Winning Without Fighting: Avoiding Threats & Non-Violent Dispute Resolution

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 3

The quote above comes from a particularly rough time in Chinese history: the Warring States period. Instead of being a unified empire, the land was full of competing warlords and kings constantly fighting over land and resources. While this period was tough, the need for innovation to survive led to great intellectual growth and scholarship.

The influential ideas these warriors and scholars came up with still greatly affect both East Asian and global thinking to this day. Why? Because these battle and conflict-tested ideas proved themselves in the real world.

The idea that you should try to win at things without fighting has continued to prove itself for thousands of years. Fighting always comes at a cost, so avoiding the cost of a fight is better. Even outside of self-defense and warfare, the idea of finding ways to win with less effort and resource expenditure benefits emergency preparedness, business, and many other parts of life.

Situational Awareness

The most important thing you can do to avoid the need for violence is to pay attention. It’s the old “Keep your head on a swivel.”

When it comes to criminal attackers, just seeing that you’re paying attention may be enough to prevent the attack. That’s because thieves and muggers aren’t looking for a challenge. They often want an easy meal that doesn’t cost them much or present too much risk.

USMC Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, a well-known firearms trainer, military officer, and historian, came up with a system for categorizing mental states. It’s useful for monitoring your own awareness level and thinking about different possible risk scenarios. His levels are:

  • Condition White: Almost completely unaware, on autopilot
  • Condition Yellow: General alertness, difficult to surprise
  • Condition Orange: Seeing a specific threat and making ready to fight
  • Condition Red: In “lethal mode” and ready to shoot.

The U.S. Marine Corp and many other instructors add Condition Black to the list, referring to active fighting in progress.

Other Tips For Avoiding Criminal Attackers

  • Trust your instincts – if a situation or person makes you nervous, avoid if at
    all possible. Don’t feel socially obligated to walk through a dark alley or get
    on an elevator with somebody who makes you uncomfortable. Your brain has ways of unconsciously seeing potential problems that you might not consciously see.
  • Be especially careful when getting into or out of your car
  • Be mentally prepared – Have a plan in case of attack (RPDM, as mentioned here)
  • The Three Stupids – Don’t go to any stupid places, don’t be around stupid
    people and don’t do stupid things

Non-Violent Dispute Resolution Techniques

In many cases, a criminal attacker will come out of nowhere, but there are many other types of conflict that happen only after a dispute or argument of some kind. In law enforcement, many techniques for better communication have been developed over the decades to reduce the number of fights and shootings.

The most developed set of techniques is called Verbal Judo, and was developed by George J. Thompson. I’d highly recommend reading his book and later updates other communication researchers have made since he passed away. Here’s a long video that’s definitely worth your time if you’d like to learn the basics:

Basic Communication Concepts

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you end up in a verbal confrontation.

There are four elements of communication:

  • Speaker
  • Message
  • Receiver
  • Feedback

You can visualize this as two OODA loops (learn more about the OODA loop here) connected together. Each person is taking turns hearing a message, running it through their orientation, then deciding what to say, and saying it.

There are two kinds of communication:

  • Verbal (your words)
  • Non-verbal (your tone, body language, facial expressions, etc),

Most of the action happens non-verbally (over 90%!), and non-verbal cues can totally change the meaning of your words.

There are several common barriers to communication:

  • Backgrounds of the people speaking
  • Assumptions people make
  • Poor listening
  • Past interactions

These things all reside in the second box of the OODA loop.

There are several ego states a person can be operating from when trying to communicate:

  • Parent – attempting to control people
  • Child – resisting control and cooperation
  • Adult – operating on a level playing field, and not trying to be above or below someone. Calm and collected, unlike the first two states.

Obviously, you want to be in the adult state.

Danger Signs In Communication

If you haven’t already, read and watch the section on Mindset and Decision-Making (specifically, the part about what happens to the human brain under stress). When the human brain’s higher functions shut off and go into “fight or flight” mode, the ability to communicate and solve problems goes away. So, if you see any of the following signs, you’re dealing with a person who is “under the influence”, “brain damaged”, or “in the emotional basement”.

Common signs of a person who needs to come out of the basement:

  • Clinched fists
  • Increased deep and rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Red face/complexion (sign elevated blood pressure)
  • Violent verbal outbursts
  • Crying and/or tantrum like behavior
  • Body Tremors (shaking)
  • Stuttering speech
  • Intense or fixed eye contact on something or somebody (aka “the 1000 yard stare”)

Your job as a tactical communicator is to bring them out of the basement. If you notice any of these signs in yourself, it’s a signal that you need to get yourself out of the basement, and there are several proven techniques for doing this here.

Selected Non-Violent Dispute Resolution Methods

Here are a few proven techniques and methods for getting another person out of the emotional basement and back into an adult conversation. As was discussed in the last paragraph, you’ve got to be out of the basement yourself for any of this to work.

Most importantly: the goal of tactical communication is to generate voluntary compliance. Keep your eyes on the goal of getting someone to cooperate with you and achieve some goal with you. To keep the conversation from getting derailed:

  • Try to keep your ego out of it. Observe without evaluating, or keep the Orient box in the OODA loop under control.
  • The more you can disappear in a conversation and represent something else, the more powerful you will be.
  • Remember the art of representing something other than yourself. Know what you represent and don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re only representing yourself.
  • Your goal is to make the audience into a new audience
  • There are three big ways to ruin this process:
    • Insulting or snapping at people (this gives them ground to stand on against you)
    • Let your ego show – get pulled in personally
    • Forget what you represent

Here are some other important techniques to think about:

  • Focus on raising expectations on people instead of putting them down
  • Size up the situation going into a bad situation with PACE:
    • Problem
    • Audience
    • Constraints
    • Ethics
  • Keep in mind that people rarely say what they really mean (look at their needs instead)
  • Use “strip phrases” – “When man throw spear of insult, move head.”
    • I ‘preciate that
    • I understan’ that
    • I hear ya
  • After a “strip phrase”, use “but”, “and”, or “however” to springboard over the conversational quicksand.
  • Respond, Don’t React – don’t snap back at somebody. Don’t let
    somebody push you into saying or doing something you will
    regret later.
  • Give people a way out – Don’t corner people, because they’ll fight you to save face even if they know they’re wrong.
  • Focus on solving the problem cooperatively rather than beating an opponent or punishing somebody.
  • Express what you are feeling (politely, of course)
    • Acknowledge what you need (don’t blame others or assume they know what you need if you haven’t expressed it)
    • Make your request – Directly tell others what you need without assuming they know what’s wrong

Use The LEAPS Toolbox To Help People Out Of The Emotional Basement With Empathy

Memorize the LEAPS acronym for tough situations. LEAPS is your tactical communications tool box or gear bag. Pull the tool out that best fits the situation. Being able to memorize them helps you remember what tools you have to use, especially in tough, stressful situations.

  • LISTENS: let them know that you’re really hearing them out. Ways to do that:
    • Look at them
    • Interest: Show an interest in what they’re saying
    • Summarize what was said, repeat it back for confirmation
    • Territory: Give people some space
    • Empathize
    • Nod to show understanding (this doesn’t interrupt them, but signals that you’re hearing them out)
    • Smile when appropriate (don’t smile at an angry person who might take it as an insult)
  • Empathize – See where the other person is coming from, as twisted as their point of view may seem at the time. If they seem like they’re living in an alternate reality, join them in that reality. Common empathy blockers include
    • Moralistic judgments
    • Making comparisons to your ideal self
    • Denial of your own responsibility to communicate
  • Ask questions, try to further understand what’s going on to better understand the situation
  • Paraphrase (mirroring) – Put the person’s meaning into your own words and say it back to them for clarification and confirmation. If somebody’s being particularly insane, at this point they might realize how it sounds coming from somebody else’s mouth and rethink their position. If they backpedal, resist the temptation to tell them, “I told you so!”, because they’ll fight you to save face.
  • Summarize – Sum the situation up and work with the person to fix the impasse now that you understand the situation. Re-clarify as needed to work the rest of the problem out.

Empathy is the most important part of this. Seeing things the way other people see them is the key to having any power on communications. The moment you stop thinking like your audience, you’re done. It’s over.

The Five Step Hard Process

If you find someone who is particularly hard to work with and none of the above calms the situation down, there’s a five-step process you should use to try and get compliance one last time. Here’s how you get most people to comply:

  • Ask: asking someone to comply gives them a choice and empowers them
  • Set Context: Try to explain the situation to them and why you’re asking them. The vast majority comply when they know why.
  • Present Options: Let them know what the alternatives are and why they aren’t good
    • You need to sound friendly doing this
    • Always put the positive options first, then the negative, then remind of the positive
    • Be specific and detailed about things. Generalities cause violence.
    • Answer the question: “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)
  • Confirm: “Do you really want to…”
  • Take Action: If you have to punish, force, or otherwise make someone do something, you’ve given them a chance to cooperate first.

This gives people a choice, even if they really don’t have one. It shows them that you respect them. It gives you ground to stand on and power over the situation. It keeps them from fighting to save face. The alternative to this is to order, order, order, yell, hesitate, and fight. Do you really want to do that?

Optional Self-Quiz

Winning Without Fighting