The Four Folders of Self-Defense – Alain Burrese

One of my co-instructors for the 8-hour Active Shooter Response course we’ve taught to over 3,000 members of our community likes to describe our brain as a computer. Have you ever been searching for a file on your computer and had the little thing spin and then the message “file not found” appear? Our brain is like that computer, and in an emergency people will often freeze not knowing what to do. Their brain is going “file not found.”

I like this analogy, and that is why I have devised many of my programs around four file folders. The information I teach provides files for those folders so that in an emergency people can find a file. This “file” is a response that can save their life. Rather than staying motionless not knowing what to do, the brain can find a response and hopefully kick start the person into movement. Movement saves lives. In life-threatening situations, often seconds matter. Having a “file” in the folder and knowing what to do can save your life.

There are other components to why we freeze in an emergency, so I’m not saying that just learning a response will prevent that from happening. But that is a topic for another time. In this article, I want to discuss the four different folders of self-defense and what kind of responses you should have in each. These folders are Avoid, Escape, Deny, and Attack Back. The responses you have in these four folders can keep you save and save your life. So, let’s look at what each folder contains.

Avoid. The primarily concept that can keep us safe is awareness and avoidance. These two go together because to be able to avoid a dangerous situation, you must be aware of it. I spend a considerable amount of time teaching situational awareness, and even give a free guide to situational awareness away on my website, because it is so important.

Briefly, situational awareness is being aware of what is around you, what is going on around you, and how your actions are affecting your personal safety. Practice recognizing where the exits are. I don’t like to be anywhere that I don’t know the ways out. Pay attention to what others are doing. If you see or sense something out of the ordinary, your safest option is often just leaving. Get out of the area and avoid the potential danger. Avoid going to places where violence is more apt to happen. Avoid people who engage in behaviors that are more apt to get you into a bad situation. Avoid acting in a manner that will get others upset with you. Some people won’t be rude back, they will punch you, or worse, shoot you for your behavior. Avoiding is always the best way to stay safe. So, stay alert, be aware, and avoid what you can.

Escape. If you have an option to escape to safety, that is almost always the best response to keep yourself safe and alive. In the federal “Run – Hide – Fight” response to an active shooter, this is what the “run” is about. Escaping. I personally like using “escape” better because it may mean jumping out of a window, rather than running. It may mean diving behind cover and crawling to a safe place. If a building catches fire, you must escape the burning building. In a plane crash, you must escape the plane before dying of smoke and fire.

Being aware, which I said was so important, allows you to identify exits, cover, and escape routes. Knowing these will increase the speed in which you can escape to safety and save your life. This is why before every flight, they tell you to look for the nearest exit, which might be behind you. Running away to fight another day is not just a silly kid’s rhyme. Escaping to safety is actually a very wise principle for your personal defense plan.

Deny. This is the “folder” I get asked about the most, but once you understand what it means, you will see how it fits into our overall safety and defense options. Deny represents denying access to anyone who wants to do you harm. In our Active Shooter Response course, we use a “run – lock – fight” model. We changed the federal “hide” to lock because hiding and hoping isn’t a plan, and lock represents what we teach more accurately. We teach people in the “lock” phase to lock doors and barricade entrances. This denies the shooter access and is proven to save lives in active shooter situations.

There are other ways to “deny,” and that is why I use the term in my programs. I use the same terms in my personal active shooter programs as well as safety and self-defense lectures and classes to keep some consistency in the way I teach. For instance, in both my kid’s self-defense/bully classes and my adult safety and self-defense programs I teach a non-aggressive power stance with an affirmative command to keep a person back. This is also called boundary setting. This is essentially denying a person from getting close enough to attack you. Often, this can deescalate a situation and prevent physical violence from happening. It also puts you in position to Attack Back if the person refuses to adhere to your boundaries. Another example would be to put a desk or table between you and an aggressive person to deny them the ability to physically attack you. Holding a chair out in front of you to keep a knife wielding aggressor away is a form of denying, as are other defensive measures to deny an attacker the access or ability to hurt you.

Attack Back. This is what most people identify with “self-defense.” However, I like to define self-defense as keeping yourself from harm, and as we can see from above, there are many things a person can do to keep themselves from being hurt or killed that don’t involve fighting skills. While those options are often preferable, there may be situations where your only options are to attack back or be killed. Dying is not an option in my book, so we attack back. I use the words “attack back” because it provides a more offensive and aggressive mindset than “defending yourself” does. When your only option is to fight, you must be aggressive, ruthless, and do whatever it takes to ensure you survive and go home to your loved ones. If protecting others, you do whatever is necessary for all of you to survive.

After the proper mindset, attacking back includes all the ways you can physically stop another from hurting or killing you. And that includes killing your attacker if that is what it takes to stop them. Methods of attacking back include learning basic empty handed fighting skills such as hammer fists, palm heel strikes, elbow strikes, knee strikes, low kicks, and stomps. Attacking back also includes learning to use lethal and non-lethal weapons such as firearms, knives, batons, canes, and personal defense weapons such as pepper spray, kubotans, tactical pens, flashlights, and so on. One should also know how to use improvised weapons, which include one of my favorites for teachers, fire extinguishers, and anything else you can stop an attacker with. There are times when you have no option other than to attack back, so know this, train for it, and be a survivor.

Conclusion. The amount you put into each of these four folders will depend on your lifestyle and how committed you are to staying safe and being able to defend yourself if needed. And just like that article, tucked into a folder and stashed in the back of the file cabinet forgotten about, won’t help much when you are writing on that topic, if you don’t practice and train with the skills you put into your safety and self-defense folders, they won’t help as much as those who train regularly.

I do believe that having the knowledge with a little training is better than never exposing yourself to these concepts. That is why short classes that include 4-hour classes, one and two day classes, up to week long sessions, still have great benefit to many people. If a lady is walking out to her vehicle and guy grabs her to pull her somewhere, but she remembered to walk with her keys out and starts wildly hammer fisting the guys hand, arm, and face ruthlessly with the key sticking out the bottom of her hammer fist, there’s a good chance he will let go and she will be able to run back inside and call the police. Better yet, if she had been practicing awareness and noticed him ahead of time and asked for someone to escort her to her vehicle, he wouldn’t have attacked in the first place. Obviously, the more practice and training you have, the better you will be able to respond. Stress inoculation and adrenaline producing scenario training will increase your ability to react during an emergency. Buy you don’t need to train like you are in the military, or getting ready for a UFC championship bout, to be able to keep yourself and loved ones safe, and attack back against many common criminals.

Practice awareness and avoid situations when you can. Know the ways out and escape to safety if the option is available to you. Deny those wishing to do you harm access by setting boundaries, using barriers, and locking and barricading them outside when possible. When you have no other option, attack back with everything you have. Be ruthless, be savage, be a survivor.

About the author: Alain Burrese, J.D., is a former Army Sniper, a fifth-degree black belt in Hapkido, and a certified Active Shooter Response instructor. He is the author of 8 books and 11 instructional DVDs, and teaches a common-sense approach to staying safe and defending yourself through his Survive and Defend programs and website. For more information see


Two Keys To Communication – Alain Burrese

I have a unique background in that I’ve dealt with conflict on numerous fronts, and in different capacities. As a former member of the U.S. Army and a student of martial arts and physical self-defense for over 30 years, I’ve dealt with conflict on a physical level. Working various bodyguard and security positions throughout the years provided experiences in dealing with conflict on a different front. And as an attorney and mediator, I’ve both represented clients in disputes and acted as a neutral to assists parties in resolving their conflict before turning the authority over to a judge or jury. One unifying constant in all forms of conflict is that the communication between the opposing parties directly influences how the situation will be resolved and where the conflict will go next. In every mediation, and in all of my communication skills workshops, I teach these two simples keys to effective communication. Because, as I like to say, we are always communicating, but we are not always effectively communicating. We must listen to understand, and communicate to be understood.

Listening to Understand

The first of the two most important skills regarding communication is listening to understand.  When people express themselves, they want to be heard.  FBI negotiator Gary Noesner has stated, “Listening is the cheapest concession we can ever make.”  I agree with him one hundred percent. Listening is crucial for the mediator and anyone who wants to resolve conflict.  But it’s not enough to just listen, or pretend to listen, that’s because people also want to be understood.  Therefore, you must listen to understand.  Sometimes people don’t even understand themselves, but want those listening to understand.  This is why this is the first of the two important rules.  First you must make it your goal to listen and understand, and then you can communicate to be heard and understood.

You want to understand on both an emotional level, and an intellectual level.  You want the other party to feel that you understand what they are feeling, as well as understand what they are saying.  You can achieve this through what is most often called “active listening.”  This is just what it sounds like, “active.”  You don’t want to be thinking about what you are going to do later, what happened earlier, or what you are going to say next.  You want to be actively engaged in listening and understanding what the other person is communicating to you.  It’s harder than many think, but easier once you practice and make a habit of being fully engaged in understanding what is being communicated to you.

Ways to do this include blending with a person.  You do this by nodding in agreement with those things you agree with, making occasional and appropriate sounds of understanding like “uh-huh,” “oh,” and “hmm.”  Sometimes you’ll want to repeat back what they’ve said so they know they’ve been heard.  Everything about you, including body posture, voice, tone, eye contact, must convey an impression that you hear and understand.  And the true conflict resolution professional truly does want to hear and understand!

As mentioned above, sometimes repeating something back to the person helps with understanding.  You don’t want to be a parrot and repeat everything back, but depending on the situation, some things will definitely be worth repeating.  You may also want to ask questions to clarify certain things.  Actually, you will want to clarify anything you might not fully understand.  Remember, the goal is to understand.  

Summarize and confirm what you have heard.  Make certain you really do understand and don’t assume anything.  Be sincere in asking if the other person feels understood and ask if there is anything else.  Remember, it is not only your job to listen to understand, but to ensure the person you are listening to knows that you understand and feels understood.  Once you achieve this, the person is much more apt to be cooperative going forward toward resolution.

Obviously, the rules I’ve shared so far relate to conflict that is in a more civil setting, such as a mediation or even a negotiation that isn’t volatile. But listening is equally important in those situations where violence may erupt, maybe even more so because of the stakes at hand.

When I’ve assisted Peyton Quinn with classes in Colorado, we’ve demonstrated the difference between passive, aggressive and assertive responses and how they affect the outcome of situations. But we’ve also addressed the differences between territorial and predatory woofs. A predatory woof might be when someone says he’s going to stomp you, while a territorial woof would be having him say he is going to stomp you if you don’t get out of his territory. When it is territorial, you can often just leave and avoid the violence. That is, as long as your ego doesn’t get in the way with something like, “No one is going to tell me where I can go or not.”

Listening to understand, and recognizing the difference, can go a long ways toward avoiding violence, and resolving conflict easily. Just leave if it is territorial. There is obviously more to it, but this should illustrate why the concept is important.

Communicating to be Understood

If you start your communication with, “You dirty rotten so and so,” how much of what comes next do you think the person you are communicating with will listen to?  Unfortunately, many messages are sabotaged by such ineffective methods of communicating, resulting in misunderstanding, messages not being heard, or sometimes just simply being ignored.

Therefore, the second most important skill when communicating is to communicate to be understood.  We must remember that the signals, symbols, and suggestions that constitute our communication output provide the opportunity to influence relationships in a positive manner if we choose to do so.  Unfortunately, signals we send, even unconsciously, can negatively affect relationships and the communication process as well.  It’s important to monitor the signals we are sending to ensure are message is being received and understood.

Many experts suggest that the non-verbal communications we make are more important than the actual words we use.  Things like the tone of our voice, our body language, and general attitude toward the communication process are all part of the whole, and have an impact on how your message will be received and understood.  You might be saying you want to resolve the conflict, but if you tone and body language project that you don’t care, it will be more difficult to reach resolution.  If you don’t listen to understand the other party, why would you expect them to listen and understand you?

Other things that can help you communicate to be understood include tactfully interrupting interruptions and telling your truth, not the other person’s.  The tactful interruption is done without anger and blame.  It is done without fear.  You can simply say the person’s name, over and over if needed, until you get the person’s attention.  Once you gain their attention, you can proceed forward by stating your intent, clarifying something that needs clarification, and further engaging in effective communication.  Telling your truth involves using “I” language rather than “You” language or absolute truth.  “The way it appeared to me” is less apt to be confrontational as the absolute, “You did X.”  “I felt hurt by what happened,” can be more effective than, “You hurt me.”

The key is to use language, tone, and body gestures that help convey the message you want to convey, while at the same time ensuring that the message is being understood.  If the other party is not as practiced at listening to understand as you are, you can assist the process by making sure you are clear and understandable.  And during the process, always remember that you must also take your turn at listening to understand.

In a conflict that has the potential to become physically violent, I often illustrate the three responses I mentioned that I also assisted Peyton Quinn in demonstrating them. The three responses are passive, aggressive, and assertive. The first two generally end up with the situation going physical, while the third, assertive, has the greatest possibility of deescalating the situation and resolving the conflict without violence.

Using profanity and calling the other person names, combined with aggressive body language and other behaviors is almost a sure way toward punches flying. While assertive language, combined with assertive body language and tone of voice will most often resolve conflict that has the potential to go violent without anyone getting punched in the nose.


These two skills of listening to understand and communicating to be understood are important for mediators and parties involved in conflict. And as you can see, they are as important in the bar or street as they are in the mediator’s conference room. Because so often in mediations the parties are having difficulties communicating (almost always), I started briefly discussing listening to understand and communicating to be understood in my opening statement. Providing the parties with a short communication lesson to assist with the process has paid off with more successful sessions and resolved conflicts.

I recognized that these same two communication principles apply equally to many self-defense situations where the conflict has potential to be deescalated and physical violence avoided. So I started including them in my safety and self-defense presentations too. Much conflict is the result of ineffective communication, and by learning and practicing these two keys to communicating effectively you will find yourself in fewer conflicts and able to better resolve the conflicts you do encounter.