This article was written by Wes Derequito, a self-defence expert and personal safety instructor based in Montreal, Canada. Wes is the former chief instructor and global head of Senshido International and is currently creating his own combat arts and fitness program, WARCAT Fit. Header image used on license from Shutterstock.
Passivity often has this connection with "cowardice" or "compliance" when it comes to self-defence, personal safety and even general confrontations. However, that mindset or perception of "passiveness" is highly misunderstood. Yes, the term passivity is defined as 'acceptance or compliance without action', but we can "use" that perspective of passiveness to our advantage.
We see it often. Many self-defence instructors often teach the whole, "GET BACK!" or "BACK OFF!" as their use of language when dealing with a person who appears to be confrontational. The goal behind this is to use assertiveness to create boundaries. The problem I see with utilizing "assertiveness" is when you are up against someone who literally could care less about what you are telling them what to do.
I see two potential issues when using overly assertive language in confrontations: I see two potential issues when using overly assertive language in confrontations:
- The attacker has no respect for authority
Look at this use of language, for example: "GET BACK…" – That is a direct order. Now, if I were a figure of authority such as a police officer, this should work in my favour. But most of us are civilians. I personally have ZERO authority on the streets. Even IF I did have some sort of power of authority, there would be attackers who won't even care then. Yes, there are times to be assertive, but in a potentially violent situation, it would be difficult to assert yourself if your attacker has already targeted you as their intended victim.
- It’s a Limited “Tactic”
So, it appears the main reason most instructors who teach assertive language (including body language) is to deter someone from approaching. They usually establish a strong stance with hands up, a position people in the industry like to call a "fence," implying that the stance prevents someone from getting past their "defences."
However, this kind of fence, matched with the assertive language and tone of voice, limits the "user" to either:
- Having the attacker back away
- Continue their attack anyway (as mentioned in Part 1 above).
This doesn't leave much room to "negotiate" if your main objective is to "intimidate" your attacker through assertiveness as a tactic.
This tactic really only works on someone who never really intended on attacking you in the first place. Perhaps they underestimated you and came to realize it at that moment. I actually see more risks of escalating a situation by giving someone a direct order, especially when barking at them with a (false) sense of authority.
For the record, the assertive approach isn't necessarily wrong. I just don't feel it is ideal for most situations. Sure, many people will get away with using it. BUT, if you're going to use it, you better be able to "sell" it. You have to be convincing enough to get someone who already picked you as a victim to back off by using purely assertive language. And it is something that would likely work for someone who is already an intimidating figure. But I would much rather use language that is a little more adaptable to a broader audience.
In our training in fundamentals of self-defence, we address most confrontations (specifically social violence) from a psychological perspective. We often adopt a very different, almost polarizing approach - passiveness. An approach that actually provides both a psychological and physical advantage.
Now, when we use the term passive, we use it loosely. There is this notion that it implies submissiveness (although there are times where a submissive approach can be the appropriate action as well, which we will address another time). We use the term in terms of "non-aggressive" or "non-threatening."
When we say "passivity", we don't actually mean being passive; instead, it means to appear passive. And we do so by often adopting a passive stance when encroached with a potentially aggressive person.
Now, I've strayed away from the term "passive stance." Even I admit the sound of it does imply we do nothing. But it's the total opposite. You are actually providing yourself flexibility with your call-to-action when someone is antagonizing you. So I prefer to call it the negotiating stance.
The "passive" or "negotiative" approach is designed for situations that have yet to escalate. This obviously won't work for ambush attacks - then again, neither would being assertive as there is no room for communication.
The reason I prefer negotiating is because it allows me to feel out the potential confrontation. The way I talk and the words I use will help me figure out the person in front of me. Is he/she a really bad person who wants to hit me? Or are they simply a decent person who is angry and needs to vent. I am almost interviewing them to discover their intentions. Then, I negotiate the situation through verbal defusion. This sounds like several processes to be happening at once, which they are, but it is a very natural process that occurs when engaged in communication. You just have to be tactical about it.
So let's say an aggressive person approaches me. Maybe they accuse me of something, or perhaps they want something from me? Rather than telling them to "fuck off," I'd adopt a non-threatening stance, usually hands up "passively", and try to defuse the situation.
This stance is "3-fold":
- Defensively: My hands are already up if I need to react to an oncoming attack
- Offensively: My hands are already deployed for easy access to a preemptive strike if needed.
- Psychologically: It is non-threatening body language that won't intentionally challenge my "opponent." While simultaneously giving me a position to be proactive to do either of the actions above (defence/offence).
Bonus: If there are witnesses to the situation, and you had to go physical, you have a better claim to acting out in self-defence than if you were in a shouting match.
Think about it. Imagine you told the guy to fuck off, and he didn't, so you drop him. If there were witnesses, cameras or even police nearby, all they saw were two people shouting at each other and one dropping the other. Body language is critical here. If you started off non-aggressive, people would likely have noticed that you were trying to defuse the situation and add more validity to acting out in self-defence.
I made a video some time ago addressing the advantages of a "Passive Stance." You can see it here:
While adopting this position, I have room to communicate before it escalates. The combination of non-aggressive body language with verbal defusion tactics will allow me to quickly evaluate whether the person is genuinely a violent individual or not. A person with the intention of fighting me, upon seeing my passive stance, will likely drop their guard, as now I have fed their ego by appearing passive. I ALLOW them to feel empowered, but in truth, I am ready for action if needed.
The non-aggressive position and verbal defusing tactics I use are not just tools I will use to try to walk away from the situation, but they are also used as tools of deception if I need to be proactive. As mentioned earlier, in this position, my hands are already up, but because I appear non-threatening, my opponent will not realize that I am both ready for a counter strike or throw a preemptive strike of my own.
It's a game of using their ego against themselves. Get their ego to go up by providing a false sense of power, which in turn drops their guard. With their guard dropped, it allows an opening for me to hit first if I feel that I am indeed in danger.
To conclude, appearing passive/non-aggressive gives you more bang for your buck in most confrontations. There is definitely a time and place to be assertive -I've had to do it myself, once or twice. In either case, you better be good at reading people and their intentions. And between the two approaches, starting with a non-aggressive position allows you to read a situation much more effectively. At best - you defuse the situation, and all parties go home unscathed. At worst - you have to defend or go preemptive, but you put yourself in a better position to do so.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War