Lessons From Hostage/Crisis Negotiators

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 31st Mar)


People often confuse de-escalation as “backing down”, rather than as a means of achieving a desired outcome by non-physical means. De-escalation should never occur without there also being a demonstration of having the capability of being able to also end the confrontation physically. Part of the process of de-escalation, is determining whether the aggressor is willing to resolve whatever dispute there is through non-physical means. If there is no demonstration of willingness, then you know that you have no choice but to make a pre-emptive assault – I say an assault, as it should be all out and continuous, until your assailant has either taken themselves out of the fight or is no longer able to physically continue.

When crisis negotiators deal with hostage takers, they make it abundantly clear that, despite wanting to end the confrontation peacefully, they are also equally able to resolve the dispute via tactical means. You may not be in the same position of strength as the FBI or the IDF’s Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) however you must still demonstrate that you have the ability to physically defend yourself. De-escalation can only be effective if your aggressor believes it is in their best interest to resolve whatever disagreement or injustice they believe has been committed without resorting to violence. If they believe you have no ability to defend yourself then they have little reason to move off the path of violence.

This also means you have to have a zero tolerance approach to physical action, and understand when the time for talking is over. Whilst you attempt to de-escalate you should also be setting up your pre-emptive assault and be ready to deal with any attack that is made. Emotional and angry people are volatile, and even if you believe they are responding to what you are saying, can snap at any moment until the dispute is fully/completely resolved. In most Hostage situations, the firing of a single shot, will mean that action rather than further talking is required. If in an argument, somebody touches you, pushes you etc, action is required.

It is worth noting that aggressive individuals have little if any idea of what they wish to accomplish through violence, other than a belief that they are entitled to act this way and some form of vague justice will be served. This means that you are not dealing with someone in a rational frame of mind. When someone feels they are entitled to act a certain way, it is almost impossible to argue against them, and so even if you believe that you are being effective at calming them down, that entitlement will not disappear, you are merely presenting an alternative method (a non-physical one) to meeting their goal(s).

Hostage and Crisis Negotiation is a relatively new and modern science, and like a lot of new methods of law enforcement, was initially founded on ideas, rather than reality, which lead to it being based on many false premises. One of these that soon became apparent was that despite much of the planning that may have gone into a hostage taking incident, the actual goals are shaky, fluid or unclear, which soon become apparent when negotiations start i.e. they don’t really know what they wish to accomplish. It is often one of the goals of a crisis negotiator to frame or set the goals of the hostage taker. This is less the case in acts of hostage taking involving terrorists however when Palestinian groups kidnap Israeli Soldiers there is often no clear agenda or distinct/particular demands that accompany the kidnapping – it is more that an opportunity presented itself and a vague understanding that the hostage would be valuable. Often you will have to frame and present an alternative outcome to your aggressor and put alternative solutions on the table e.g. offering to replace a spilt drink, paying for dry cleaning etc, in order to resolve the dispute - all the time being ready, willing and able to act physically.

De-escalation although the preferred method of dealing with potentially violent situations shouldn’t be seen as the only one and you should be equally willing to use physical force should the situation dictate.



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Reverse Knife Slashes, Natural Instincts & Working To Principles

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 24th Mar)


Knife Attacks

Last week in class we spent a lot of time practicing reverse knife slashes and discussing how we sometimes have to recover from our natural reflexes and responses, that although keep us safe from the initial assault/attack, may lead us to be in a disadvantaged position for the follow-up or secondary phase of the attack. It is always worth remembering that assailants with knives will almost always recoil the slash or cut, to set up a second and a third attack etc.

The standard 360 Block that is common across all Krav Maga systems, is based on the body’s natural flinch reflex, that is triggered when fast movements cross the line of our peripheral vision e.g. such as a swinging punch or a slashing knife. In such instances the body will naturally and with lightning speed raise the arm to intercept the attack. There are times however when circular motions occur within our peripheral vision, and in such situations if the movement is within the eye-line you will make a swaying back motion to move the head out of the line of attack; rather than bringing the arms up to block. This is a good back-up defense that the body has when the flinch reflex isn’t triggered. The only problem is that with a knife slash, it’s very easy for the attacker to reverse the cutting action and slice again.

Our fear system is incredible at making natural defenses but it only does so against the first threat/initial attack, it relies on us, or our conscious processes, to deal with whatever happens next. The problem that you will encounter with swaying back, is that your weight is all on the back foot, which means that moving back will be almost impossible – the only way to shift the weight and move is to go forwards and start to put weight on to the front leg i.e. sway forward.

What we need to do with the swaying back motion is to “assemble” another motion with it. Namely raising the arms up (this is the same thing we do with the 360 Block; training the flinch response to result in the forearm being extended and held out at a 90 degree angle at the elbow, along with a body movement away from the attack, and a simultaneous strike). By bringing the arms up as you sway back in you have a natural “block” to any reverse cut or slash, plus you are now able to close the person down and restrict further movements of the knife.

Restricting and limiting the movement of the knife is the first part of any knife defense, whether the defense is a solution to a threat or an attack. Many times it’s not possible to apply “technique” especially when you are surprised and caught off guard, with your body moving you out of the way, or putting you in a disadvantaged position for the next phase of the attack. Then it really is a matter of just working to the principles and applying the concepts. When it is almost impossible to recognize and determine the threat, such as in the case of a fast, reverse backhand slash (after you failed to identify the first attack), everything must come down, to restricting movement, getting two hands/arms on the knife, and getting your body positioned behind the blade. 



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Interpreting Body Language

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 17th Mar)


Your first alert to danger comes as you move from a non-conflict state to one of being conflict aware; this occurs as your fear system recognizes an action or behavior in your environment that signals the presence of harmful intent – this intent may not be directed at you (that has to be confirmed) but it is present and real. This is the moment you become adrenalized, and it this recognition of your emotional state that lets you know trouble is potentially brewing.

 Often we think that this happens in a one single moment, that you shift between these two states however your body may release adrenaline slowly, rather than in a single dramatic shot e.g. if you are in a verbal altercation that starts to get increasingly aggressive you may become gradually adrenalized, whereas if somebody suddenly points a gun at your head you will become instantly adrenalized. This can make recognizing that your adrenal system is working, especially if you’re not used to experiencing it, sometimes difficult, with your conscious understanding of the situation being at odds with what your body is telling you. This also occurs if your conscious response to the threat is one of denial i.e. this can’t be happening to me – you actively deny your adrenal state, which is most people’s firs response when trying to understand the level of the threat they are confronting.

Understanding your own body language can help you recognize your emotional state. I never spend much time trying to recognize the subtle nuances of other people’s body language, when I’m dealing with a threat, because if I can confirm and recognize my own emotional state, I can trust that to interpret and confirm their body language e.g. If I see someone walking directly towards me, I don’t watch their body language, rather I look to interpret my own; if my body is responding in a relaxed and non-threatened manner I don’t need to look to see if their arms are splaying out to see if they are a threat, my subconscious fear system has informed me that they are not. Recognizing your own body’s responses is far more valuable than trying to interpret another’s.

Often when we feel uncomfortable in a conversation it can be hard to recognize whether it is because we feel threatened or because we just “don’t like” the person we are talking to i.e. do they represent a danger to our personal safety, or are they somebody we just wish would go away. We may meet such people at bus-stops, in queues outside clubs etc – those who engage us in unwanted conversations, that have a certain edge to them, such as complaining about the lateness of a bus or that they’ve had to stand in line to long. The challenge is to work out whether the aggression in the situation is directed at us or something general (like the bus service), or something/somebody more specific like the bus driver…when he eventually shows up.

This is the big difference between the conflict aware state and the next state, the pre-conflict one. In the pre-conflict state the harmful intent is definitely directed at you. In the conflict aware state you need to make your dynamic risk assessment i.e. what is the risk level of the situation? There are two outcomes: high risk and unknown risk. If the aggressive individual sounding off about the lateness of the bus starts to direct his conversation towards you then you are in a high risk, if they don’t the risk is unknown. You can use your own body language to help assess whether a situation is high or unknown risk.

I generally check two things when assessing my own level of aggression: my eyes and my mouth/lips. If my eyes are wide open I am in a fear state, if my eyes are squinting I am in or heading towards a state of aggression. A person complaining loudly about poor public transport may elicit either response: they make me afraid or they may make me angry. Both can send out the wrong message to the person who is complaining. If they now look at me in my “aggressive” state, they may perceive me as a threat or a challenging target they can displace their anger on to – in the absence of a bus driver or representative of the system they are railing against. Equally if they pick up that I am fearful of them, they may seek to readdress their lack of control in the current situation by creating a new one – being aggressive towards me – that they feel they can control. My job in any potentially dangerous situation is to fly under the radar and not drawing attention to myself – an aggressive individual’s fear/anger system will recognize threat signals very quickly however subtle they are (which is why I allow my adrenal system to do its job and I just interpret the results).

When the lips tighten and get drawn back we are in a state of aggression. I use this cue a lot to get direction from my fear system i.e. should I be getting ready to fight. This I have found to be one of my best barometers for whether I should be looking to make a pre-emptive assault - usually confirm this by asking a question to tell if a person has lost the ability to verbally reason; if they can’t/don’t respond or jumble the words I know my body wants to fight and theirs is one step away from going to.

I like simple cues as when emotional certain reasoning functions diminish, so if I can tell where my body is emotionally (through interpreting its response) and where another person’s is through a clear, defining tell-tale sign I know what I have to do, without going through a long decision making process.



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Adrenaline (Part 3)

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 11th Mar)


The effects of adrenaline on the body are quite severe, which is why our emotional system naturally tries to limit when we become adrenalized. One of the most immediate consequences is that of extreme fatigue; anyone who has done any form of military training knows that the best time to counter an attack that has cost them a position is to immediately try and retake that position, as once a person’s adrenal system recognizes that a goal has been accomplished it will put the body into a state of rest and fatigue in order for it to recover from the stresses and strains that this cocktail of hormones places on the body. From my own experiences I know that being constantly adrenalized leads to extreme fatigue and a desire for sleep – one of the jobs that officers in the military have is keeping their soldiers awake during lulls in combat.

You can become adrenalized in a number of ways; the sooner that you recognize what is happening to you the sooner you can start to control and limit the adverse side effects. Breathing is perhaps the most effective way of controlling your emotional state and thus your levels of adrenaline. Tactical Breathing is something that is taught to many law enforcement and military personnel. In its simplest form it involves breathing in for a count, holding for a count, and breathing out for a count e.g. breathe in for a count of 2, hold the breath for a count of 2 and then exhale for a count of 2. Breathing is both an automatic function of the body and one that you can also control, which makes it a unique way to link the conscious with the subconscious, tying your mental appraisal of a situation (being afraid) and altering your emotional response to it (fear).

Being honest with yourself is another way of avoiding becoming adrenalized unnecessarily. Many people become afraid without reason, identifying threats where none occur e.g. if a person sees a group of teenagers wearing hooded tops they may immediately become wary and scared even if nothing about the way these teenagers moved etc indicated a threat. I am always amazed at the way people become aggressive in the anticipation of conflict even when no pre-violence indicators are present. Due to the “Models of Violence” we build, we often see threats and dangers where the y don’t occur and become aggressive and adrenalized without any real cause. The false anticipation of aggression and violence may cause us to become subject to tunnel vision and identify threats and danger where none exist. Often when I am in potentially dangerous situations, or feel my adrenal system go into action (hairs on the back of my neck stand-up, uneasiness in my stomach etc) I relax and let my “body” decide whether there is harmful intent present or not. This honest and natural appraisal prevents me from responding to actions and behaviors that don’t ever actually constitute a threat to my personal safety; this is not the same as trying to down-play a threat or denying that you are in danger.

Most physical confrontations start with a verbal confrontation. One of the things I do when facing or dealing with an aggressive person is to tense and relax my legs, one at a time, over and over in a repetitive manner. Adrenaline “demands” a physical outlet and doing this small physical action is going somewhat to meeting the desire for flight or fight i.e. a physical response. This is something I can do whilst still talking to a person and is basically unnoticeable. It is also letting me get in touch with my body so I can feel my legs working, and not be rooted to the spot should I need to move.

Next week I will talk about how to interpret body language, not somebody else’s but your own, so that you can be more aware of your physical and emotional state.



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Adrenaline (Part 2)

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 3rd Mar)


In this post, I want to talk about the “negative” side effects of Adrenaline and also dispel one of the myths that is commonly associated with extreme fear; that of time slowing down. Anyone who has been in a car crash or narrowly avoided an accident, or been the victim of an assault, will recall that “Time Slowed Down” for them – this is referred to as Time Dilation.

If such an effect should exist, it stands to reason that it is not actually time slowing down but the brains ability to understand and make sense of the situation speeding up i.e. its cognitive processing increases. Researcher, David Eagleman, attempted to study this apparent phenomenon, by getting test subjects to estimate the time it took them to complete an upside down 150 ft free fall, into a net – this was a thrill ride on a fairground/amusement park, near the university campus where he worked . The idea being to invoke enough fear in the subjects to create Time Dilation. He also got his subjects to estimate the time it took for other people to complete a free-fall. Subjects estimated that it took them 36% longer to fall than the people they watching. This meant Time Dilation was happening.

He then reasoned that if Time Dilation was occurring, the brain’s processes should be firing faster. He then attached a special watch to each subject that displayed numbers at a rate that was just too fast for them to make out when in a non-stressed state. He concluded that if his subjects could make out these numbers as they fell, then the brain was indeed speeding things up. As it turned out, they couldn’t; our perception of events doesn’t speed up when we are adrenalized, rather when we recall the event afterwards we remember it as if it occurred in slow motion.

Some of the definite side-effects of adrenaline affect both our sight and our hearing. Under stress we all experience “Tunnel Vision” and in certain situations may start to see things in “Black & White” as well as even lose our hearing.

Our Fear System, is designed to work for 90% of situations (this is just an estimate used to illustrate the point), but is not specific enough for particular situations. In most situations the primary threat, the one we are facing, is the one that should occupy all of our attention and so when placed under stress and fear we develop tunnel vision i.e. our peripheral vision disappears so we are not distracted by movements to our side etc. The problem is that 10% of violence involves third parties or other threats within the environment, and in these situations tunnel vision actually impedes our survival chances. As trained individuals, we should look to be aware of our environment and surroundings and not simply focus on the person(s) standing before us. One of the quickest ways to deal with tunnel vision is to “Scan”. Scanning allows our eye line to not only take in other threats that may be present but will also widen our gaze, as our eyes fix on objects and people in our environment who are located at difference depths of vision.

In extreme situations we may be subject to hearing loss. Our fear system consists of both inherent fears and learnt ones. We have a natural freeze response to loud noises. The current understanding of this is that historically our natural predator’s i.e. wild animals would often first alert us to their presence by noise as they would hunt by stealth and take advantage of the terrain for camouflage, so identifying them by sight would not always be possible. There are many different ways that different animal species – including humans - use to confuse predators when surprised e.g. some play dead, some such as bird flocks, like flamingos take off together in a confusing array of movement with the aim of giving their predator too many choices of a potential victim, causing them to take extra time in selecting a target. Humans freeze – we do this because historically our animal predators hunted by sight and select prey by movement. If you have ever seen a bull-fight, you will witness the Matador, standing stock still, whilst he flutters his cape so that the bull identifies this as the target instead of him.

Freezing when we first our alerted to danger makes good sense, however once we have visually identified the threat, our body may decide we don’t need our sense of hearing any more e.g. we are in fight or flight mode and all that our fear system requires of us is action – the time to use reason has gone. Unfortunately we may end-up over-reacting to a threat, and fail to understand that we could talk our way out of the situation, or de-escalate our aggressor(s). In an over adrenalized state our hearing may go, even though the situation doesn’t necessarily necessitate a physical response.

The way to avoid becoming over-adrenalized is to recognize threats early on and have a proper understanding of the situation you are in so you don’t over-react to it. In next week’s Blog we will look at how to control the release of adrenaline so that we don’t become over-adrenalized and suffer from some of these negative effects.  



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