Most studies on self defense are going to involve, well, defending yourself. However, in an ideal situation, you never come under attack in the first place.

In this article, we’re going to spend a brief moment discussing how to identify a potentially dangerous situation by observing yourself and others. Then, we’re going to devote the rest of the article learning how to leave or deescalate these situations before they become violent.

We’ll end the article with a brief discussion of basic self defense, but blocks and strikes are a bit beyond the scope of this article.

When it’s someone close to you

Most of the time, when you get into a potentially dangerous situation, it’s going to be with someone that you know. Statistically, this has a simple explanation: they’re the people that you spend the most time with.

Further, the closer that you are to someone, the more likely you are to get into some … sensitive situations. Combine that with really knowing how to push someone’s buttons, maybe you’ve had too much to drink, whatever.

The good news is, if you’re close to someone, you probably know the signs that something’s got their blood a little hot and what to do to calm them down. If you don’t know their warning signs or how to calm them down, don’t worry, we’ll cover those bases as we move through the article.

Further, in most martial arts and in these articles, we’ll focus on self defense as the minimum amount of force that you need to expend to protect yourself and exit the situation. Whether you know the person or not, the idea isn’t to do any more damage than is absolutely necessary.

So, what if you don’t know the person?

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Eyeing up an interaction

You’re at work and a disagreement with your coworker just might have gotten too personal. You’re at a bar and the half-in-the-bag guy on the next stool doesn’t like what he just overheard. Or, you’re out on the street and run into the wrong sort of fellow. What next? You don’t know this person. You don’t know what they’re going to do. This could turn into a self defense situation.

You don’t know what kind of person they are, but with a little tact, you can find out. Mental health experts break aggression into three smaller camps: anger, hostility, and violence. Knowing what you’re dealing with can help you determine what steps you need to take toward self defense.

Anger

An angry person is probably a good person who has had a bad day. Assume people are angry before thinking that they are hostile or violent. When an angry person appears, just try to calm them down. Try to identify with them. Let them know that you’re not looking for trouble. Maybe share a good-natured joke.

If they’re angry, that should be the end of the interaction. If they respond more negatively, it is time to look for some more telling signs as this may become a self defense situation.

Hostility

Everyone gets angry from time to time. Not everyone is hostile. Hostility is a character trait – it’s part of who that person is all the time. Hostile people are often impatient and stubborn. They may even say out loud that they want to hit something or someone.

Some hostile people will dress or speak or act in a way that – even if it isn’t overtly aggressive, makes you feel uncomfortable. 

If you spot any of these red flags, don’t try to defuse the situation with conversation like you might with an angry person. Just find a quick but civil way to end the interaction and clear out if you can. This may become a self defense situation.

Violence

Most hostile people are uncomfortable to deal with but they aren’t actually a threat. Violent people, on the other hand, can be genuinely dangerous.

These people will often give their behavior away long before they strike. They tend to engage in abusive language or behave in ways that are otherwise socially appropriate. Usually this behavior can be seen from a mile away giving you time to think out your self defense strategy.

If somebody says or does something that makes you feel unsafe – not uncomfortable, unsafe – try to leave the situation immediately.

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Look at yourself from time to time

There’s a saying: “If the first person that you meet is an asshole, they’re probably an asshole; if everyone that you meet is an asshole, chances are that you’re the asshole.”

That was a bit of a joke, but it’s also a handy way to think about your interactions with others. It’s good to know the psychological signs that someone else might be looking for a fight, but if you think that everyone else is looking for a fight, maybe that’s something for you to address.

Psychology isn’t predestination. If you feel like – now that you think about it – you’re kind of angry a lot of the time, open yourself up to that. Try to find out what makes you feel that way, and see if you can’t feel safer in the world by focusing on your feelings rather than everyone else’s.

We often think of self defense as escaping trouble. A theme of this article is that self defense can also mean keeping yourself out of trouble.

Defusing a situation

So, the individual is making you feel uncomfortable but you don’t feel unsafe. You don’t want to leave the situation – and you shouldn’t have to. The first step in self defense in these situations is to try to defuse the situation so that it doesn’t become dangerous in the first place.

The first and most important option is to be patient and civil. As long as the other person isn’t threatening you, let them say what they have to say. If they’re just angry, they may just want to vent a bit. If they’re hostile or violent, they may use your interrupting them as an excuse for them to escalate the situation.

Once they’ve said their piece, say something briefly to relate to their situation and then excuse yourself back to your group and/or change the subject. If they really were upset by something you said, they probably won’t care about what you say next. If they follow you into your next conversation, it’s a decent sign that they’re looking for trouble.

If you’re worried that someone might cause a problem but it’s not time to take off yet, try to stay in an area where other people can see you. People are less likely to do something drastic if they know that it could get them fired, kicked out of the bar, arrested, whatever.

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Leaving a situation

Defusing a situation didn’t work. The other person is still there and you’re starting to feel worse than uncomfortable. 

It can be tempting to play the stubborn card and try to make the other person leave. However, if you’re really trying to avoid a more serious conflict, walking away is your best bet.

Walking away may sound scary: it means turning your back on the potential threat. However, chances are that the person isn’t going to come at you with some sort of weapon. And, when an attacker is unarmed, they don’t really have any good targets on the back of the body anway.

When attacking, the idea is to go for small, specific targets that are in some way weak points. They may be sensitive, or may have delicate organs behind them, or be points where muscles and bones are easily displaced. The back is made up of broad flat muscles on top of protective bones. 

But again, they’re unlikely to attack you or follow you anyway.

You might try running but personally, I’m not a runner. My belief on the subject is if I tried to run, they’d just catch me drained of breath and energy and unable to put up a fight. Plus, if I could outrun them I could probably outfight them anyway. 

If you feel similarly, read on.

Self defense

You’ve tried defusing the situation. You’ve tried leaving the situation. This person is just looking for a fight and they found you. Nothing left to do but give them a fight.

Other articles on this page are going to go into deeper guides on self defense, including basic blocks and attacks. That’s a little beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll wrap up by talking a bit about the philosophy of self defense.

We touched down on this to some degree already: the point of self defense is to defend yourself, not put the other person in the hospital. Do what you have to do, but self defense is more about blocks and evasion than it is about punches and kicks. This isn’t an action film.

In the ideal situation, everything will come down to blocking – this will give the attacker enough time to rethink their choices. If they’re stubborn, go for the kinds of targets described above – the stomach just under the sternum is a favorite for knocking the wind out of an attacker without doing any real damage.

Remember: while punches to the head are a favorite in action films, in real life they damage your knuckles and put you in potential legal jeopardy.