Use your words: the art of verbalisation

It has been a little while since I’ve written anything (something about having to revise for exams that will determine my future apparently) and in my fortnight of being somewhat remiss, I had an altercation with somebody. It was a trivial matter, and something that really shouldn’t have got as heated as it did. Anyone who knows me knows that I am an absolutely awful football player, and, yes I missed an open goal from about three yards away in a casual game of football. One player on my team, however, got rather upset with my complete lack skill and started shouting at me, swearing and gesticulating violently. I told him to calm down and to remember that it wasn’t a serious game. Suddenly he picked up a full bottle of water and, in a fit of rage, threw it at me. He missed, but the whole situation had suddenly turned ugly and he turned round to pick up another bottle. As he did so I completely let rip. I went into rage mode and shouted at him angrily that if he hit me with a bottle there’d be hell to pay (obviously I didn’t say there’d be “hell to pay” but I’m trying to keep this PG at least). At this my teammate looked startled and somewhat afraid, put down the bottle and left.

Let me make one thing clear before I go any further, I did not feel good after that incident. In fact I felt almost exactly the opposite, like a bully needlessly asserting his dominance over people perceivably weaker than himself. When I stopped to think about what could have happened, however, I started to realise that I had perhaps averted a much more serious violent confrontation. The technique that I used is called verbalisation, and anyone who has ever worked in law enforcement or the security industry will know it well. In fact combat techniques and defensive tools and tactics are not the primary weapons of such professionals, their first port of call in most situations is their use of language.

Verbalisation comes in two forms, escalatory and de-escalatory. The version I used in my altercation was an escalatory verbalisation. I used an overwhelmingly aggressive vocabulary with frequent use of expletives and used a deep, loud tone of voice. To complete the effect, I postured like I was ready for a fight. As we all know when we come into conflict our brain goes through the fight or flight process. It is unhelpful to think of this as a binary optioarmed policen, however, it is more like a fluid scale. One person might be ready to fight but if they come up against someone apparently more committed to the fight response than they are, they may change and engage their flight response instead. This is precisely what happened in my altercation. My teammate was in fight mode and I simply presented a more aggressive front that intimidated him into a flight or submissive response. This is exactly the same tactic used by armed police. The aim is not to use their weapon, though they absolutely will if it is necessary, but rather to intimidate a suspect into submission.  While many of you may nonetheless think that this is a horrible thing to do all the same, just think of the situation that it possibly avoided. A full on fight between two people which could well have resulted in someone feeling bad for grievously hurting another person rather than just frightening them.

Despite my response now seeming at least somewhat justified, I also realised that I could have reached a more satisfactory outcome earlier if I had been switched on. As police giving directionsa friend of mine once put it, “nobody in the history of ever has calmed down because they were told to”. In the altercation, at the point where my teammate started to become angry about my missed shot, I told him to calm down and remember that it was just a
casual game. This was an instinctive reaction, and perhaps out of kindness to myself I see it as well intended. It is obvious, however, that my friend was taking the game seriously and that reacting in a frivolous manner was only going to make matters worse. A proper de-escalatory verbalisation here could have solved the situation, an apology, an attempt to see things from his perspective rather than an attempt to force my view of the game onto him.

The fact that a few well-chosen words and the appropriate tone of voice can solve so many situations and stop them from turning violent leaves me wondering why verbalisation is more often than not a neglected facet of martial arts training. Sure we have the concept of kiai in traditional riot policemartial arts, but it does not really serve the same purpose, only coming into play once combat has already begun. As a strategy that is frequently used by security industry and law enforcement professionals then surely all martial arts, particularly those teaching self-defence, should invest time and effort in training the correct situational usage of verbalisation. This includes the right approach for the circumstances; rarely is it a productive enterprise to try and intimidate an inebriated person for example. In an age where the entire “winning without fighting” aspect of martial arts practice is under more scrutiny than ever before, surely now is the time to go back and look at what works, and what is used by professionals on a daily basis.

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