Overlooked Self-Defense Elements 4: De-Escalation

This is part four of a series of articles where I look at the elements needed for a self-defense or self-protection course to be of real use. In a previous article I listed the required elements as follows:

  • Awareness
  • Avoidance
  • Pre fight indicators (pre-fight rituals)
  • De-escalation
  • Adrenaline effects
  • And last, actual physical skills


People are truly some strange critters. We have managed at various places and times to convince some people to do some absolutely stupid things.

Over the course of generations, we have also developed some truly fascinating and strange habits that tend to make no sense whatsoever.

We have been dealing with the subject of fighting, so I will stay focused on that.

Men especially, but some women too, have some asinine ideas with regards to our image. Men can say some outrageous things to each other and laugh it off, or throw mild profanities back at the speaker when in the company of men. But say the same things to a man in front of a woman, especially if it is a woman he is attracted to, and you are playing with fire.

Speaking for men, we do not think these things through. We do not say to ourselves, “Hey! That jerk over there is supposed to be my friend. And he just made me look like a tool in front of my soon-to-be girlfriend. I think I need to punch him in the face so she doesn’t think less of me.” When we get mad, there is usually not a lot of chatter going on inside of our skull. We are simply mad. We act, and only places labels and justifications on our actions after the fact. I do not know if this is how it happens for women, and will leave that subject to be addressed by a woman.

The subject of De-escalation, and even the term were not part of anything I studied until very recently. As with the previous articles, I refer you to the Conflict Communications website and refer you to read the book The Little Black Book of Violence.

Except for any personal anecdotes that may turn up, the information contained here came from Iain Abernethy, Lawrence Kane, Marc MacYoung, Rory Miller, and Kris Wilder.  To me, these are the leaders in the field, and as I stated in the last article, I am a student, and a relatively new student at this.

With all of that out-of-the-way, let’s talk about de-escalation!

De-Escalation, speaking specifically is a tactic used when you are in danger of a physical confrontation. There are no set rules and exact parameters to list as “This is a situation where you need de-escalation strategies…” and “This is not…”

Put simply, if you are in danger, you should be able to tell. Go back and look at the pre-fight indicators and have those memorized.

The main point of de-escalation is to defuse the situation before anyone gets hurt. It is important to understand, as well as to teach that in a physical confrontation, most of the time both parties involved come out of it with injuries. By refusing to participate in the game of escalation, we can do our part to see that no one gets hurt. To be clear; de-escalation is not a set of techniques that allow you to restrain an individual while he “clams down” (fat chance of that happening…).

Some of the de-escalation methods might be:

  • Listening
  • Trying to change the focus of the moment
  • Self-Effacing Humor
  • Showing Options


De-escalation is going to involve a radical shift for most people. This shift is in going from a position of needing to be right, to listening to the other person. This listening doesn’t mean that you are going to say they are right. But often when you hear a person out they can calm down. With men, the longer you can keep them talking, the more time you place between that adrenalin surge and the end of the situation, the better off you will be. The talking cannot be in the form of the pre-fight stage of posturing. If you keep egging them on, then the doors through which to escape the situation may be closed and locked when you try to use them. Listening as a skill is not what most people think it to be. When the other person is talking and you are judging their words or position, or you are formulating your own response, you are not listening.

Try to keep your communication framed in positive language. For example, “Don’t you see I’m trying to help, you son of a …..” is probably going to be a lot less effective than, “I see what you are saying, so where does this go from here?” You do not have to believe them to make them think that you are on their side and want to help them find a solution.

Look at them while they are speaking, nod frequently or give the intermittent “mmm hmm”. When they stop speaking, use the technique of mirroring. Tell them, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but what you are saying is…” Say back to them what you think they are saying, the point they are trying to make. Use the term, “I understand” even if you don’t mean it.

Pay attention to how both of you are standing. If they are angled with the strong side back, they are prepared to fight. Be sure to keep your hands up and open (both to deflect/redirect an attack as well as to display the universal “I don’t want to fight” message). Remember that movement should be slow, and non-threatening, as should your speaking. Don’t touch them and don’t stand too close. Also, do not stand directly in front of their centerline. Stay slightly toward either side, facing them but at an angle. This is both non-threatening and changes trajectory of their attack into something that takes a slightly longer time to set up.

One often overlooked aspect of de-escalation is to pay attention to your own voice. Yelling is a threat in any culture. Use respect words like “sir” frequently.

The most important thing in terms of de-escalation strategy is one that I pointed out in an earlier article on Avoidance (all of these subjects are inter-related), you don’t have to be declared right. No one has to walk away from the verbal confrontation saying that you were the one with the correct opinion or view or whatever. This is about your personal safety, not your social image or standing.

Changing the focus of the moment is a matter of trying to change their focus from one that is clearly looking for the moment to hit you into one where they see that you are listening and might be on their side of the matter. Anything that can distract (well…not the old “hey, look over there!” line) can be of service.

It is not advised that you use humor unless it is self-effacing humor. Do not be sarcastic, as that is playing the game of escalation. Do not make fun of them, their fighting ability or say anything to provoke, no matter how funny, witty or pithy you feel the comment may be.

And lastly, if you can see the alternatives to fighting, and lay those out for the aggressor, you may be able to get the situation toned down considerably.

Back in 1992, I used to run with some pretty funky people, and it was a crowd I truly did not fit in with. One day one of the girls in the group ran and jumped in my car and said, “Drive!” I drove, and within moments I noticed that we were being followed.

In the folly of my youth, I decided not to run, and I pulled over into the parking lot of the Southwood Movie Theater and got out of the car. The girl ran off and the driver of the other car ran after her. I heard glass break, and turned around.

I didn’t have time to react. As I turned, there was a broken beer bottle pressed against my throat. I held my arms out to the side, hands open. The Bottle holder, a punk named Cooper, told me to give him a reason. I noticed the smell of the beer from the bottle, I noticed that I could feel a liquid running down my neck and calmly wondered if it was beer or blood (it was both), I noticed a group of people standing and watching the entire event. I don’t know how long this all took, but it seemed like a long time. I told Cooper, “There are a lot of people watching, and if you are going to do this, you will get caught. The crowd parted as a Police cruiser drove up. I told Cooper, “Cops.” He looked over his shoulder.

I wish I could say here that with cat-like reflexes and ninja type skill, I disarmed him and broke him into tiny bite sized pieces, but that is not what happened. I still stood there with arms outstretched as Cooper smashed the bottle on the ground and ran like a rabbit. The Police chased him, and caught him.

While this is not the best example of de-escalation, I use it to point out at least NOT escalating the situation. I feel no shame in not trying to disarm him, as he could have opened my throat before I managed to execute the disarming technique that was running through my head.

You don’t have to be declared the winner. That night I got to go home. I think that means I won.