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Personal Defence Methodology - #3. DE-ESCALATION, DIVERSION and DISTRACTION

De-escalation strategies are used to prevent an emotionally charged situation from escalations where they become more severe, potentially physical, conflicts. The term is also used to refer to approaches in conflict resolution. The initial point to emphasise here is that they are learnt, practiced and often complex cognitive and verbal strategies. As such the development of these, as with any learnt capability, takes repeated rehearsal, role playing and evaluation.

The second point to emphasise is that in the context in which we consider these strategies we are already directly in 'harms way'. The idea of using a de-escalation strategy in a situation which starts with physical assault (being caught completely by surprise) is somewhat flawed. The third and related point is that these strategies are only viable in situations where you are aware of the assailant.

Quick revision of Situational Awareness

As covered in previous articles, the only real defence against physical assault is being environmentally aware. There is no substitute physical technique that will work against an assailant who catches you completely by surprise. Not allowing this to happen through avoidance resultant from being aware, alert to the potential dangers and threats, is the only real viable defence.

Generally speaking there are 4 broad categories for attack/threat scenarios:

#1. Immediate Physical Threat

#2. Intended Physical Threat

#3. Undue Attention

#4. Location Threat

The catch all defence of avoidance covers all of these scenarios. However it is further worth highlighting what we are being alert too. Essentially any behaviours which appear out of place, erratic or dysfunctional to the environmental context we are in should be considered potential threats. It is these behaviours which require us to undertake an immediate assessment, decide on a plan and act this with immediate effect to the best of our capability.

Equally, when observing behaviour it is possible to categorise types of behaviour in respect of this being a relative predictor of violence. Typically, significant and immediate changes in behaviour, especially those involving increases on gross motor activity (large gestures) are strong predictors for potential violent behaviour. These changes in behavioural states are neither precise, nor linear, however the following stage approach can be used to measure the likelihood incidence:

(stage i) Agitation: 'nervous' behavioural patterns, may go un-noticed.

(stage ii) Disruption: noisy or physically obstructive behavioural patterns.

(stage iii) Destructive: physical behaviours involving destruction of property (breaking things).

(stage iv) Dangerous: physical behaviours involving violence against a person.

This four stage approach is not linear in it's progression, an individual may go from agitated to dangerous in seconds, bypassing the other theoretical stages. The use is however in the general application to making that immediate assessment of the environmental and potential threats. If that person appears agitated, they are probably best avoided an so on....

Equally each stage may also be 'supported' by a 'threat of lethal force'. This is however more of a 'cry for help' than a direct literal threat. Take a second and consider how many times you have heard a of a serial killer who directly advertised their intention in this way...not many are there? The point being that the threat is provided to elicit a fear response in the recipient. This is done in an attempt to legitimise, support and reinforce the physical behaviours being performed. However, we will include this as a further predictor of potentially violent behaviour.

De-escalation 101

With the above rationale being in place, it is possible to identify that de-escalation strategies are an available opportunity where we are presented with an intended physical threat, a threat resulting from undue attention, or simply being found in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simply we are presented with a situation whereby we have the opportunity to use a VERBAL FENCE and dialogue to divert, distract or dissuade.


Coined by self protection expert Geoff Thompson, the term verbal fence refers to a set of simple verbal commands, provided to dissuade the assailant from their intended course of action. The verbal fence is best used in an assertive and aggressive manner, being designed to elicit an adrenal response in the assailant (which may be mistaken for fear) and distract from their original objective. The lexical content of a verbal fence equally should reflect its intended purpose, using simple and direct language (often punctuated with a liberal use of expletives).

In the use of a verbal fence distance management is fundamental. Staying in a range where you cannot be hit, or using this following a strong shove so that you are outside of immediate attacking range, is key to follow up actions for disengagement and escape. In the presence of an intended physical threat or undue attention, distance management and escape are the priorities.

Whilst our specific context presents challenges to the use of some de-escalation techniques (for example: sitting down, not taking the situation personally, acknowledging their issue etc.) there are some key common points on which we base a workable and potentially successful strategy.

#1. SLOW DOWN. This is the easiest thing to say and will be one of the hardest to achieve. We have to overcome that neurological hijack of our amygdala and control the fear/panic response. It requires skill, self awareness and effort however remaining in control key to your successful resolution of the encounter.

#2. LISTEN AND UNDERSTAND. Is the person making demands (robbery/mugging) or do they have a specific agenda? At this stage it is likely that the person is performing a pre-determined or practiced routine. Asking questions to clarify your understanding will psychologically take them out of the routine, it distracts. Whilst caution and awareness of reaction must be maintained, don't mind read and assume you know what this person means. Ask questions to confirm.

#3. FOCUS ATTENTION ON THE SOLUTION - Phrases like "How can we solve this?" or "I want to help you..." can assist in shifting the focus to an agreed solution. This further can create a positive psychological state of alliance, which makes physical attack less likely.

#4. BE RESPECTFUL - Being non-judgemental, empathetic and understanding of their perspective is again challenging. However, validation of their perspective (not behaviour) is important in the creation of rapport and alliance. Through this again there is opportunity to divert their attention away from more malicious intent and ultimately escape.

#5. VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS (NOT THEIR BEHAVIOUR) - here again don't assume. Communicate wisely, responding to the emotion heard. Using phrases like "You seem...." or "You sound..." can allow you to open dialogue on their psychological state without appearing to assume understanding. This again allows you to divert attention, naturally forcing them into a mode is response (it's basic human nature to want to answer a question when asked) and potential confusion as to their original intent.

#6. CONTROL BODY LANGUAGE AND MATCH TONE OF VOICE - whilst we need to maintain 360 awareness and be alert to respond any changes in distance, avoiding large physical gesturing, hard eye contact or posturing is key. Squared posture and unnatural eye contact can be perceived as threatening and our goal is to reduce the tension here. However, being alert and maintaining a passive (but present) physical fence is fundamental to managing changes in distance.

#7. OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE - "AN OUT" - in the same manner as agreeing a solution, offering an alternative outcome/action can present an opportunity for resolution without further conflict.

Whilst this is best formed as an agreed solution, the alternative should not be perceived as a conflicting or 'or else' consequential outcome. The out should provide for disengagement from the situation without need for further conflict.

#8. ATTEMPT DE-RAILMENTS - purposeful misinterpretation or faking misunderstanding can be useful to distract from an intended cause of action. This type of approach must be used in a considered way and one that does not provide frustration or further agitation. In this context faked misunderstanding can be used to create a necessary diversion of attention, providing opportunity for disengagement and escape.

The goal is to escape!

Whilst developing an understanding of de-escalation strategies is important, it is also fundamental to retain a clear and present view on the context we are discussing these in. We are not in a relationship with a known partner, nor a customer service provider dealing with a dispute. We are discussing the context of being thrust into a potentially violent situation with an unknown assailant or assailants. Trust, understanding and empathy are often built based on prior knowledge and over time. We do not have this at our disposal. However, should we be given the opportunity for dialogue then this should be seized, if for no other purpose than to seek to engage that individual in a thought process contrary to that which seeks to cause us harm. If through providing this type of dialogue we are given opportunity to divert attention away from their original intent and escape without need for a physical response, we need to make effort to ensure this.

However, our goal is personal safety and escape. Being alert to and understanding the reaction of the assailant to questioning and use of these strategies is essential. If it appears we are increasing agitation or aggression through these actions, we need to retain opportunity for targeted (possibly pre-emptive) physical defensive responses.

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