One Little Verbal Trick to Save Your A** in Self-Defense

I’m proud to say I’ve never been in a real fight.

I hope my future kids enjoy the same lack of manhood.

That being said, I’ve been “close to the edge” on several occasions – you know, those moments when you can literally feel the smackdown hanging in the air.

One bad move, glance or word from somebody…

And it would’ve been showtime.

Luckily, I’ve often had a natural feeling for how to avoid fights.

And, based on my own experience, I believe that 9 out of 10 fights can be avoided if people understand some basics about human instinct and predatory behavior.



Today I want to share a little verbal trick to save your a** in self-defense.

This surprisingly effective trick comes from Derren Brown, a British illusionist, mentalist, trickster and writer, who once documented the effectiveness of using verbal confusion as a weapon of self-defense in his book ‘Tricks Of The Mind’.

Honestly, I think it’s a pretty crazy tactic.

But it’s incredibly powerful.

Check it out:

“One year I was attending a magic convention in North Wales and was headed back to my hotel in the early hours of the morning.

I had long hair at the time, as well as the Emperor Ming-style beard, and was wearing a velvet jacket, waistcoat and fob watch; in those days I thought I had an old-world dapper charm, when in fact I looked like a gay time-traveller.

As I walked to my hotel, I found myself heading towards a young couple coming in the opposite direction.

They were both quite drunk and arguing loudly.

By the time I realized that they were going to be troublesome it was too late to cross the road and get out of the way. As they approached me, I might have caught the guy’s eye (a mistake if I did), because I was suddenly aware of the horrible words “What the f*ck are you looking at?” shouted at me from suddenly close range with the force and pent-up anger of a very aggressive Welch drunk.

Peripherally, I saw the girl walk off down the road and leave us.

There’s an old Wing Chun Kung Fu technique I would normally have snapped into without thought: in the face of aggression, you lie on the floor in the fetal position and sob, kissing the toecap of your aggressor’s shoe.

However, having recently thought about confusion techniques to disarm aggressors, I was able to put some of my theory into practice.

I made my body relax and my face friendly, and I said, “The wall outside my house isn’t four foot high.”

He paused for a moment.


“The wall outside my house isn’t four foot high. But I lived in Spain for a bit and you should see the walls there — enormous, right up here!” I gestured with my hand to clarify how high I meant.

Now, you’re going to thank me for this, so bear with me.

Here’s what happened:

He has come at me with a huge amount of adrenalin and force, and his question “What are you looking at?”, like any intimidating question, is designed to put him in the position of aggressor. No direct answer to his question can change that.

My confident and friendly answer about the walls makes absolute sense within itself, but is completely out of context.

This guy has to work out what I’m talking about, and in doing so he becomes enormously confused. By offering him more of the same (talking about Spain), he feels he might be afforded some relief from the confusion, but such clarification doesn’t come. He is wrong-footed, confused and no longer in control.

He experiences an “adrenalin dump,” which leaves him useless.

After I told him about the Spanish walls, I added, “But here, they’re tiny! Look at these ones!” And I pointed out a tiny three-brick-high wall around the garden right next to us. He looked at the wall, and that movement told me that I now had the upper hand. He looked back at me, rather slumped in himself by now, let out a long, “Oh, fu-u-u-u-ck…” and crumpled, hanging his head hopelessly.

To my delight and surprise, he started telling me about his girlfriend bottling someone at a party, or similar. He sat down on the curb, distraught and broken, and I sat next to him and listened for a while, offering sympathetic noises and understanding.

When I left, he thanked me.”

And that’s it.

One little verbal trick to totally disarm your attacker in a self-defense situation and successfully save your butt – without breaking a single bone. Pretty neat, right?


Do YOU have any other tips to avoid physical fights?

Leave a comment & let me know.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu (544-496 BC)


  • Alex K
    You can actually take this one step further in more serious contexts and from the moment of your attacker's confusion initiate a (hopefully finishing) pre-emptive strike etc. Geoff Thompson discusses this, if I remember correctly, in 'The Art of Fighting Without Fighting'. Thank you for another interesting article Jesse ^.^
    • Thanks Alex-san, I remember reading similar tactics. Great stuff!
    • I would only point out one thing with this comment. Pre-emptive strikes are a tool that should be used in serious scenarios yes, however this article and Darren Brown's tactic suggests that you've already disarmed your opponent. Should you proceed to take it one step further than this, you're committing assault, and it is really not necessary, and goes against the teachings of most Budo arts.
  • Ted
    I've accidentally used the same tactic -- I was with some friends in the sort of establishment where consumming too much alcohol is the whole reason everyone pays the cover charge. All of us were clutching bottles and staring at the dance floor. Well, we weren't staring at the floor . . . Someone bumped into me, so like I usually did, I turned to apologize. He said something I couldn't understand, but he stayed looking at me. So I smiled and said, "Sorry, what was that?" He said, "You know I could kick your f*$#!@%g $%^ !!!?" But, being not at my mental fastest, I wasn't too sure what he had said, so I stuck out my hand and said "Have we met?" He gave me a bizarre look and wandered off. I'm sure if I'd been sober enough to be scared, we could have kicked off right there . . .but instead my confusion infected him and we all went on our merry way.
  • Very smart technique... my friend Joseph would love it, Jesse! ;-)
  • Great advice, sir. I always wonder about self-defense experts who brag about being in hundreds of fights. I think--"If you've been in hundreds of fights, you're doing something wrong." :)
  • Tom Stynen
    atm tactic tony blauer
  • Great trick! I will tell my husband. We have a neighbour who seems hell-bent on picking a fight with my peace-loving spouse. I can't wait to see the confusion on his face.
    • Maria-san, let me know how it goes!
  • Mike Black
    I have been training in karate for about 40 years but my son came up with a brilliant distraction technique that worked like a charm. He was being harassed by a bunch of frat boys at college who were threatening him with bodily harm. Since he knew he probably could not take out the whole bunch, he proceeded to just quack and act like a duck. He kept this up until they all just quickly walked away. I guess they figured he was a crazy lunatic and didn't want to bother him anymore. Like you said, distraction is the key and at the very least it puts you in a better position to eventually defend yourself or run away if possible.
    • Mike-san, that's brilliant! I'm reminided of a similar tactic used by Penn Jilette (of the illusionist duo Penn & Teller), when he was once surrounded by a gang of bikers at a diner. As they approached him (to beat him up), he simply grabbed a strawberry milkshake and poured it all over his head. The knuckleheads were grossed out by his weird behavior and left the place.
      • Mike
        This seems to be quite a proven tactic. My friend, who lived as an actress in New York, told me that whenever she rode the subway at night she would talk nonsense to herself so as to appear a little crazy. Worked like a charm.
  • Erin
    I was taught a slight variation of this type of distraction technique. Asking a question also helps shift the mental gears. e.g. "Do you know how to get to Rutherford Street?" - The instinctive reaction is to stop and think 'Do I know where Rutherford street is?' Even if the next thought is 'WFT? Why would I care' the distraction has worked.
    • Spot on, Erin-san! Due to the inquisitive nature of humans, asking a question is a classic and effective tactic for verbal self-defense. When the attacker automatically starts searching for an answer (even if the question is irrelevant), the threat inevitably de-escalates. Like magic.
    • Oddly enough, the "distraction question" is one of the tactics often used by muggers and other attackers: the old "hey buddy, you got the time?" sort of thing. No reason why we shouldn't turn it back on them!
  • Hi Jesse, Great story! This was exactly a situation we discussed in the dojo. And now we have a great solution! Thanks! I'd love to read how others acted in a similar situation.
  • I was on a plane and needed to put my bag several rows behind my seat. As I tried to get back to my seat past embarking passengers, one guy, with a couple of large carry on bags in tow, started on at me. "Are you trying to push me?" (No, I said.) Then, "I am bigger than you." He said that several times. I am sorry that I did not respond in the way that you describe here. I did not want to get thrown off the plane. All I did was stare at him and imagine what part of his body I would hit in order to disable him first. My choices would be his throat or a head butt (remember he was bigger than me.) Then I turned away and returned to my seat. When I got home, I renewed my commitment to practice.
  • Josep
    My friend, who is a more experienced karateka than I am, uses "Do I know you?" staring in the eye. It works! And he uses to say that "Running is the best martial art".
  • chris
    In his book 'Karate-do Kyohan' Gichin Funakoshi wrote, "When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one's whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help."
  • Does anybody have stories where simple de-escalation did NOT work? I personally don't have either successful or unsuccessful ones (i do professionally, but that is a completely different environment), but I have to ask: "Are there not situation where asking about the walls in spain (like the article to use an example) would make things infinitely worse?" I can see where trying to say something off-center or unexpected would elicit the response "Do you think this is a (expletive deleted) joke!?" Beyond simple turns of phrase, I think it is imperative to remember to gauge the situation. Sometimes, handy things like mentioned above will de-escalate a situation, other times it may make things worse.
  • vic
    CHRIS's FUNAKOSHI quote is an expansion of the ITOSU precept "enter do damage escape."It requires some mental / emotional gymnastics when your deescalation / confusion tactics fail as ALEX M says.It is hard for some impossible to switch in an instant from defensive mind set to aggressor mind set if it means doing physical harm to another person..You need as my friends used to say "some sneaky shit" as a bouncer in my young days WHEN REASON FAILED was to step on his right foot with my left and a single or double palm heel to the chest .Arms flailing eyes wide in surprise they suddenly sit down very hard on the floor .They seemed in all cases except one suddenly able to listen to reason.
    • chris
      That's why we should train a standard response. Have a look at Geoff Thompson's and Iain Abernerhy's work. They use a standard drill from the fence technique. Same thing everytime.. Same timing, same confusing question, same strike.. Over and over again.. Until it becomes a natural reaction.
  • Jo
    Good article, I used a similar tactic in an incident on a train. I wrote about it on my blog:
  • Suzanne
    Hi Jesse, I had an encounter at the tender age of 17, that I would like to tell. I was a bartender, in Montreal, Quebec, working the night shift, finishing work after 3am. Walking home I had a very aggressive and quite crazy man, that had bad intentions (he came at me) I had a split second to react. I couldn't run away, he was upon me, and I couldn't fight, he was huge (and crazy). I had no training, only my 17 year old sense. In an instant I flung my arms out toward him, and wrapped them around his neck and pulled as close as I could to him... I whispered in his ear " I'm so glad you're here...for sure a big strong man like you will see me home safely"... It worked like magic, the expression on his face transformed from angry, then confusion, then settled at proud. Having received (freely) the empowerment he intended to wrench from me, this crazy dude put his arm over my shoulder and proceeded to walk me home, shouting at other night crawling people how he was my protector, and not to mess with him. Although I was indeed terrified, I knew I dodged a bullet and thought to myself how clever a strategy I had employed. Not bad for a 17 year old! Now I train at karate, green belt, in a fighting dojo (nothing Mc about it) and am capable of physically defending myself...however, I still think the same as the 17 year old girl I used to be, and only use my self defense in the dojo, with my dojo mates, who are my friends. The fitness level one achieves from training at karate is second to none, and the balance it brings into my life is remarkable, which has become my lifestyle. I would still try to out-think my adversaries, but unlike the 17 year old I used to be, now, for any foe's sake, I hope it works because now I have other options at hand! Have a great day Jesse! Suzanne
  • Bryan Alstat
    This happened in early 2006. I was in a neighboring town, carrying out a bulky package for my wife and I bumped into a fellow. I said excuse me and put in my car. I turned around and he had followed me and was giving me an ear full. He stated loudly that he was a Blue Belt in some style. My response was "Cool!" This took him off guard, then as luck would have it one of my students from my children class came walking up with his mom. He saw me and with a big grin on his face he says loudly "Hi Sensei Bryan" For some reason the Blue Belt got quiet and left. My verbal self defense = 1/4 by me 3/4 by a 6 year old student.
  • Laura
    Gotta love Derren Brown! I saw him live last year in one of his shows. Unforgettable. And it's interesting to see some of the psychological techniques he uses being incorporated into martial arts :-) Thank you!
  • Darren Chrysler
    "There’s an old Wing Chun Kung Fu technique I would normally have snapped into without thought: in the face of aggression, you lie on the floor in the fetal position and sob, kissing the toecap of your aggressor’s shoe." I've studied Wing Chun for over 30 years under many Sifu's, and that is complete nonsense, no where in any Wing Chun curriculum is this taught.
    • Charlotte
      I think he was joking :) Derren Brown has a wickedly British sense of humour, very dry and sarcastic.
  • Clever way to avoid a fight. But it´s very very important that the way you talk doesn´t give any chance for the aggressor to think he scared you. Because that would be shameful. I have a very strong sense of honor and macho-man bravado that keeps me from retreating even in face of certain defeat. It´s kind of a problem sometimes. But I never fight, mostly because my bravado is a "Chicken!" game thing: I am not willing to fight, I just make the other guy think I am, and then he retreats, probably thinking "oh, gee, this guy is crazier than me".
  • gaius
    It also forces them to think of you as a person with a life.
  • What a great article, and love how you used explicit words to define how crucial those times are! Not only is self defense needed, but if you train right, it will also help you build a lot of confidence. I just recently wrote a blog called "Martial Arts Builds Confidence in Children". You should check it out and let me know how it appeals to you!
  • Glen
    I do this alot (not that the opportunity arises alot just when I need to avoid confrontation this is the tactic i generally use), works well online too. I call it playing the fool, once they see you as some random guy spewing word salads they don't know what to do... or sometimes they think you are crazy,still works as nobody likes to fight crazy.
    • "… or sometimes they think you are crazy,still works as nobody likes to fight crazy." ... ah ... ... the "James Brown" defence. Very good.
  • I think this is great. Very clever. My grandfather was once in a parking lot and a guy came up and asked for his wallet. I think he had a gun. My grandfather starts screaming: "There's a fire, help, fire! Help!" The guy ran. Probably a pretty risky thing to do but somehow, it wrong footed the guy and seemed to work. john, a black belt at 50
  • David
    This is a freaky story but here it goes. (true story) I once met a man, he was gonna get robbed at gunpoint while using an atm machine. When the robber pulled the gun and said gimme the money. The man said. "You know who I am, I'm the Devil" and just kept walking. The robber was so confused he just stood there while the guy casually left.
  • Torbjörn Lekberg
    Great article! It all makes sense, and it will fit well into my mental armory.
  • Mimi
    This is a really good idea ! but what if the guy was planing to steal something from me and he had a knife on his hand,this won't work ! .__.
  • raquel vai
    I know one, you atract to your reality what you want, you create your reality about your way of thinking, If you think that nobody will attack you and you are sure that you are safe nobody will, I do karate withot objetive, Im a zen
  • chris
    When walking to your car and you feel someone might car jack you just firmly say something like "You'd better start this time you piece of crap'. Car jackers might be reluctant to steal a car they think might not start.
  • KarateMama
    A fellow student of my daughter's hitched a ride to a tournament with us once. He kept us laughing with stories of how he survives living in a rough neighborhood by using very similar tactics to Jesse-san's. My favorite was a story he told while we were waiting around at the tournament - I'm glad he waited until the drive was over because I wouldn't have gotten the full effect. He made an incredibly insanely joyful face, squeezed real tears out of his eyes, and sobbed (with insane joy, mind you) "Oh, goody! I get to plaaay!" I about died laughing.
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    Having been both shot and stabbed amongst all the other unpleasant experiences (which were far worse). The Rule of The Seven (7) P's is what has helped many a time in avoiding negative experiences or for when everything does and will go South. Bad things don't JUST HAPPEN,....ignorant and naïve people missing the signs and symptoms is exactly WHY they happen !; By not living in the moment and being aware of the possibilities within one's immediate environment is WHY people become victims of assault, or trapped in a frightening situation which may result in death. Either way, by following and applying these Seven (7) Rules: Prior, Planning, and Preparation, Prevents, Piss, Poor, Performance. Sounds silly doesn't it ??? - I assure it is NOT ! I also advocate someone's response within this forum of 'gift of the gab' - be passive verbally, one's tone of voice, the words being used as being generally not provocative However NEVER EVER take your eyes off the immediate threat and be able to see everything within one's periphery. But remain Calm, breath, and think "EXIT STRATEGY" . Also, simply do not attend places that have potential or histories of violence, and do not travel through areas en route nor home again that may compromise your safety or the safety of your friends / family. Use Common Sense. Personality has nothing to do with it !; no one should ever have to be a target, nor bullied, etc. And to those of you whom are capable and highly trained, you have a Moral obligation in society to uphold RIGHT and WRONG !; therefore anyone of this calibre MUST step in and correct those who think it OK to harm others ! - if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing; and if you dislike another, re-assess and go look in the mirror, chances are, you're projectively transferring your own inadequacies and insecurities onto that someone whom you claim 'is the problem'. Hence the MAIN REASON WHY SH&T starts in the first place. True Yudansha should have developed 'introspection' otherwise how on earth did you pass your Shodan; it IS the whole point of learning an Art form, the lesson of Humility ! Don't be the clown thinking YOU are going to teach F$%#Nuts a lesson; chances are your lesson in Humility won't end with you leaving with your tail between your legs; but by being placed in a black bag, to the sound of a Zipper before the Paramedics take you away and drive off with the Bells and Whistles OFF ! I mean no offence to your bloggers out there, extreme situations are what my life has been for almost 20 years - and I cannot and will never respect another human being whom makes the excuse "I was afraid!", Being afraid, be very afraid, but DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING , be wise, and think before speaking, look before leaping, and for God Sake, be NICE to others, as Patrick SWAYZE said in the movie called ROADHOUSE, "Be Nice",..Its amazing how the majority of bad situations can be cooled and calmed resulting in making a friend rather than an enemy !
  • KarateMama
    Remembered something the other day. Someone actually used this tactic on me once. Long story short, my father collapsed right before my grandmother's memorial service. Emotion #1 right there before I knew anything was amiss - grief. Fifteen minutes before the service, someone tried to prevent me, my grandfather (the widower), my uncle, and my kids from going in and getting settled, talking over last minute stuff with Mom, etc. "Family only!" from someone who later apologized for forgetting who we were. Emotion #2 before I knew something was wrong - aggravation. I stepped in the door and Mom told me my father was down. WHAM - emotional overload. I put my uncle in charge of Grandpa and the kids and I ran. A huge guy in some sort of blue uniform stepped into my way. He had to be 18 inches taller than me and some sixty pounds heavier. I straightened up, snarled, "That's my FATHER!" and was analyzing how to dodge around Big Boy Blue or fight to create an opening (never mind I hadn't trained in karate for a quarter century, LOL, and have I mentioned the guy was huge?). The big guy in uniform dropped his shoulders and arms from "authoritative" to "nice," grinned broadly, and said, "What you need is a firefighter hug." Stopped. me. cold. That sort of thing really does mess with your mind - there are physical and hormonal changes that take place, and I wish I could find the article about it. Someone pulls this on you and you go from ready to kill right down to zero in no time flat. Yes, I did get my firefighter hug, and I will treasure that for life because I was better equipped to help Mom with the situation.
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN.
    Dear KarateMama, Thank you for having the courage to share a sad, yet truly beautiful account of a day in your families life. God Bless You and Your family !
    • KarateMama
      You're welcome. As students of karate, we're on the receiving end of all sorts of physical tactics all the time in the dojo. We all have practical experience with how punches, leg sweeps, etc. actually work because we've used them and we've had them used on us. Verbal disarmament is something one can practice only as an initiator, not as a receiver. I'd like to think it might help a reader to hear from someone who had the wind taken out of her sails.
  • nice trick Jesse-san. This trick will come first in my list of self defense.I will endeavor to fight a verble fight and make one's adrenalin useless. karate nerd for ever.
  • Martin
    It seems as if the more a person practices martial arts, the less need they have to prove themselves (i.e. fighting). The more I practice, the calmer I find myself when provoked. If this makes any sense at all.
    • Makes perfect sense, Martin-san.
  • I have to say i don't know much about martial arts, but i can see how it makes you feel safer knowing you have the ability to preotect yourself.
  • Eddie
    Hi Jesse, Here is a good one. A friend of mine once got bullied by a hooligan on the street "what the fxxk are you looking at." My friend look at his right cheek seriously and said " oh, seems like you don't feel it, that is why you are asking me huh?" That hooligan starts to mob his right cheek with his hands and try to feel if there is anything wrong on it! LOL
  • Simon Shillabeer
    The first and most important self defence technique I teach is sometimes the hardest one, to just walk (or run) away. The second most important is to use your voice, whether that be to try and talk your way out, to call for help, to try and scare your attacker into backing down, or as the article suggests, to miss direct and confuse. These two things should always be assessed for viability and where possible, used exhaustively before any physical defence is mounted. I regularly encourage my students to try various other martial arts, but always tell them that if they come into contact with an instructor who teaches anything other than this, that they should walk away and never go back. Someone who brags of having won many fights, I would argue is possibly very strong of body, but also very weak of mind and in possession of dubious morals.
  • Great article (as usual), Jesse-san. A 1993 book, Verbal Judo, by Thompson and Jenkins addresses this subject in great detail. As in Judo, Karate, and most martial arts, kuzushi is critical. Keep your opponent off balance physically and mentally while solidifying your position.
  • Ryan Hurley
    I remember once in training we were practicing what to do if everything you say doesn't work and the attacker is intent on fighting. this one bloke no matter what we did managed to calm us down. Remember he was meant to fail. but something about his manner and what he said just made us not want to attack. he didn't know what he did differently from any of the rest of us, but if he could have taught it, would be amazing.

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