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The Fence and Verbal De-escalation

By Lito Angeles

verbal deescalation

As I noted in my previous column, when you can’t avoid or escape a volatile situation through threat recognition via situational awareness, the fence is the basis from which to proactively control, de-escalate and, if that fails, physically respond.

So what is the fence? The term was coined by renowned British self-defense instructor Geoff Thompson in the 1990s to denote an innocuous protective posture that serves as the tactical platform from which to proactively defend yourself. It’s essentially a disguised fighting stance in which you stand with your feet slightly staggered and shoulder-width apart and your rear foot angled slightly out with its big toe aligned with the arch of your lead foot.

Your hands are also staggered, with your lead hand (usually your nondominant one) in front, fingers naturally splayed and occupying your centerline around your chest or neck. Your rear hand is open and behind your lead hand, generally hovering slightly below it. The position also entails keeping your chin slightly down and your elbows naturally down and in.

If you’re confronted by a stranger, however innocuous or aggressive he may be, immediately adopt a fence stance. If he has criminal intentions, he’ll endeavor to encroach on your personal space. Try to prevent him from getting within 3 or 4 feet. At that point, the fence will serve as a protective barrier. It also will serve three other useful functions: as a tactile sensor, a range gauger and an action trigger. Before I put these into context with a physical response, I need to address the essential skill of verbal de-escalation off the fence.

While many people are primarily enamored with the physical aspects of self-defense, it’s crucial to hone your awareness, assessment, avoidance and control/de-escalation skills, even more so than the associated combat tactics. Mastery of those skills can keep a volatile situation from developing in the first place or prevent one from turning violent. A physical response should be the last resort. Many elements and variables are involved in de-escalation, which is why several books have been written on the topic. I, however, will keep things as succinct as possible so they’re as accessible as possible.

De-escalation boils down to this acronymic sentence: Don’t AACT to de-escalate.

Translation: Don’t antagonize, don’t argue, don’t challenge and don’t threaten. Instead, do the opposite. When contextually applicable, cooperate, apologize and/ or deflect the focus of your adversary’s ire through body language and speech. I’ll illustrate what I mean through some scenario-based examples.

Scenario No. 1: You’re at a restaurant when a guy catches you looking at him the wrong way. He confronts you and says, “Whatcha looking at? You gotta problem?” A bad comeback would be, “Yeah, I’m looking at you. What about it?” Another iffy reply would be “Nothing” because he might escalate with, “You saying I’m nothing!” A more tactful reply would be, “Sorry, man, you look like a friend of mine from college. I meant no offense.” You’re apologizing and deflecting with a reasonable excuse.

Scenario No. 2: You’re at a nightclub, and a guy perceives that you’re looking at his girlfriend. “Hey, man,” he says. “Were you checking out my girl?” Now, you could retort with, “As a matter of fact, I was. Whatcha gonna do about it, slick?” This, however, would be antagonistic. A better statement would be, “Hey, I’m sorry about that. Your friend looks like someone I knew back in high school. I didn’t mean to offend you or her.” Again, it’s an apology coupled with a deflection.

Scenario No. 3: You inadvertently take someone’s parking spot and make the other driver mad. He yells, “Hey, you took my space!” A not-so-good reply would be, “Too bad, I got it first,” because it’s dismissive and antagonizing. More tactful would be to say, “Sorry, man. I didn’t know you wanted this spot. You can take it, and I’ll find another one.”

Scenario No. 4: You’re in a supermarket parking lot, and a guy approaches to ask for money. A bad reply would be, “Get out of here!”

It can lead to escalation. Instead, you could say, “No, sorry,” and keep walking. Including the word “sorry” is almost always a good thing.

Scenario No. 5: You’re at a gas station, and a guy asks to borrow your cellphone. A poor reply would be, “ No, get out of here!” A more palatable answer would be, “Sorry, man. I don’t have my phone with me, but the gas-station attendant might be able to call for you.”

In all these scenarios, a balanced fence stance should be employed because you’re in a situation you can’t just walk away from. You’re stuck face to face. By immediately adopting the fence, you establish a barrier and personal boundaries to control the distance. As well, it provides a platform for proactive or reactive physical engagement, if necessary. To disguise these elements so you retain your tactical advantage, you should “talk with your hands” while using the appropriate body language and vocal inflections.

When talking with your hands, don’t purposely touch the other person at any time. Touching an adversary can be construed as battery (which is legally defined as any unwanted touching) by the other person, and that can escalate matters. Moreover, it’s technically a crime, and that could be used against you in court.

A possibility when attempting to de-escalate a situation courteously is it doesn’t work and the antagonist continues to persist with his request or issue. When this happens, you might want to consider using “command presence.” It’s a good option to try, if circumstances permit — before you resort to physical action. Command presence is manifested by adopting an assertive, sometimes aggressive, demeanor in which you firmly order your adversary to cease and desist with his aggressive actions. (For example, say, “No!” “Stop!” or “Back off!”)

As you do this, create more distance and, if applicable, use predatory pacing to add conviction to your commands. Most volatile street situations are resolved with either a courteous de-escalation attempt or an assertive one, so it behooves you to practice these skills as much as, if not more than, the physical skills of self-defense. When you avoid or de-escalate a volatile situation without resorting to violence, you save yourself loads of trouble and heartache.

Using physical force to settle matters that can be resolved through nonviolent means is a big mistake. So keep your life’s purpose and priorities in mind and your ego in check. Get physical only when absolutely necessary.

In closing, I will say that this strategy is not only morally and ethically the right thing to do but also the option that will yield key tactical advantages and legal benefits if you must resort to a physical response.

This article originally appeared in a 2022 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

To order Lito Angeles’ best-selling book FightNight! The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Mixed Martial Arts, visit

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