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Just Beat It: How to De-escalate and Avoid a Fight, According to Experts

Michael Jackson leaves behind a lot of great songs, some of the best dancing ever captured on film, and one hell of a complicated legacy overall, but there’s no question he was right on target when he urged us all to back down rather than stepping up in a potentially violent situation, saying (in part):

“You better run, you better do what you can
Don’t want to see no blood, don’t be a macho man
You want to be tough, better do what you can
So beat it!”
After all, what’s the absolute best-case scenario when you get into a fight? You hurt someone else and you don’t get hurt yourself — that’s still a net negative, because why hurt someone else, really? And the worst case scenario? Broken bones, severe blood loss, maybe even death. And for what? Bragging rights?
If you’re being attacked by someone hellbent on robbing, hurting, or even killing you, then by all means fight back with everything you’ve got and keep fighting until the threat is neutralized. But if someone starts flexing on you at a bar or party, bro, just beat it.
The thing is, de-escalating a tense situation that seems destined for fisticuffs isn’t always as easy as just walking away. An aggravated would-be aggressor may already be committed to combat, meaning you will need to ease things down with finesse lest you risk riling the fellow up even more and ensuring a fight rather than defusing one. Let’s talk about the best ways to make sure the latter happens.

Assess the Situation ASAP

“Once you have an idea of what’s happening, you can focus on how to de-escalate,” says martial arts expert Jason Maine. Think about who is squaring off against you, noting their body language, actual language, their size, and other details. Then look for ways to exit or at least that can offer you some sort of redoubt. “Remember your own posture. Any aggressive stance from you will only intensify their reaction. Although stress has your nerves on edge, try to maintain an alert yet non-threatening appearance. Keep your palms open, too; a closed fist can indicate to them you’re thinking about attacking first,” adds Maine.

How to De escalate and Avoid-a-Fight
Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

As you visually assess your potential adversary and the area, Maine also says: “Another ideal tactic is simply listening. Sometimes, a person may just need to vent, boast, etc., and you are unfortunately on the receiving end. Let them talk and hear them out. Eventually, they may leave on their own as they’re out of energy from the rant. [And] if they’re taunting you, don’t fall into the trap. Leave your ego behind in this case as they want you to react. They want you to give them an excuse. Keep quiet, and when you do speak, stick to a composed tone.”

If you determine the person is more bark than bite, let them talk enough so they don’t feel disrespected, then calmly say you are leaving and do just that, keeping an eye on them as you do so.

Control Your Body and Voice

Juan Arango of Security Camera King says you should never raise your voice, even if you are in fact growing angrier or stressed. “Although you might be tempted to raise your voice when you are arguing with someone … it is best to keep your voice at a low, even, and almost soothing tone. Raising your voice will make it seem as if you are angry, which could egg another person on.”

And never try to talk tough making “threats that you don’t mean,” says Arango. That’s a surefire way to take things in the wrong direction.

Know the Signs of Someone Who Is Fronting, and Who Plans on Fighting

If there’s anyone who knows a thing or ten about things of a combat nature, it’s Tony Schiena, globally known expert on matters ranging from counter terrorism to paramilitary operations to private security to martial arts and the founder of Mosaic, a “strategic risk and crisis management, intelligence, and security advisory firm.” So when Schiena told us how to assess the signs someone is posing vs. presenting a real threat, we listened.

“I don’t care about what a potential combatant says,” explained Schiena “a dog barks when it can’t fight; actions are more important. The inexperienced assailant will move closer to you aggressively, [have a] visible loss of temper, obvious preparation of body for an attack, [maybe] clenching a fist, a shoulder movement telegraphing an attack, etc. The experienced will try to mask intentions, not making eye contact, concealing intention to launch an attack, move closer to you in a more cunning fashion.”

In other words, the more someone makes a scene like they are going to attack, the better chance they’re not. Keep it cool, and things may well cool down.

Don’t Be Aggressive, But Don’t Come Across as Meek, Either

Even someone who is a coward at heart may still attack if he (or she) is fully confident they’ll win the melee. Tony Schiena says: “Unfortunately an assailant will attack when he smells blood. Depending what caused the conflict, [and even] if it’s no fault of the defendant, then backing down will encourage the assailant’s confidence and increase his bravado, it’s all ego.”

So if you present too mild a front, you may increase the chance of getting punched (or needing to throw a punch yourself), rather than reducing it. Remember: calm and confident is good, angry and aggressive is bad.

If You Can’t Avoid the Fight, Make Sure You’ll Win It

“Last option,” says Schiena, “be prepared and know how and where to strike. If there’s no way out, visibly back down from an aggressor and then launch a surprise attack … he will think you’re vulnerable and easy prey and be caught off-guard. If you’re a grappler you can perhaps get him in a hold, restraining him, but that’s tough if you’re not experienced as any complicated technique goes out the window in an unexpected conflict. If you’re a striker, depending on the threat level, the throat is a perfect target when there’s risk to your life; the nose, a great way to end most fights. Like Tyson said: ‘Everyone has a plan until they are hit in the mouth.’ But I’d recommend the nose.”

One more devilish tip Mr. Schiena had for us is to get some credentials that will scare off even the most riled up bar brawler: “If you’re truly afraid of fighting,” he said “then join a police auxiliary or other reserve or volunteer type unit and earn a badge or other credentials to flash.”

Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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