Practical Self-Defense by Conflict Avoidance

Increasing wealth division between rich and poor is strongly associated with increased crime rates.  During 2011 in Portugal, theft increased by a shocking 30% and violent crime by 8%. Thus there is an increasing need to be prepared in the case of assault, even in a relatively non-violent society such as Portugal (there are 12 people murdered each year for every million people in Portugal, compared to 340 in South Africa).


This article aims to address the most important aspect of self-defense that is often over-looked in ‘self-defense’ classes: making sure you never get into a confrontation



No matter how many years of physical combat training you may have, combat is fundamentally unpredictable and someone weaker and less experienced can still hurt you. This is why awareness (‘Zanshin’ in Japanese martial arts) is a principle consideration of martial arts. Typically people imagine a confrontation whereby there is a challenge, and two men face each other ready to prove who is best. However, this is rare. More common is a surprise assault from behind, maybe with a knife, brick or baseball bat. Often there are several attackers, and you may be assaulted whilst carrying the shopping, seated, or with you children. Ensuring you never get into a confrontation is the best way to avoid being assaulted.

There are three key considerations in avoiding assaults:


1. Location

Even newcomers to cities can identify trouble spots where there may be assaults. Poorly lit streets with people drinking alcohol, large parks at night, areas known for robberies, and dark car-parks. Non-one wants to restrict their freedom, but keeping safe means reducing risks, so avoid known areas where there may be trouble. Although you may be tempted to take a ‘short-cut’ through such an area, remember that you will forget a long walk home the next day, but you won’t forget an assault. Also, be aware of your surroundings e.g. don’t walk close to dark alcoves where someone may be hiding.


2. Group

People who attack others are usually quite cowardly. Mostly they find ‘easy’ targets. Thus, don’t wonder alone at night through a city feeling scared and holding a map of the area. Walk with confidence, and ideally with a group of friends. Any individual is easily overcome by three or four attackers. If you have a group of friends with you, you are much less likely to be perceived as a target.



3. Drugs

Rohypnol is a sedative which causes amnesia and is used to incapacitate victims prior to either theft or rape. Usually these are applied in a social setting by dosing a drink. Therefore, never leave your drink unattended, and never drink from a bottle or glass that is given to you by anyone but the barman. Even at the bar, ensure that you see the barman poor the drink, since there have been cases of barmen being payed to drug victims. Alcohol will also impair your judgment and reactions, and may even increase your own aggression, thus leading to a confrontation. Therefore, don’t drink excessively, and don’t be persuaded to drink excessively. If you are on a date with a stranger, arrange to call or send text messages to a friend before, during and after the date. Also agree on action if they don’t receive the message e.g. they visit you in the same location. Meet in a public place, and ideally arrange for friends to meet up with you at a set time after the date (this saved a female friend of mine, who had been drugged).


All confrontations are not the same: Men are assaulted more often than women, and usually by other men due to aggression (woman or alcohol related).

Women are more prone to be targets for rape, which usually involves assault in isolated places, and an attack from behind (although it is more common to be raped by someone you know than a stranger). Both men and women are prone to muggings (theft in the street).


Aggression is usually proceeded by prolonged stares or specific comments.

As soon as this occurs, you must treat this person as a potential threat, even if they appear to be doing something else, and never leave yourself vulnerable to an attack, and ideally don’t get close to them. It is acceptable to avoid trouble and consider going to less aggressive surroundings prior to any potential trouble.

A second stage is for an aggressor to make an approach and argue.

Understand that their ‘argument’ may just be a pretext to justify an assault. It is important to make a judgment on whether (i) you believe the problem can really be resolved, or (ii) whether they wish to assault you regardless of your efforts for reconciliation. In the case of (i) you should make efforts to resolve the issue in a calm, assured manner (never show fear), and without insults, raised voice or swear words. In the case of (ii) you will see them ‘preparing’ for a fight: maybe insulting you, trying to get you annoyed, pushing you. Their brain is switching to ‘animal’ mode, often evident by their speech changing to one or two word threats or answers e.g. “yeh!”, “Who says?!”, “Come on”. This should be an automatic trigger for you to realise that violence is imminent. Sometimes disarming language can diffuse the situation, and force them to think, bringing them back to normal human mode. Real examples include “nice tattoo, did you get that done here?” (when the assailant removed his t-short to hit the other person); “I think I worked with your brother, what’s his name?” and “Do you know what the time is?” (before fleeing) i.e. questions that don’t require simple yes or no answers and engage the brain.


If the confrontation escalates and there seems no avoidance, do not wait to be hit.

Being hit can stun you temporarily and put you at a distinct disadvantage. Instead, as you feel aggression becoming a real threat, hold out your arm in front of you and shout “Stay back!” The shout may be enough to surprise them and make them calm down, however the main purpose is to draw attention from the surrounding people, and to force them into a clear decision of looking like the aggressor (by approaching) or backing off. After this stage, never let this guard down. You can shout it again if they approach, but if they enter this space you must see this as an aggressive act, and strike them as hard as you can. The best targets are a punch or heel palm to the jaw, or a kick to the groin. If you are going to practice anything physical, practice these repeatedly (and ideally the shout as well) until they are instinctive i.e. a minimum of 1000 times. Once combat begins, be aware of other attackers approaching from the side or behind. Keep fighting as hard and as long as you can – being as aggressive as you can, until they are on the floor, they flee, are incapacitated, or you can disappear into the crowd. Often the level of aggression you can present at this stage will instill sufficient fear in them to make them run, or allow you to run. If you are knocked to the floor, try to get up as soon as possible. Kicks to the head can be fatal, so when down, cover your head. Don’t be afraid to poke eyes or grab testicles.


Theft is different from aggression in that the thief rarely wants a fight, and therefore it is usually done with far superior numbers or with weapons, commonly a knife.

Again, judgment is important. The standard advice is to give a thief what they want, particularly if they are armed. However, if you believe you can scare the thief due to superior numbers, you may be able to get them to flee simply through threats. Be warned that knife defense is extremely difficult, whereas screaming loudly at them and disappearing into a crowd is relatively easy.


With rape, it is best to resist.

Psychologically, women who tried to resist rape cope better afterwards, even if they are badly beaten. Again, screaming very loud directly in the face of the attacker can instill fear and surprise them. A scream will also attract attention. Often at night, especially after drinking, a scream such as ‘rape’ is assumed to be a joke. An alternative is to scream “Fire!”, which tends to bring more attention. Trust your instincts with people: if someone seems over-friendly or is trying to force you to go somewhere out of guilt, beware; it is often a strategy to lure you away from the group and make you vulnerable. An event in Lisbon last year involved two girls being invited from a public bar to a ‘private bar’ in another building, by two men. The private bar was empty, except for a bar-woman serving them drinks all night. They woke up the next morning, confused, all their money stolen, and with evidence of an attempted sexual assault. The drinks at the ‘private bar’ were drugged.


Abduction is a special case.

If someone is trying to force you off the street or into a car it is because they want to get you into a situation where they have the advantage, and your screams won’t attract attention e.g. an isolated house. Regardless of the weapons the abductor has, resist. You have more chance of escape at this point than later, and if they are prepared to kill you in the street, you can know that they are definitely prepared to kill you in the privacy of a secure house. If you are unable to resist abduction, ensure you leave your DNA and fingerprints everywhere you can (car, house, walls), so the police can link them to the crime. Touch everything, spit on things, pull out your hair and shove it between the seats. In the case of one man who was abducted, killed, and thrown in a river, they linked the murderer to the crime because the body was found with an addressed telephone bill in his sock. He had managed to put it in his sock at the murderers house.

Probably the most important part of a confrontation is afterwards, because this is what you have to live with day to day.

The key thing is: don’t judge yourself.

Accept that you did what you could. “I should have done this” is just an unrealistic interpretation of the event, forgetting that at the time you were under extreme stress and had to make split second judgments with insufficient information. In the same way, no-one else can judge your actions in a confrontation. An excellent writer on self-defense, Geoff Thompson, calls this useless pitiful self-blame the ‘black dog’. This name comes directly from Winston Churchill, who explained it himself as such: During World War II, the allies deciphered the secret code the Germans were using to communicate. In one message they discovered that Germany planned to bomb a city in England called Coventry. Winston Churchill knew that if he evacuated the city, the Germans would know they had discovered the code, and they may loose any advantage, and indeed the war. The alternative, of letting thousands of innocent adults and children die, seemed terrible, but he made the hard choice. Of course he lived with the guilt, but called it his ‘black dog’. So, make sure, whatever happens, don’t live with your ‘black dog’. I have had around fifteen physical confrontations in my life, once involving a knife, once involving a bottle, and once being outnumbered 7 to 1. Thankfully, in all these confrontations I came out alive and without permanent disability, even though in one of them I was quite severely beaten. So remember, if you experienced one of these very rare and terrifying events, and you are still alive today, you can consider it a good day and get on with your life.

 Ian Dodkins©

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