Reinventing Violence – Iain Abernethy

This podcast discusses how martial artists often try to reinvent criminal violence into a good fit for their chosen system; instead of adjusting their system to fit the inescapable realities of criminal violence.

Problem should define the solution. The “solution” should not try to reinvent the problem!

This is a widespread and insidious practise in the martial arts. Traditionalists, modernists and even “reality” based systems do it; albeit in differing ways. Because actual violence is thankfully rare, this problem can go unnoticed but it has many serious problems.

This “art over reality” approach puts students in danger if they do have to face real violence. It also promotes tribalism and division within the martial arts because we spend way too much time arguing the “merits” of various pseudo-realities, and their associated pseudo-solutions, instead of addressing the reality of the common problem.

Once reality is accepted, and self-protection is realistically addressed across the board, we can get on with exploring and enjoying all the other beneficial aspects of the martial arts from the perspective of our chosen system.

Above all, we need to remember that the only place we can “reinvent reality” is in our minds. We can make up all kinds of falsehoods to justify the way we practise, but actual reality remains unchanged!

People don’t attack with formal lunging punches; criminals don’t stand idly by when their buddy is getting strangled on the ground; criminals don’t put up a guard, square off and fight so “the best man wins”; you will have to justify your actions when measured against the actual law and not how you imagined you uber-violent “military” fantasy playing out; and so on.

Pretending reality is something other than it actually is in order to promote your chosen art as perfect and beyond criticism does not actually advance or protect the reputation of your chosen system. It harms and diminishes it.

In the podcast, we look at why people try to reinvent violence, specifically how many of the most popular systems do it, and why it is vital we all stop it.

So strap yourself in for what should be the least controversial podcast ever … but the fact it’s unlikely to be received that way ironically illustrates the very issue this podcast seeks to highlight.

Calm Down Please, Part II – Iain Abernethy


Another simple but effective part of verbal de-escalation is to avoid “you statements” and as much as possible stick to “I statements”. “I statements” show you are taking responsibility (or at least give the impression you are) and are more likely to help people calm down and promote co-operation. “You statements” however can come across as argumentative, judgmental and accusatory. Saying, “I’m sorry but I’m having trouble understanding” is more effective than saying, “You are not making yourself clear.”

Remember it is not about being “right”; it’s about calming things down and avoiding things getting physical. It’s time to put your ego to one side and say what needs to be said to de-escalate not saying what needs to be said to “win the argument”.

Violence can often be triggered by “the small things” when we are dealing with volatile or agitated people. We need to avoid making the other person feel weak, small, trapped, frustrated, pressured, afraid, and so on. Say what needs to be said to calm the person down and know that you are not “loosing face” but being smart enough and skilled enough to prevent things getting physical.

Tone of voice is also an important consideration. Here in the UK raising your voice can be seen as a sign of losing your temper or trying to dominate the other person. Keeping an even tone is therefore very important if we wish to calm a situation down. Things are different in different parts of the world of course and in Southern Europe raising your voice would not be automatically associated with aggression. It is important to be aware of the cultural norms and work within them. This is especially important for those who travel a lot as judging things by the standards of another culture (or subculture for that matter) can cause problems. Both we and the person we are trying to calm down are likely to judge what is said, and how it is said, and all aspects of non-verbal communication, by the standards of our own culture. We need to be aware of this in order to avoid confusion.

A simple example is the distance at which people talk to one another. In the UK and the rest of Northern Europe conversations typically take place at just outside an arm’s length. If a person were to move inside that space while talking it could be taken as an attempt to invade “personal space” and hence a threat (quite legitimately). However, in other parts of the world (i.e. southern Europe, the Middle East, etc) it would be the norm to be closer when talking and hence a negative reaction to a person being a little closer could inflame things unnecessarily.

Generally speaking, people are more trusting of those who speak and act like themselves. This could make you think that “mirroring” the person you are trying to de-escalate could be the way to go. However, “acting the part” is unlikely to work with a person from another culture, part of the world or subculture. It can be taken as mocking, belittling, or being false and is unlikely to help. Looking for common ground can be helpful though, as can trying to develop empathy by using the LEAPS communication model discussed earlier.

One other communication model that is relevant here is “Betari’s Box”.  Basically “the box” is made up of four parts and essentially can be summed up as:

“My Attitude” affects “My Behaviour” affects “Your Attitude” affects “Your Behaviour” … affects “My attitude” and so on in a cycle.

To give a simple example: Person A is in a bad mood (their attitude) and hence they overreact (their behaviour) to Person B accidentally bumping into them. The behaviour of Person A affects the attitude of Person B towards them. If Person B were to take an aggressive attitude they are likely to respond with aggressive behaviour. The aggressive behaviour of Person B affects the attitude of Person A who, now convinced that the accidental bumping was an act of aggression, responds in kind. Before we know where we are the situation escalates out of control and physical conflict ensues. The trick therefore is not to let the cycle run away with itself in a negative way, and to break the cycle if it looks to be heading that way. Also, and this is very important, know that controlling your own attitude and behaviour can have a big effect on the attitude and behaviour of the other person. Don’t fuel the situation, but remove that fuel.

To take the example I’ve just given, if Person B had immediately apologised in a warm and sincere fashion that could have affected Person A’s attitude toward them and hence conflict could have been avoided as different cycle could have ensued. Essentially, your behaviour will affect the other person’s behaviour so be sure you do what you can to avoid unintentionally promoting aggression.

So far in this article we have looked at some of the basics surrounding verbal de-escalation. I now want to quickly touch on a few key points of the verbal side of self-protection generally. I’m not going to go into much detail here, but I feel it is important that I mention these things in order to put what we have discussed so far into some kind of context.

Firstly, be aware that sometimes the criminal wants to talk so they can engage you, detain you or distract you. Get good awareness training and trust your instincts about people and situations. Don’t talk to people you should not be talking to. Just keep on walking and flee if appropriate.

Secondly, don’t try to talk your way out of a situation when you should be fighting your way out or fleeing. Remember that you can’t reason with the unreasonable and you can’t talk your way out of all situations.

Thirdly, be aware that it could go physical at any moment and that processional criminals will be experienced at lulling potential victims into a false sense of security. Just because it looks like a situation is de-escalating does not mean that it is! The criminal could be playing along in order to get you to drop you mental guard. The old samurai saying of “when the battle is over, tighten your helmet straps” applies here. Keep your awareness up and be ready to go physical at any moment: even if it appears as if things are being de-escalated. It could be a ploy.

Finally, don’t try to de-escalate when the situation has progressed beyond that point. At that point you should pre-empt and flee. You’ll know when it has gone beyond the verbal by what the person does; not so much by what they say. The person who is walking away issuing threats is much less of an immediate danger than the guy who appears to have calmed down, but who is not backing off. If that person should try to close space then it would be a good idea to “stun and run”.

I think we have touched upon the main points I wanted to address in this article. Before we start to wrap things up, I’d just like to draw attention to what should be the obvious fact that all skills need to be practised if they are to be useable. Just as the physical side of what we do needs to be honed and refined through training and practise, the non-physical skills, such as verbal de-escalation, also need to be practised.

Those interested in teaching and practising realistic self-protection should ensure that realistic role-play, where things may or may not get physical, is included in what they do. In many martial arts schools / self-protection training the mistake is made of all scenarios ending up being physical. This reinforces the notion that physical technique is always the solution to all situations and that is obviously not the case. Our training needs to include verbal de-escalation as the useful and effective methodology it can be.

If we can avoid the physical through verbal de-escalation then obviously we should do so. However, if we don’t have that skill set then we will needlessly put ourselves at risk as situations that could have been avoided will escalate to the physical. There are times to walk, times to talk, times to fight and times to flee. Don’t mix them up or believe that one solution is right for all situations.

As I said at the start of this article, verbal de-escalation is a huge subject and it’s impossible to do it justice in an article like this. There is much left untouched, but I nevertheless hope you’ve found this article interesting and it has encouraged those new to the subject to seek out further information on it. There is lots of really good stuff out there and some very knowledgeable people. Those interested in teaching and practising true self-protection should be seeking that information out and not limiting themselves to the purely physical or believing martial arts / fighting to be one and the same as self-protection. You can be a skilled martial artist and a good fighter without possessing verbal skills. For self-protection verbal de-escalation skills are vital though and I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at some of the key issues surrounding them.

Calm Down Please, Part I – Iain Abernethy

In this article we will be looking at verbal de-escalation. What I mean by “verbal de-escalation” is what we can do to calm people down, avoid unnecessary physical conflict, and “talk our way out”.

This is a huge subject and to try to cover all aspects of the topic in one article would be like trying cover everything there is to know about punching in one 30 minute session. Nevertheless, I hope to cover some of the core ideas and hopefully encourage you to seek out more information on this fascinating and important topic.

Martial artists train for a whole host of reasons; enjoyment, physical and mental challenge, sport, personal achievement, self-development, to enjoy a common pursuit with other people, to explore “martial culture”, self-defence, and many other reasons besides.

All of these aspects of the martial arts – using that term in its everyday sense – are worthwhile and are perfectly valid reasons to train. However we can have big problems when people mistake the requirements of one aspect with the requirements of another. Perhaps the most common example of this is people training for art, self-development or sport, and believing that, by default, such training will prepare them for dealing with criminal activity and violence (self-defence).

As well as failing to appreciate the many differences between physical “duelling” in the dojo and the realities of the physical side of self-defence, what those to hold to such a view fail to grasp is that true self-defence requires many skills that fall outside the realms of physical conflict. If the student is not given training in these skills then they are not adequately prepared for true self-defence. We need to know about home and mobile security, we need to know the law, we need to be well versed in the nature and type of crimes we are statistically most likely to face, we need training in threat awareness, assessment and avoidance … and we need the verbal skills to defuse and de-escalate situations should it be possible to do so. Believing that physical technique alone is all that is needed for real self-defence is naive in the extreme.

Training solely in the physical, and totally ignoring the more important non-physical aspects of self-defence, also gives us the massive problem that all we have is a physical solution! We therefore could find ourselves in situations we should never have been in, unable to avoid situations that could have been avoided, and running the risk of physical harm (and legal problems) when there was a way to avoid the situation becoming physical. If we truly wish to adequately address the needs of self-protection then we need to include a lot more in our study and teaching than just physical technique.

In this article, we will be discussing the basics of verbal de-escalation and it is my hope that this discussion encourages those new to the subject to explore it in greater depth. It’s not enough to simply give the topic lip service, as many do, with throw away lines such as “talk your way out if you can”. That’s just like saying “punch hard” and expecting students to be able to punch well despite never having being taught punching! There is much to the subject of verbally de-escalating situations and we’ll now move on to cover some of the key points.

The first thing we need to be clear on is that not all situations can be de-escalated!  Sometimes there is no verbal “preamble”. Other times, the person will be in such an emotional state as to be beyond reasoning. Alternatively, they may make the decision that they will not be reasoned with.  If someone is fully committed to harming you, robbing you, assaulting you, etc then you are not going to be able to talk them out of it. You are not going to be able to talk the career criminal into having an attack of conscience nor are you going to convince the drug addict that they don’t need your money or possessions to feed their habit. If the person is also under the influence of drink or drugs at the time it will make reasoning with them difficult if not impossible. We therefore can’t talk our way out of all situations. Peter Consterdine expressed it very well when he said, “We cannot reason with the unreasonable”.

A year or so a go there was a feature on the 24 hour BBC news channel where it was showing the training of security personnel. In one clip it showed the trainer asking someone playing the role of attacker to “calm down” while they were throwing a barrage of punches at the trainer. If a person is already throwing punches, I would suggest that we are beyond the point of trying to reason with them and we are firmly in the realms of the unreasonable. We need to know when talking is and is not appropriate.

So what we are mainly talking about is those situations where a person is getting angry, frustrated or agitated and hence physical violence is possible, but not inevitable. Of course, you won’t know ahead of time whether a situation can be de-escalated or not. They key therefore is to always be aware and be ready to get physical as it becomes clear that is where the situation is headed. If the person is getting increasingly hostile while trying to close distance, then we should conclude that de-escalation has failed, they cannot be reasoned with, and the correct action at that point would be to pre-emptively strike and escape. There are other times when talking is not appropriate too and we’ll come to those later.

So there are times were verbal de-escalation is neither possible nor appropriate. However, assuming that it is possible to reason with a person, there are methods we can use to help calm people down should they start to get aggressive, and prevent people from getting overly agitated in the first place.

One simple, but effective way to help defuse potentially violent situations is to employ the LEAPS model. LEAPS is an acronym to remind us of the key points of a communication style that can help stop people getting more aggressive and calm them down (providing they are not so emotional as to have reached the state of being “unreasonable”).

The “L” stands for “Listen”. If a person feels they are being listened to it can help remove any sense of frustration. The fact you are silent and listening also gives the person the chance to verbally vent any frustrations they have. Letting a person “get it all out” can be very effective if done right. Listening also gives you the chance to understand why the person is agitated and hence what would be the best things to say and do to help reduce that agitation. Silently listening can also help (delude) the person talking to feeling in control. This can prevent them feeling the need to physically make it clear who is in control!

The silent listening is of course your way of keeping control of the situation, but there is no harm in making the other person feel they are in charge from both the perspectives of calming the situation down further or “tactically intervening” with a pre-emptive strike should it become necessary. Remember that verbal de-escalation is just as much about listening and staying silent at appropriate times as well as what you actually say.

The “E” stands from “Empathise”. Make it clear to the other person that you understand their position and by doing so you give it validity. Even if you think the person is “wrong” remember that your ego should not lead you into unnecessary conflict. Simply saying something along the lines of, “I understand  where you are coming from. In your situation I would feel the same way” can help a person feel there is common ground between you and that there is no need for them to get more and more forceful as they try to get their point across. Saying “I’m so sorry I was not looking where I was walking. I understand: I’d be unhappy too if someone split my drink by being careless. Please let me put that right and buy you another.” will be far more effective than a simple, “sorry mate”.

The “A” stands for “Ask”. By asking the right questions you can better understand what stimulated the aggression. You can encourage the person to “get it all out” verbally, buy time, and make it clear that you wish to understand the other person’s viewpoint. They are less likely to escalate to physical violence if they feel there is no need to do so. Frustration is often a trigger for violence. When asking questions it is generally better to keep the question open ended i.e. ones that cannot be answered with a “yes” or a “no”. This encourages them to keep talking and keeps their mind focused on talking. Better they talk than getting physical. Asking, “Will you explain the problem so can I understand?” is not good because it can be answered with an aggressive, “No!”. It is better to ask, “What is your key concern as I want to be sure I fully understand?” It is also a good idea to avoid loaded or accusatory questions. It should be obvious that asking “What is your problem?!” or “Can you please calm down?” are unlikely to have the effect we want.

The “P” is for “Paraphrase”. If you can state the person’s concerns back to them in an alternative way it shows that you understand. Simply repeating word for word can be seen as mocking a person. If a person was to say, “I’m f-ing angry because you should watch were you’re f-ing driving! You nearly crashed into me!” then stating, “I am sorry and I can understand why you are upset at my carelessness” show that you understand and is more likely to de-escalate than simply stating, “I understand that you are upset because I did not watch where I was f-ing driving”.

The final “S” is for “Summarise”. When the person has “got it all out” it can then be useful to summarise the position and concerns of the other person so that they know they have been understood. The summery also marks the end of the conversion and makes is clear that nothing further is needed.

So to recap; LEAPS: listen, empathise, ask, paraphrase, and when it you feel the time is right summarise.