A Surprising Way to Stay Safe From Fights

February 17, 2017
Two people engaged in conversation in a office

Throughout my years as a CPI Certified Instructor, I have mentioned safety countless times to the students who have taken the full Foundation Course and refresher courses.

When my students hear the word safety, it conjures up thoughts of personal safety techniques and not getting hurt. They look forward to the disengagement techniques, and rightly so. The techniques are fun, they offer physical movement, and they provide a sense of accomplishment when learned. 

Nevertheless, after we practice personal safety skills, I sometimes feel that my students walk away having learned to be reactive rather than proactive. They seem to think that they should wait for escalating behavior before responding appropriately.  

As CPI teaches, the truth is that safety is about much more than a set of responsive techniques.

A more complete view and functional way to understand safety is knowing that it requires a state of awareness. This awareness has to be honed and trained. CPI elaborates on this state of awareness with nonverbal communication (haptics, proxemics, kinesics), being aware of your environment, and most importantly knowing the clients you work with (Precipitating Factors, Integrated Experience, and Therapeutic Rapport).

In addition to being a CPI Instructor and a clinical psychotherapist, I also teach an evidence-based form of self-defense. As a self-defense instructor, I’m always asked, “What do I do when my opponent strikes in this manner?” or “How should I respond if this technique doesn’t work?”

While my students are well-intentioned, they’re asking the wrong questions. 

The best and most effective question is, “How did I get into this particular situation, and what can I do to PREVENT it?”

When an event occurs, there is usually a beginning (an antecedent), a middle (a series of actions/behaviors), and an end (a consequence). Too often, we focus on reacting to the behaviors, and not enough on being aware of the antecedents.

Focusing on prevention puts you way ahead of the game. 

This skill of seeing escalating behavior before or as it develops is called situational awareness. It’s the ability to anticipate and/or de-escalate situations before or as they occur. This is accomplished through using a social skill set that increases awareness and the ability to read cues more effectively.

Take this real-life example of a Q&A with one of my self-defense students.

Student: “What can you do if someone hits you in the stomach, pulls your shirt over your head, and then begins to strike you repeatedly?”

Instructor: “Hope that they get tired and stop quickly.” (Said jokingly)

Student: (Laughs) “Seriously. How would you stop that?”

Instructor: “How did the person get close to you in order to hit you in the stomach and get your shirt over your head?”

Student: “Well, I was standing in the hall and they saw me from a distance. They gave me a mean look so I made a rude gesture toward them.”

Instructor: “And then?”

Student: “And then they started walking toward me. I got nervous and looked down, pretending that I wasn’t paying attention. Then it happened.”

Instructor: “When did the fight start?”

Student: “When he hit me.”

Instructor: “The fight started several minutes before anything physical occurred. It started when you interpreted his look and decided to act on it.”

In this scenario, the student makes the assumption that an attack began when the physical attack occurred. Now he’s asking for a physical self-defense solution to what he perceives as the beginning of the attack.

The problem lies in that the attack began way before anything physical occurred. If the student better understood nonverbal communication, the Integrated Experience, and displayed Rational Detachment, he would have either avoided the situation completely or at least been better prepared to protect himself.

That’s what situational awareness is.

Now you must be asking, how does one go about learning situational awareness and getting better at de-coding nonverbal communication? 

Here are a few ways to practice and improve your ability to read others and your environment. 

Practice Mindfulness (Rational Detachment)
Many people think that meditation teaches you to block out the world, but this is inaccurate.  Mindfulness is taking in the world without judgment and without forming an attachment to your thoughts. It’s learning to consciously pay attention to the environment. To be present.

  • Practice saying “in” when you breathe in and “out” when you breathe out. If you get distracted by a thought or idea, just notice it without judgment and allow it to pass. Return to your breathing and your “in/out.” That’s it.
  • This will increase your sensitivity and awareness to your surroundings without increasing your anxiety.

Practice People Watching
People watching is a fun pastime of mine. The more you watch people, the more you notice common, reactive human behavior.

  • Observe, observe, observe. People are often predictable in social settings.
  • Play the awareness game. Actively scan with alertness. Note items and details in your environment, characteristics in people, and people's emotions. You will eventually see things that you may have overlooked previously.
  • What does a person’s baseline behavior look like? What do deviations from that baseline look like? Practice predicting what people may or may not do next.
  • Learn more about patterns of human behavior and how people escalate/de-escalate (this is discussed in detail in the CPI Crisis Development Model℠).

Practice Empathic Listening
Empathic listening gives you the opportunity to learn from another person. The more you listen, the better you’ll get at reading people. Empathic listening is like mindfulness with a partner.

  • Give the person your undivided attention so you can pick up on subtleties.
  • Listen for underlying messages. What emotions are their words and their tone of voice conveying?
  • Use restatement to clarify. This will give you feedback as to whether you’re on point or missing something.
  • Pay attention to proxemics (where the person is in relation to you/how close they’re standing), hand gestures, facial gestures, and body posture. What emotions are they conveying minus the words?
  • Role-play having a partner display different emotions without talking and try to discover what they’re feeling.

Mental Rehearsal and Physical Responding
Going over a situation in your mind again and again triggers the same neural network in your brain as it would if you physically repeated the situation several times.

Do both! Mentally rehearse and physically repeat.

  • Think: “If this person attempts to throw a punch, grab me, push me, etc., where should I be so they cannot?” Mentally place yourself in different positions to achieve an optimal response.
  • Practice OODA: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (created by Air Force Strategist John Boyd). Look at your situation, orient yourself in optimal positions, decide on the best course of action, and act.

I hope I have given you a different look into safety. While personal safety techniques are important and useful, a small amount of situational awareness can really prevent matters from escalating. This has served me well in all facets of my life, and I’m sure it will do the same for you. I think Benjamin Franklin said it best with “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

Keep learning, keep practicing, and keep yourself and others safe!

In addition to being a CPI Certified Instructor, Christopher Fernandes, MA, LMHC, CSAC, is a licensed clinician and school adjustment counselor in Massachusetts, practicing and teaching evidence-based therapies and interventions to staff and students. He currently works with inner-city students, where his focus is on behavior change, motivation, academic success, and school improvement.

Chris has significant experience in direct care and treatment of children with emotional and behavioral difficulties as well as teaching others how to work with a behavioral population. He has a strong background in Behaviorism, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Collaborative Problem Solving, Family Systems Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing.

You can follow Chris on his Think Behavior blog, where he shares cool stuff related to human behavior. You can also follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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