Conflict Avoidance by Dr. Ron Stone
I should preface this article with a brief explanation. I began studying the martial arts in 1970 at the age of 18 after I was jumped outside a high school dance by three teenage assailants. Fortunately the only real permanent harm done was to my self esteem. At the time I suffered mostly from just a few simple punches. Previously I had received no training whatsoever in self defense and was completely helpless. After that incident however I decided I would never again be a helpless victim and since then have studied off again and on again in several arts. It is now 40 years since I started my journey.
Recently, at the age of 57 I was t awarded a Master level promotion in HaeMuKwan Hapkido under the Korean Hapkido Federation and the Korea Hapkido Federation Haemukwan. I also hold 2nd Dan rank in Taekwondo and a 1st degree brown belt in Judo.
I know, I know, you would think by now that after 40 years that’s not a particularly high achievement and that at my age I should have been considered for the part of Mr. Myogi. As I said however my studies were years on and years off. I suppose that explains it, that plus the fact that I’m not oriental, nor an actor nor famous. I should also state that although the martial arts have always been an integral part of my life I am not a professional martial artist. What I am is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine by trade. At least I can honestly say that I have achieved a small degree of notoriety over the past thirty one years in my given profession.
During all these years since high school I have been lucky enough to be threatened with bodily harm by another human being on only three occasions. Interestingly, although one of these assailants years back was armed I still ended all three separate encounters without physical harm to either party. Surprisingly all of these incidents occurred while performing my chores as a doctor of Veterinary Medicine, not as you might suspect while walking in a dark alley or holding a sign at a political rally..
Many years ago after the first incident, (which occurred while trying to calm down an armed and drug-using victim of post traumatic stress syndrome), and after working for some years as the attending veterinarian to the K-9 corps of several South Florida Police departments, I began to lecture about conflict avoidance to my veterinary colleagues.
Another recent incident now leads me to believe that it might be appropriate to once again discuss these concepts, but this time for the martial arts community. Sadly this last angry encounter was with another martial artist who confronted me inside my practice about an issue unrelated to veterinary medicine.. His name and his reasons for threatening me are not relevant to this discussion except to say it was mostly about communication and miscommunication. What is relevant however is that I was forced to deal with a trained so-called high ranking but unreasonably angry individual who would not calm down or listen to reason.
And that’s where the gist of this article begins (Sorry did I say brief introduction?)
I have trained for years to react to physical threats and to protect myself as a martial artist. Strangely however, when the time finally came when I could justifiably and legitimately respond with force I reacted instead as a veterinarian resolving a client conflict. Talk about ego confusion. Oh well. At least no one was hurt and no furniture got broken.
I really suffered a mental dilemma afterwards. I wondered if I should have instead reacted physically as a martial art master and when threatened jump into a Jackie Chan mode? Certainly since the other fellow has a higher rank from another school no one would have blamed me whether I won or lost. Given the circumstances I knew that if I won the fight I would clearly have been justified and the outcome might even have been spun as a martial arts success story for my style. Even if I lost, well then one could just say I was out ranked me all along so what the hell, I’d have done the best I could under the circumstances.
Entering into a fight I didn’t ask for and didn’t start might have been the final confirmation of my martial arts training, but since I didn’t react physically I spent the next day pondering my decision. I knew deep down fear had nothing to do with it. I will truthfully say I wasn’t afraid. Believe me I know what fear is, and this time I wasn’t afraid. (In retrospect maybe I should have been?) So why didn’t I go into a whoop ass mode? Why didn’t I follow my martial arts training? Or did I?
I know deep down that a large part of how I reacted was the desire not to embarrass my veterinary practice and the fact that my female receptionist was present and was most assuredly startled. But still I was clearly justified in taking the gentleman up on his offer to “step outside so he could knock my block off.” So did I fail as a martial artist? Did I succeed as a veterinarian? Does Charlie Daniels play a wicked fiddle?
What finally happened you ask? Well, reasoning with him proved out of the question. This individual was acting irrationally and simply wouldn’t listen to a single word I said. He continued his finger- in- the -face pointing and threats to assault me. (Never was I so anxious to try out Sensei John Borter’s fingerlock techniques.) Rather than react physically however I decided to take him up on his dare to have me to call the police. The bottom line is that he was escorted from the premises by the police and told that to return would result in an arrest for trespassing. Fortunately no one was injured and as it turns out the cop had a 3rd Dan in Taekwondo. Afterwards we ended up trading war stories for a half an hour.
Although I know what kind of example the other fellow sets for his students, the next day I was troubled about what kind of example I had made. It’s the same old eternal struggle within me that exists between activist John Wayne and pacifist David Carradine. (that is to say his Kung fu Quay Chang Caine character for those kids reading this.)
I was conflicted until my teenage daughter who holds Dan rank in three different martial arts (at 17 she makes me wonder why I even bother trying!) reminded me that when two people fight they usually both end up losing something. Even if you win you lose. She also reminded me of the legend of the martial artist who successfully avoided a nasty fight.
This legend was recreated by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. Bruce is on a ship traveling to a Karate tournament when another competitor starts bullying the crew and then picks a fight with him. Bruce explains that he is willing to take on the bully but not on the big boat. He suggests rowing out to an island, but when the bully gets into the small row boat Bruce casts him adrift and the bully is left to helplessly be dragged along. behind with the crew all laughing at him. Thus Bruce explains the fighting art of non-fighting. Well I suppose if it’s good enough for Bruce Lee?
I was always taught by my instructors that the object of the martial arts is to train to learn how not to fight, Part of that means not seeking out a fight. That’s why I have always been puzzled by anger and bullying in the MA community. Remember the scene in the Karate Kid Part 2 that takes place in the Myogi dojo. Quote: “Rule 1, Karate is for self defense only. Rule 2…, see Rule Number 1”
Apparently some folks don’t get the point that Sato and his nephew were not the good guys in that flick.
That brings me to the lecture part……The principles of conflict avoidance. Here they are:
1. Empathize with your opponent. Try understanding his or her point of view and let them know you are making an attempt to do so.
2. Smile and talk softly. Maintain eye contact but do not grimace or frown. Try not to tense up as angry individuals often will react instinctively to what they perceive as hostile body language. If you are seated and must stand up, do so slowly and easily. Do not make sudden moves that might be misinterpreted.
3. Keep them talking and constantly ask them questions. This allows the client (read opponent for you martial artists) to vent anger and frustration. Asking things like “What would you have done?”, or “How do you believe this can be fixed?” etc. will redirect their mind away from physical action in order to deal with all the questions and answers.
4. Maintain a respectable distance and whenever possible keep furniture between you such as a reception desk or table. As a last resort hold a medical chart or large book quietly in your arms as a barrier,(not as a weapon)
5. Offer them water or a beverage. People don’t punch when they are busy swallowing and the act of eating and drinking has a calming effect. (Just don’t give them hot caffeine which might later end up all over you.)
6. If possible get them to sit down (for obvious reasons).
7. Try never to be alone in a confined space with an angry individual. The presence of witnesses will often deter an aggressor. Remind them of the presence of the others who are in the room in case they get tunnel vision.
Note: A good rule of thumb is for a male professional to be accompanied by female assistant (witness) and visa versa. Two men on your side can be intimidating to an angry woman and may trigger a fear provoked violent response in an angry male. Obviously having women alone in a room with an angry male is never a good idea.
8.. If possible see if offering to have the aggressor talk to another person of more importance will assuage their anger or give them a sense of progress (pass them up the ladder so to speak).
9. Do not argue. “Yes I did- no you didn’t …yes-no yes- no…type arguments will usually escalate to frustration and then violence.
10. When all else fails or if the aggressor is unreasonable or irrational have them escorted from the premises by security or police if necessary. Immediately document everything that occurred.
One last word: I believe honesty, integrity and the truth are your best weapons. Admit it if you are in the wrong and offer to make restitution. If you are in the right however and all the above fails and you are physically assaulted (or someone you care about is threatened) then you must use everything and anything in your power to defend yourself. Remember, there are no rules in a real fight!
Ronald W. Stone, DVM
4th Dan HaeMuKwan Hapkido
American Dragon Martial Arts Academies