Dealing with and De-escalating Conflict when Switched On

I have written before about violent conflict and the story of a crime, a true crime, and its martial consequences. In that instance the consequences for those who attempted to mug a kung fu expert acquaintance of mine. That’s the result of attacking the trained man; however, for most of us without the training the outcome will be quite different.

That is what happens in this story. It is true and relayed as it was told to me by those involved.

Brian is not a violent man, far from it. He’s a gentleman, a thinker and an intellectual. He’s the sort of guy who has a ready wit, a sharp mind and is very articulate. While Brian is not a small guy, and has the shaved head look and wide shoulders of someone who could “handle themselves”, I believe Brian would always try and talk his way out of violence, as he is not naturally aggressive.

Ask yourself this: what does that mean, “Talk his way out of violence”? In this unfortunately hyper-violent world saying that someone would rather “talk his way out of it” than fight could be taken as an insult, but it really isn’t and shouldn’t be scoffed at. For example the military do this all the time. They are not only trained in fighting and combat, they are also heavily trained in what is better called “de-escalation”. De-escalation is the useful ability to reduce the conflict pressure in a situation and stop the violence before it starts. To “talk your way out of it”… It’s a skill that saves lives every day and is the way of life to soldiers who deal with angry people all the time while deployed in Peacekeeping. De-escalating calls for a cool head, the ability to under-react to aggression and the sort of understanding that comes only from comprehending the other man’s point of view. But, the military are as specially trained in that as they are in violence and when the untrained public think they can “talk their way out of it”, sometimes they will be right…

…sometimes they will be wrong.

Ask yourself an honest question, could you have de-escalated the following situation? Could you have “talked your way out of it”?

It all starts on the Tube. Brian and his 8 months pregnant wife were travelling the London tube in the evening. At Kings Cross they got off the train and made their way to the escalators. These moving steps raise up the passengers to the street slowly and at Kings Cross they are very long and quite narrow. Narrow enough in fact that Brian’s wife, Suzanne, struggled to keep to her baby bump to the right, which is the convention allowing people in a rush to walk up the steps and pass you. As they rode up a group of younger men got on and started walking up. They had clearly been drinking and were loudly laughing together; but, this is hardly an unusual situation on the Tube. As they passed the couple, one of the men brushed Suzanne aside and swore at her. She reacted by shouting “hey! Watch it!”

The man’s reaction was extreme.

He spun and grabbed Suzanne by the arms and attempted to fling her down the escalator steps. Brian’s natural reaction was to lean across to catch the off-balance Suzanne and shout at the man that she was heavily pregnant. The man sneered and let Suzanne go. Brian then assisted Suzanne back to her feet and checked she was unharmed, if shocked. As the upper level came into view, Brian could see that the man was there and waiting. As the couple got off the escalator the man approached and Brian turned to ask him “What do you want now?”

He got as far as “Wh-“ before the man hit him.

Now Brian was wearing the sort of rimless glasses that are little more than wires attached to the lens. The man’s punch was drunken, aggressive and fast. Brian had only time to lower his chin and turn slightly away before it hit him. In the glasses. The lens shattered and a huge pane of jagged glass drove itself into the line above Brian’s eye socket. This opened a hideous gash running under his eyebrow and down the side of his eye. It missed slicing his into his eyeball by a millimetre. Not that Suzanne could tell this as Brian was immediately blinded by the blood flowing from the wound. He went down and Suzanne threw herself across him to prevent the man kicking Brian’s head. The man sneered, swore and ran off.

No one stopped him.

No one shouted for the police.

No one rushed to aid.

Suzanne was left here, unable to tell the damage to her profusely bleeding husband, surrounded by the bright-eyed and gorping faces of other Tube users, who simply walked on. The man jumped the barriers and was gone. Never to be seen again.

That’s the story. Now honestly ask yourself what you would have done in Brian’s place? Talk your way out? Some sort of violence? When and at what point? Something I often discuss in the martial arts is a persons internal narrative. This is a mental phenomena caused by the perspective of one mind. Indeed we all walk around with a narrative track running in our minds. A narrative in which we are normally the hero. In this narrative, we tend to naturally edit our memories to focus stories around us. In your story, you are never rude, only outspoken. Never wrong, only misinformed. You probably see this self-absorption in other people all the time; who hasn’t been discussing something specific in a group, only to find that as one person speaks the perspective suddenly shifts in their telling and it becomes all about them? In some circumstances this is fine, perhaps you are all swapping funny stories, but at other occasions this is embarrassing for all concerned; the context flips sometimes mid-sentence.

This is why “who is at fault” in a potential car accident is irrelevant. We can argue responsibility at the pearly gates if necessary, the only action that matters in a potential car crash is not your narrative; your story, where you are right and they wrong; what matters is that you avoid the accident!

The only thing that was needed in the Brian situation was, what is called, “being switched on”. The switch is your attention to the things happening around you and the unconscious thoughts about a situation that are labelled your “gut feelings”. When I was told this story I asked, “Once you saw the guy waiting at the top of the escalator, did you not realise that you were going to be attacked?” Brian nodded, this had clearly dawned on him since the event.

“I guess so,” he said.

His response is a clue that this switch sounds easier to turn than it actually is. Your narrative has a control over you because it has informed your belief. It has told you that you could always “talk your way out of it” and this affects your actions both consciously and subconsciously. Why? Well, for many reasons, one example would be because you simply don’t believe the hero of your story is going to get hurt. This belief “gets in your way” in the situation at hand, it switches you off from what is actually happening.

Being switched on means simply being “out of your own way” and truly aware of what is happening around you. Emptying one’s mind of the preconceived narrative story and just reacting naturally to the events that happen. Being in the now. And not just what is happening outside, also what is within you. Inside your body will be emotions, such as “happiness” that your evening is going well, as well as the after effects of the drugs you have taken: caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, etc. These are also things swirling around in the mind and body of the other person in the conflict too, of course. However, a mistake of your narrative is to presume that it’s the same ones.

If you manage to drop your narrative, your expectations of what will happen, your ego (just a little); well, when conflict happens, you won’t need karate moves to defend yourself, most of the time being switched on will naturally put off people who would attack you and help de-escalate other situations.

Moreover, understanding your body language helps effect the minds of others. For example, I was in a nightclub last Christmas and a drunken man at a busy bar picked on a member of our party. Our party member (who admittedly has a very punchable face with a Tom Cruise shit-eating grin) tried to de-escalate to no avail and the sort of sniping back-chat that is a precursor to violence was occurring. I simply caught the eye of the antagonist’s friend standing next to him, froze for a second, took a deep breath and then stretched my shoulders and neck; twisting my head slightly as if preparing subtly for a fight. I then stood straight up and directly facing the man looking at him. The man quickly whispered in his drunken friend’s ear and the whole thing was over; they left. This works in the same way that shining a torch down a dark alley may highlight a potential mugger and make them step away for easier prey, being “switched on” is a beacon of your consciousness going out to those around you and letting them know that you are aware. The violent pick essentially on the unaware.

But what when the future bones of conflict have been cast? What would the switched on person have done in the situation Brian found himself in? Well, he would have seen and quickly rationalised from the historical actions, and body queues the man was displaying, that he wasn’t waiting at the top of the escalator to apologise. This sounds simple in writing; but, it actually involves overcoming your narrative: the natural anger that this man would shove a pregnant women down a long stair for nothing, and actually properly assessing the man as he waits.

He is going to attack. In his mind we are the assholes. He is the hero, we the pricks in his rightful way. Look at him stand. Look at his hands. Look at his eyes. He is going to attack. Does he have a blade? Hands and feet check. No. Is he standing still or swaying?

This knowledge assessment would inform the actions from that point. For example, he may take off his glasses and raise his hands displaying, what Geoff Thompson calls, The Fence:

fence

The Fence pdf

The main reason why the fence will probably be the most important physical technique that you will learn is its controlling factor in a live scenario. As we should all know, control comes before power. Being the best puncher in the world, or the fastest kicker is of little use if you do not possess that pivotal ingredient ‘control’.

He may adopt a martial attitude of readiness, one of the “attitudes” (as I did the nightclub – called in Wado Ryu, “normal stance”). He may decide to strike the escalator alert button found near the top to alert staff and police. He might reach for his phone and start videoing the event. He might protect his wife by moving her behind him and decide to strike first (British law is very clear on the Pre-emptive Strike, and you can read the law at the UK Gov website in simple terms). Whatever he or she decides to do, he is ready, “switched on” and aware.

Perhaps even at this late point the situation can be de-escalated once “the Fence” is up?

Perhaps the man has a knife after all and a real life-or-death fight is about to ensue?

In those few seconds of assessment a billion possibilities boil down. Perhaps coming in the end to only two potential futures, two stories with only one outcome. If you are switched on, then I believe you have a chance to workout which future you face. And with it an opportunity to make a choice. It’s is up to you.

 

 

Regards,

 

 

 

Basho

2016-10-18T18:49:52+00:00

About the Author:

Bio: Philosopher, film maker, writer and IT expert.
Occupation: IT Consultant, film-maker and writer.
Interests: Debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, air­soft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)

  • bashomatsuo

    Comments
    Vlad Kom
    Basho well written article. I wish I could write like that. In terms of the situation itself. You identified the problem in the first lines. Your friend is not a violent person. On the street people can sense it well maybe not when they are drunk. I wouldn’t recommend getting into conflict no matter how well trained you are unless you recognised that you are prepared to loose more than you can gain. In the scenario that you mentioned personally I wouldn’t even try to deescalate. When someone tries to assault your pregnant wife you don’t deescalate you go full on.

    Now in terms of deescalation in my line of work if someone doesn’t do what I tell them to do and have problems following clear instructions I will use force to achieve my objective. In terms of using force how much should I use. Well I will much the force of the other person and go beyond to overpower. I have to send I clear message that I am prepared to go above and beyond if necessary and usually people are not ready to accept that unless they are on drugs or something else then different approach required.

    Daniel Bard
    I think theorising is dangerous as we can never know for sure how we’d react hypothetically and such conversations usually end up re-telling war stories! Getting smacked in the face is more shocking than you may realise especially out there in the real world. More relevant is how to incorporate these elements into your training! I know that we train fear through the gradings! But the rest must be acquired through experience? One question I would have is did the guy report it? Most underground stations are covered in CCTV! People like Vlad are paid to take care of people like the one who attacked your friend! And even more in jail I would expect!! I’ve seen two separate incidents recently one on the train funnily enough and I just observed and noted everything I could and reported it! The article does though highlight a prejudice against pregnant women which I noticed a lot before my son was born and still do see every day! That is really the shocking element of the story!

    Richard Gaillard
    Hi Basho – interesting article and thanks for sharing. It touches on a point that we consider and train at DKK which is a) recognising when a situation has become a confrontation and b) reacting to it. In a way b) is easier if you decide now how you will react. A big part of confrontation is the reality that unless you are experienced or naturally aggressive, both the acceptance that you are in a fight (which as you say had begun while the guy waited for him at the top) and the reality that you have to hurt someone to deal with it are potentially significant mental challenges. Scenario visualisation and making the decision at the b) stage is key, as is training your mind to recognise when you are in a fight – however much you might not want to accept you are. Being in the state of alert you refer to is fundamental to this. I am sorry of course to read about your friend’s experience.

    Basho Matsuo
    Hi Vlad, I believe that is sound advice re getting into conflicts; that is you should always be careful that violence will solve the problem. In the article I highlighted that being “switched off” and “controlled by narrative” can lead to totally misreading the situation and actually making things worse. However, hitting people is not without dangers to the person being hit. Only in the movies are people knocked out and then get up fine. In real life being knocked out can easily maim and kill. When I first heard the story I thought that perhaps my friends weren’t telling me everything and that maybe they swore at the guy as he went up. If not, then finding him waiting for “another go” at the top of the escalator would put me, personally, on 100% readiness.

    As Daniel rightly said, the trouble is training for this “non-technique” side of violence. I believe Sensei Gavin has a pragmatic approach to that in Go Ju and works the problem from multiple angles (the fear side is in the various trials you face in gradings, the spirit side in the conditioning that Go Ju is famous for, etc.) One thing I remember were the lessons performed in normal clothes. In other clubs, I have seen what is also called “Animal days” work well where swearing, etc. is encouraged.

    Recognising when violence is too late to avoid is a trained reaction. I personally use the fence in such occasions – if they keep touching it coming forwards then I need to realise what is happening. One thing I have also trained in in TKD is the use of a conditioned phrase to initiate combat in my mind. For me I use a discombobulating phrase, “Do you know the muffin man”. Say it, instant switch to combat, boom! It has the bonus effect of confusing the opponent.

    Thanks for the comments; it was an experiment in writing as I wrote the whole thing on my iPhone on my new train journey (which sucks for writing on a laptop). With your permission I would like to quote you in the articles comments?

    Best,

    Basho Matsuo

    Gavin Mulholland
    Good article and some good points too. Just some other thoughts to add to the mix… De-escalating is indeed a skill and one used on the door all the time. However, it is backed up by some heavy guns. The military do indeed de-escalate violent situations. But, they are also backed up by some heavy guns. Same for the Police. My point is, people often view being able to ‘talk their way out of it’ as an alternative to violence whereas, in reality, you need both in your arsenal. It’s the same with pacifism – only those capable of violence are able to CHOOSE pacifism. Otherwise it’s not really a choice at all. It’s just the illusion of choice. I completely understand why you would not want to get into a fight when you are with your pregnant wife but, as you have already pointed out, the attacker had already revealed his willingness to attack a pregnant woman so you already know what type of person you are dealing with here. So I think there would be no choice but to put him down after he waited at the top of the escalator. The courts will take a dim view but, personally, for the safety of my wife and baby, I would have come off that escalator like a freight train.

    Basho Matsuo
    I agree Gavin, wholeheartedly. My friend is not trained, even a little, and his relative pacifism didn’t help him at all. Educating himself re the law and steeling his nerves could have seen him through. In the end, he was lucky.

    Michael Innes
    “Credible threat” is a staple in the political science/international relations literature. It works at all levels – strategic, operational, tactical, sub-tactical – and for all actor types – states, non-state entities, individual people…

    Daniel Bard
    Basho Matsuo Did your friend report the matter? Surely it was picked up on CCTV?

    Basho Matsuo
    Well it was a significant time ago, but they of course – eventually – got the attention of staff, and an paramedic was called. The CCTV was OK, but since the police didn’t catch the guy, they couldn’t do anything. It’s never been solved.