, or pain. All of that is to avoid injury, and injury is the likely result of the strikes needed at Level 5. Level 5 is in preference to Level 6, which may leave not just a piece of meat who used to be a man, but possibly widows and orphans as well.

Pain is not injury. People who have not experienced much of either often confuse the two. Tasers and finger locks hurt, but they do far less injury than batons or fists. Screaming in pain makes for better video than swelling and discoloration and a joint that never works quite right again. People get outraged by the dramatic video and don’t think of the real cost of the alternative. And then they sue… enough philosophy.

There are three legitimate reasons to use pain:

  • As a bargaining tool. You jab a pressure point to say, “I will quit doing this if you will quit doing that.” If the threat leaves, or lets go of the arm, the pain stops.
  • To draw a response. It is still idiosyncratic, but lots of pressure points have fairly reliable flinches. If a grind across the ribs makes the threat jerk sideways, it can help throw him off when he is on top and you are on the ground, getting pounded. There is a point under the jaw that tends to twist the spine up and back, setting up a sweep. An edge-of-hand “saw” across the jaw hinge tends to make people want to roll over into a better handcuffing position…you get the idea.
  • To buy a second. A sudden, sharp, unexpected pain can be really distracting. Really bad pain, like some bites, can shut down the threat’s brain for a short time and buy you an instant to do

something else.

There is a fourth application for pain. It has no place in self-defense and, long-term, it is a loser but some people believe in education through pain. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson, boy.” The challenge is that the lesson taught, when there is one, is almost never the lesson you think. If you get self-righteous and teach someone a lesson about using bad language in front of women, he does not learn to be more polite. He does learn that you’re an insecure, power-tripping prick. That’s lesson one. He will also learn that it is wiser to cause you harm from ambush next time, lesson two.

His third lesson is that you believe that power, the ability to beat him up, gives you the right to decide whom to beat up. He knows that you believe ‘might makes right…and that may be okay with him. He may share that worldview. If he does, he may be compelled to “get his manhood back” by delivering a beating himself. Maybe to a woman or a child. And why not? You just sent the message loud and clear that he who can do it gets to decide.

You must be careful with any application of force, but pure pain has some special considerations.

Using simultaneous multiple pressure points at one time seems to be less effective. We’ve found time and again that if multiple officers are all using pressure points, they seem to not work at all. Our working theory is that once the nerves get overloaded, the brain just quits registering them at all. Too much pain becomes noise and tends to be ignored.

Secondly, with pain or any of the techniques at Level 4, you are using a low level of force to deal with a relatively low level of threat. Constantly monitor the threat to ensure you are not driving them into a panic. Some people panic when held down. Some panic to pain. If the threat you are trying not to hurt suddenly goes into a fear-driven frenzy, someone may get hurt. Maybe you.


A very useful pain point that ordinary people think of but for some reason martial artists tend to forget about is hair. When it is available, a good fistful of head hair can be one of your most effective tools. It has the wonderful combination of pain and incredible leverage. Further, the leverage is applied to one of the most important control targets in the body - the spine.

It’s easy to use if there is enough hair. Stick your fingers in, make a fist, give it a twist. Like any hold or lock, the technique must serve your goal. Twining your fingers in someone’s hair doesn’t exactly lend itself to running away.

The pain compliance aspect is pretty clear, but there are some nuances. Small amounts of hair hurt more than a fistful, but the grip is weaker. For most people, hair at the sides, just in front of the ear, seems to hurt more than other places on the head.

Used as a leverage application, always think in spirals. Oftentimes the leverage will be great enough that you can push, pull, bend or twist the threat’s head, but not always. A strong neck can resist a lot of force. But it takes a much stronger neck to resist a force in multiple directions, such as a pull and a twist.

A spiral down and to the front makes the threat bend over, and can whip him off his feet. (Imagine you are standing face to face. Your right hand goes out, past the threat’s head on his left side and then behind the head to grab the hair behind his right ear. Pull forward and down while twisting your hand palm up at your right hip.)

An upward spiral can pin him on his toes or heels or break his connection with the ground. If you can get his head moving fast enough, his feet will not be able to catch up and he will belly-plant onto the ground.

Hair techniques are not consequence free, nor are they completely safe. Slight variations on the torque can apply enough force to severely injure the neck, possibly resulting in paralysis or death (a much higher level of force). One of our mentors, after using a hair-hold to effect a take-down on a violent drunk later found a lock of hair with a piece of scalp still attached tangled in his fingers.

Pressure Points in General

There are all kinds of esoteric formulas out there designed to make pressure points work better. We are skeptical. We crunched the numbers on one of the more famous systems that describes times, cycles-of-destruction, polarities, and whatnot. We found that if the system is correct, it is impossible to survive a good massage. Here is a rule of thumb: If someone has to spend twenty minutes explaining what is supposed to happen before he tries it on you, the twenty-minute explanation is part of the technique. It may be it doesn’t work so well under an instant assault.

Generally, you attack a pressure point with the smallest structured surface that you can. Finger or thumb tips work well, but it must be the tip (structured, bone) not the pad. The knuckles, the point of the elbow, even the forearm bones or shins can work. Some points work better pressed, some respond to a grinding action. All those particulars are covered for each individual point.

When you practice, you must use a partner and the partner must communicate. Digging in until he has deep bruises because the partner is too proud to say that you have done it right is not only stupid on the partner’s side, but you do not learn anything either. Remember, this stuff doesn’t work on everyone.

A note on pressure points, nerves, trigger points, and pain points: Purists get their panties in a twist on definitions. Which are nerve points? Which are meridians? What follows is a short list of relatively reliable points, what we have found them to do, and how to use them. The “why” and the definitions are window dressing. We’re going for practical here.

You must be able to find the points, at the right angle, from different positions, with either hand (or other grinding surfaces) when you cannot see them. That is not so hard.

Specific Points

We once made a list of all the pressure points we have actually used and it ran to 113. Some are obscure (one on the chest that, for some reason, feels like burning for minutes after you stop applying pressure to it). Some are just wrong (sinus headache for a couple of days, anyone?). The points that follow are some of the more useful, as well as more consistently effective. Not all work on everybody, particularly if they are on certain drugs, enraged, or trained to “seal” them up. There are a few people who are insensitive to all or almost all pressure points. It has been said before and we’ll say it again:

If something does not work, do something else. Quickly.


The philtrum is the little divot in your upper lip right in the middle that runs from your lip to your nose. At the top of the philtrum, at the base of the nose, is a little ridge of bone. The rest of the nose is cartilage. Force applied inward and upward at the philtrum (think “extending the spine” not “squashing the skull”) applies a lot of leverage on the head. And it hurts. A lot. Use the edge of your hand, taking care to keep the hand flat so it cannot be bit. This is the most reliable pain point we have found.

A great application for this is when two guys are wrestling around on the ground and you need to separate them. Step in from behind and use the philtrum to peel the guy on top off his victim. Another application is a standing come-along where you capture one arm, shoot your arm across the other guy’s body, and use the blade edge of your hand to crank his head back at the philtrum. Keep the pressure on and you can usually move him with ease.


Taught at almost all police academies, the mastoid point is in the soft spot under the ear just behind the jaw. It hurts. Not everyone is sensitive to it, but if you press forward into the back of the jaw bone, instead of straight in, it tends to work better. This is a pure bargaining technique. The pain is not sharp enough to make a threat freeze, and the flinch is slow and not often useful. Most officers are taught to stabilize the head in any case.

Jaw hinge

Right at the muscles that bulges over the jaw. You can deliver some pain by grounding with knuckles at this point while standing. The best applications for this point, however, are on the ground. If the threat is on his back, a grinding action over the point from the back toward his mouth makes him want to roll away. His face-down position is safer for you. The technique does not make him move, it just adds some influence. Forearm, shin, or even edge of the boot applied to the point when the threat is on the ground (face up or face down) makes him not want to move at all. A quick pressure here as you spring away buys you a little more time to leave.

Lymph nodes

In the soft spot right under the corner of the jaw is the same place your throat swells up when you are getting sick. A rigid thumb to this point, aimed like you are going right through the center of the skull, not only hurts but makes the head go back and up, exposing the throat, twisting the spine, and compromising balance. This application can be used to facilitate escalation to a higher level of force, say if the threat starts to draw a weapon.

Suprasternal notch

Is in the throat, right above the sternum, just below the cartilage of the trachea. Here is a big, stupid secret: Almost everything on the neck is a pressure point. You can pinch the muscles, squeeze the trachea, dig your fingers into the carotid triangle (if you’re trying to be fancy), or pretty much any damn place and it all hurts. The thing about the suprasternal notch is that not only does it hurt, it also triggers the gag reflex. Most people back off when they are choking. The force is straight in on some people, or straight in and then down on others. This point does not work on everybody. A certain percentage of people do not have a gag reflex. This point becomes one of the least sensitive on the throat if you run into one of them. Can you say Plan B anyone…


Intercostals is a fancy way of saying the area between the ribs. Grinding your knuckles across the bones, right where the front and sides of the ribs make a “corner” makes some people flinch. It makes others squirm. It’s amazing how many big, macho, martial artists and cops are really ticklish. Most people find it unpleasant (not agonizing) and turn away from the sensation.


Axillary is the medical term for the armpit. If you can get a stiffened finger or two deep into the armpit, go deep, right between the muscles until you feel bone, it hurts quite a lot. Most people jerk away and try to clamp their arm down, which can shorten their reach and make them let go of things (like weapons they might wish to draw or deploy). Easier to reach and sometimes just as useful, if you have strong fingers, is digging into either the pectoral or trapezius muscles that frame the armpit.


Inguinal is the crease where the thigh meets the body in front. It is the same place where first aid class teaches you to put pressure on the femoral artery to slow bleeding. It feels icky. It hurts a little, tends to make that hip flinch back, compromising structure, and it makes a lot of people feel violated.

Triceps tendon

Located directly on the back of the upper arm about an inch above the elbow, this tendon is only accessible if the arm is straight. Using this point makes all of the arm-bars work better. When standing, pain is best achieved when standing, with a grind or rub across the back of the arm. On the ground, however, once the threat is face down and the arm extended to the side (see the physiological lock under in the “Immobilizations” section above), you can kneel or even stand on this point. If the threat can feel pain at all, this application will usually make him not want to fight.

Inner elbow

There are actually a suite of four effective pressure points on the inner elbow, two on the upper arm and two on the forearm. The most useful is on the thumb side, just below the crease of the elbow, right at the top of that little muscle mound. When the elbow is bent, it already makes a good leverage point to twist the threat’s body. The pressure point adds a little emphasis.

Inner thigh

On the inside of the upper leg about two or three inches above the knee is a remarkably sensitive spot. It is vulnerable to a swift toe-kick, particularly if you are wearing boots. A strike there can make the leg wobble or collapse. This technique is often used in sports martial arts as a way to break out of a guard, by pressing your elbows into both of the opponent’s pressure points at the same time. The point tends to make the legs pop apart. You can also stand on this pressure point while controlling the threat’s opposite leg in an Achilles lock.

Side of knee

There are several pressure points on the foot and leg, but most are not really helpful in a self-defense situation. Some points are better kicked or kneed (Level 5) than used purely for pain or control. The best pure pain point is on the outside of the leg and slightly back, below the knee and just under the bony knob. It hurts if pressed or ground, but it is most useful for making someone stay down once they are on the ground or pushing away as you escape.


He was bare-chested, remnants of purple and gold body-paint clinging to his skin. It looked like there’d been a letter written on his chest, but the frigid downpour had washed most of it off. I would have thought he’d be cold, running around with no shirt in all that rain, but he didn’t seem to notice. Probably because he was working himself into a rage.

Unfortunately, the object of that all anger was my employee, a young woman a full head shorter and a good hundred pounds lighter than the threat. They were standing next to the chain-link fence, where a gate allowed access to the football field. Cussing, spitting, gesticulating wildly, he was right up in her face. She held her ground, but I was afraid she was about to get hurt.

“I’ll fucking go where I want to go, bitch. I want on the field and you can’t stop me!” As I approached his blind side, he shoved his hand into her face, two fingers pressing up against her nose. He’d touched her. I could act.

I reached across, grabbed his hand, cranked his wrist, and pivoted in a sharp spiral. From the shocked expression on his face, he hadn’t even realized that I was there. Then he landed in a mud puddle with a satisfying splash. I kept a hold of his wrist, planted a foot on his upper arm at the shoulder, and held him there until an officer arrived.

He blew a blood alcohol level of 0.13. That’s one hell of a tolerance for a nineteen-year-old.

Getting a threat off his feet will rely on many of the principles already discussed, particularly gifts and maximizing leverage. Your ability to apply a throw or sweep in a struggle is heavily influenced by how you practice. In order to improvise under pressure, just going through the motions will not be enough. You must practice with live, moving, resisting opponents.

That said, you will develop bad habits and waste much time. Judoka become so good at throwing because they work against people who are specifically resisting throws. That’s good, except one of the most common ways in real life to resist a throw is to punch you in the nose. Judoka don’t regularly practice against that.

It is also far, far easier to get a throw in real life than in a competition. In competition, in order to get a shoulder or full-entry hip throw, you must use exquisite timing and explosive movement to get your back to the opponent without him exploiting your vulnerability.

In real life, you will get the same throw because the threat grabbed you from behind. The hard part in competition is often the easy part in real life. Not exactly what you’d expect, but true.

Like any aspect of grappling or close-range fighting, just reading a book or article is a terrible way to develop the skill. Grappling is profoundly tactile. You must feel in order to understand. You must feel it moving and in chaos before you can really use it. Find a good instructor and spend some time on the mat.


There are thousands upon thousands of throws, but in the end there are only a very few ways to get someone on the ground without injuring them. Now it is time for that more advanced way to look at balance.

It’s not just lines. Your feet make a base. In grappling, every point of contact you have with the ground helps create stability. Just like the base on a chess piece. If you are standing with feet shoulder width apart, the base can be outlined as the outside edge of your feet, a line toe to toe, and another line heel to heel, making a rectangle. A similar base can be drawn for any foot configuration or body position on the ground.

About a hand’s breadth below the navel and halfway between your belly and your spine is your Center of Gravity (CoG). If your center of gravity leaves your base, you lose balance. If you do not get your base under it quickly, you fall. That is all falling really is.

From this perspective, the weak lines of balance are merely the places where the CoG is closest to the edge of the base. The strong lines are strong because you would have to move the CoG farther to get the same effect. From this model, you can see that you affect a take-down by moving the CoG outside of the base, by changing the shape of the base so that the CoG is no longer supported, or by damaging the structure supporting the CoG.

That probably seems kind of convoluted, but it is simple. Understanding something simply really helps when you need to improvise under pressure.

What follows are some types of takedowns. In real life, there are a lot of mixed types. It is more efficient to add good leverage and a sweep to the threat’s momentum than to use any of the three ideas alone. The classifications help explain the concept, nothing more.

Momentum takedowns

Sometimes when the threat is putting a lot of energy into an action, like a powerful swing, a kick, or a charge, his CoG will outrun his base. Or his base will outrun his CoG as in a kick, à la Charlie Brown going after the football when it is suddenly pulled away. If there is enough power, you simply get out of his way.

Sometimes a little steering is necessary in order to keep the center of gravity moving. The judo throw uke otoshi is based on uke (the opponent) taking a powerful step and tori (that’d be you) tugging slightly, keeping the CoG moving straight over the forward foot. The back foot cannot move up to catch the balance. Uke falls down.

Sometimes, as in curling up into a turtle when being chased, the feet are blocked to prevent them from catching the CoG. Same result. Bad guy falls down, goes boom.

Leverage takedowns

When you just push someone over, it is often leverage: pushing on the chin while stabilizing the spine, or the head and arm throw. Even osoto-gari, the outside leg sweep, uses leverage so effectively that often the sweeping action is unnecessary. That is particularly true when you corkscrew the adversary rather than pulling straight or at an angle.


Sweeps are simple. Sort of. There are several categories.

In a static sweep, you freeze the threat’s center of gravity over one side of his base and then knock the support leg out from under that side. Simple. The outer reap (e.g., osoto gari) is the most common example. You must pin the weight over the foot. This sweep fails if you attempt it on a foot that is in the air because the center of gravity is over the other foot.

Other sweeps are moving sweeps. The act of walking (or running or combat footwork) involves shifting your center of gravity outside of your base as you change the base to catch it. That sounds complicated, but it is only this: Walking is merely a controlled falling. Each step is catching your balance with a new base before you can finish the fall. You move forward.

In a moving sweep, you prevent the foot from catching the center of gravity. To pull off a moving sweep in a competition requires exquisite timing, even more so in a serious fight. It can be fairly easy trying to apply to a slow drunk whom you do not want to hurt but do need to stop. The cool thing about moving sweeps is that if you have exquisite timing; they require almost no strength. The threat practically throws himself.

You must sweep the foot that is about to catch the weight and do it before the foot actually touches the ground. Executing your move before the threat’s foot touches down is the key to timing any moving sweep.

A note on technique and techniques: There are lots of different throws, sweeps, and takedowns in martial arts. You can memorize a whole bunch or you can learn the principles, learn to recognize the opportunity (gifts), and improvise. Osoto gari sweeps the entire length of the opponent’s leg. Osoto gake chops at his ankle. From a principles-based standpoint, the difference is cosmetic. You are removing one of the props that he needs for balance, the specific prop he is most committed to. Whether you remove that prop with the whole length of your leg, a powerful kick, or a chainsaw, the effect is the same, although a chainsaw would be considered a much higher level of force.

You can stop the foot, as in a classic sasae tsurikomi ashi (lifting, pulling foot sweep): as the threat steps forward, his back foot must become his front foot. This motion is commonly called taking a step. You put something in the way of that (your own foot, the tip of a cane, or a low obstacle you can kick), the threat falls. Ever missed a step? Tripping, is what we call it when it happens by accident. If you are behind the threat and have good timing, you can knock his advancing foot sideways across his center-line so that it catches on the back of his own leg. Tripping over his own feet.

You can also cross the foot, as in de ashi harai (single-foot sweep). The advancing foot gets kicked or gently guided across the threat’s center-line. The step never gets under the center of gravity.

You can also extend a moving sweep. The foot advances and you keep pulling it forward, never letting it touch the ground, à la ko uchi gari (minor inner foot reap). The threat’s sensation is that he took a step that just kept getting longer and longer without ever touching the ground. He threw his foot at the floor and missed. If he could do it with his whole body, it would be flight. Do it with just part of the body and it is falling.

From the principles of base and CoG, it should be obvious why there is no judo sweep that spreads the legs to the outside. (We keep kicking these little things to you, like “it should be obvious” or “explain why” or throw out a question without an answer. This is important. You need to think for yourself. Always. You need to understand stuff, not just know it. Everything in this or any article is just words on a page. That’s, at best, knowledge. You want to apply this when you are scared and desperate, so you need, at minimum, understanding. When you can tie things together, draw conclusions, and see connections, you are at least moving in the right direction.)

True throws

Yeah, I love judo. So? What I classify as true throws are techniques where you get your center of gravity under the threat’s CoG and break his connection with the ground. Then you follow through. Often by spinning him over your CoG, but sometimes just by hip-bumping high enough that his legs get in the air and guiding his upper body to hit first.

You must be close to make classical throws work. We do not hold backpacks away from our backs. When you slam a car door with a quick hip action because your hands are full, you can’t do it at a distance. This is body-contact stuff.

Throws, in real life, are often easy if you get the right gift. When grabbed tight from behind by a taller person, the set-up is natural. You must, however, learn to maintain or recover your spine integrity in order to pull the throw off. If the other guy grabs you from behind in such a way that you are straight-backed, especially on your toes and leaning back, you will not be able to apply force. Your straightened or concave spine robs your abdominal muscles and legs of power.

There are two ways to recover:

  • The butt slam, where you thrust your pelvis forward to create space, and then slam your butt backward into the threat’s groin.
  • Going limp, which often creates a throw all by itself.

Bonus point: If you drop suddenly so that you are on one knee, the down leg hooking the threat’s foot, you have combined a true throw with a momentum ploy with a moving/stop sweep. See how this works?

When in a scuffle (We chose this word carefully; in a real survival fight, throws are extras. You need to concentrate on damage. Sure, the ground can hit harder than the fist, but only if the other guy doesn’t know how to fall properly. There are an awful lot of experienced grapplers out there…), clinches of various types are common. Many people try to hold their hips back in a clinch, which makes them extremely vulnerable to the class of forced-momentum throws called sacrifice throws or sutemi-waza. Holding your hips back, especially if the clinch angles off to the side such as when the other guy is looking for a headlock, often gives you exactly what you need to slip your hip in low to his front and do one of the classic hip throws.

One of the easiest of the true throws is to come up behind the threat, grab him tight with your own CoG low, and thrust your hips forward while straightening your legs. Your CoG will make a wave action under his CoG and knock his feet high in the air.

That’s all cool about getting the threat into the air. You also have to talk about the ground. Throws end when the unfortunate recipient stops falling, not when he starts falling. Abrasions and minor bruising are the most common injuries from takedowns. Someone thrown into a table or the edge of a curb, however, could be seriously injured. By serious, we mean broken spine. Back of the head caved in. Stuff like that. If deadly force is justified, that is not an issue. If it is not (and remember we are talking Level 4 here), doing it deliberately is excessive force

Doing this type of take-down by accident would be tragic - picture this: You’re in a play scuffle with your best friend. He’s been drinking and wants to drive home. You want him to wait a bit. You’re buddies, so the mild argument turns into playful pushing. You want to show him he’s too drunk to be coordinated so you effortlessly trip him - and he hits the edge of the coffee table going down. He can’t feel his feet…

That is not intended to discourage you. If a take-down is appropriate, use a take-down. Just as there is no technique that works every time, there is no technique that is 100 percent safe, either. Rory once put a finger-lock on a guy in a Norse-wrestling competition and he went completely berserk. How was he to know that a 300-pound-biker-looking dude was a concert cellist?

If you are in excellent control of the situation, you can literally guide the fall. If appropriate, slow the descent and let or make the threat spread out on the surface area or even roll with the impact. The follow-through commonly taught with the true throws (judo hip and shoulder throws) is specifically designed to minimize injury. Pulling up on the arm at the last minute may give you opportunities to apply pins and locks, but the real purpose is to minimize injury. You do not see that movement in koryu forms, the battlefield martial arts.

These older systems had follow-throughs that were designed to cause damage by:

  • Focusing impact on the cervical spine (potentially lethal).
  • Targeting the point of the shoulder (crippling).
  • Attacking the tailbone, which hurts unbelievably, but you get over it (is there a word for short-term crippling?).
  • Knocking the wind out of the adversary (temporary incapacitation).

That is without deliberately aiming at sharp corners, traffic, or big drop-offs, any of which can significantly increase the amount of damage the victim receives from the throw itself. As you can see, they didn’t mess around in the koryu martial arts.

Knee pops

Knee pops are a nice way to destroy the structure that supports the center of gravity. Obviously a straight knee can be popped forward with a light kick, but there are several “pops” that work well in extremely close fights.

A straight knee is vulnerable from all four sides. Sharp pressure or a blow on the side or front of a knee can cause permanent injury. A bent knee is vulnerable from the sides and somewhat from the back. The side pops from the inside can cause injury if done sharply, but if done a little slower, the knee has a tendency to “give,” jerking away from the force, opening the hips, and compromising structure. Side pops on the outside of a bent knee tend to turn the knee across the center-line, usually compromising balance and often giving you the threat’s back. Turn him so that you can strike from behind where he cannot defend himself. There are two ways of getting behind someone, moving you or moving him. Moving him is better, albeit harder to pull off most of the time.

To pop into the back of a bent knee, you go up on your toes so that your knee is above his and press in and down at the pressure point just below the knee. The calf muscle separates near the top of the fibula into two heads (that is the technical term - biceps means “two heads,” triceps means “three heads”). You press directly between them, in and down. This technique sometimes has the wonderful effect of leaving a threat on his knees with his back to you. That is about as good as it gets if you want to neutralize a threat without injury.

To practice knee pops, work from a tight clinch. The partner practicing raises one foot up on the ball of the foot. This motion gives elevation and reach. Because the foot does not leave the ground, it preserves balance and is much harder to feel coming than any technique where the foot does leave the ground.

From that lifted position, the partner feels for what he can reach on his partner’s knees, whether they can be knocked from inside, outside, or pressed into the front.

Lock Takedowns

If you have a strong lock, you can force a threat down by pressing the lock into the ground, as in an arm-bar take-down. Alternatively, by creating a big motion and applying the force in the lock upward, you can break the threat’s connection with the ground.

Locking upward works better on trained martial artists. Many have been conditioned to go with the lock and wind up throwing themselves. Untrained people may well be injured if you apply enough force to a joint to lift them into the air.

Using Level 4 Techniques at Higher Levels of Force

Level 4 techniques work by making the threat not want to fight. They are largely psychological. If it hurts enough, he may decide to go home. If he must pick himself up off the ground, he may decide that there is more to his victim than he thought and go elsewhere. If the bad guy finds himself unable to move, even for a second, he may change his mind and reassess his goals.

Level 4 is all about the mind.

If someone wants to kill, rape, or maim you, changing his mind is not enough. It might be, maybe, but you cannot read his mind. If someone tries to stab you and misses, then apologizes, is he now safe? What if wants to shake your hand? While still holding the knife?

If a threat is bent on your destruction, you need to take away his means or opportunity or both. You take away opportunity by escaping. You take away means by breaking him. Re-read that sentence. You take away a threat’s means to cause you harm by breaking the threat.

If you could escape, you would not be going hands on. Keep an eye out for the opportunity, but if you cannot escape a serious assault, you must concentrate on breaking the threat.

The Level 4 techniques aren’t very good at that. Some, particularly the locks and the takedowns, can do significant damage. These techniques require pretty specific gifts. They can be relatively difficult and intricate to pull off, and they might tie up more of your resources (e.g., using both of your hands in an attempt to control one of the threat’s) than you can afford.

All true, but if the gift presents itself, go for it. Don’t get so caught up in trying to punch, kick, and bite your way out of the corner that you miss the opportunity to slam a straight elbow into a doorjamb. If you can knock the guy down, it could be exactly what you need to escape. If he must get up before attacking you, it buys you time to run.

Pop quiz time: If you study an art that has takedowns and you have a favorite, dissect it. What combination of true throw, momentum, leverage, lock, sweep, or whatever is your favorite? Whether it’s irimi nage clothesline, double-leg, or other take-down, what is your “go to” application? How does it work? Now, look at it again. Can you refine a piece of the technique to make it more street effective? For example, osotogari leg sweeps work even better when you push on (or strike) the other guy’s chin, increasing the leverage aspect. Can you add a piece entirely to improve upon it? For example, it is completely against the rules for most any competition, but sometimes when you are being forced into the concrete anyway, you can modify a shoot to snap the threat’s knee to the outside, adding a lock component to a technique that is already effective. Finally, what is your bail-out strategy if it doesn’t work?

There is the added bonus as well that if you can justify deadly force and you managed to resolve it at Level 4, you have a very, very good case that you were the good guy.

  • Important safety tip: Do NOT practice this technique on a partner who suffers from Temporal-Mandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ).


Here is something that you need to grasp at a very deep level. However you look at it, all the problems you can deal with at Level 1 through Level 4 belong in one world. You cross that line to Level 5 and it is an entirely different world.

You can break it up in many ways:

  • At Level 4 and below, you are trying not to injure the threat. At Level 5, injuring the threat so that he cannot harm you is your first priority.
  • You use Level 4 and below when you are in control. You escalate to Level 5 when the threat is in control.
  • If you are trying to control behavior, you are at Level 4 and below. When you are trying to control incoming damage, you are at Level 5.
  • Level 1 up to Level 4 are appropriate when the stakes are low. When the stakes become your health or life, you must be working at Level 5 or 6.
  • You use up to Level 4 when you are winning. When you are losing, you need to be at Level 5.

This list can go on… “Position before submission” is not a winning strategy; it is a winner’s strategy. When you have the edge in skill and conditioning, when you are winning, you want to consolidate your position and try to limit surprises. When you are losing, you want to introduce enough chaos to maybe break an opportunity loose for a successful counterattack. If you are losing the grappling match, it may behoove you to turn it into a knife fight. (Pop quiz: How would you justify that in court?)

As we escalate to Level 5, be aware that the fight has now become about damage. It is a different world and requires a different mindset. You will not get to choose Level 5. It will be thrust upon you.

If you have time to think, “I don’t think I can wrestle this guy. I’d better get a baseball bat,” you are contemplating assault. If you have time to think and plan and marshal resources, you should be able to come up with something that works from a lower, not a higher level of force.

If you suddenly find your head slammed into a wall and something jamming into your kidneys, and you’re hoping it is just a fist and not a knife - well, you need to use as much force as you need to get out alive. You need to use as much force as you can.

As a law-abiding citizen, you do not pick Level 5. If you find yourself at Level 5 or 6, you had no choice.

Categories: Martial Arts

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