An attack, or a fight starts before the actual physical contact occurs.
If you've ever watched a real street fight, you would usually see one or both participants yelling and/or cursing at each other. The next stage is the fighting.
In the case of an assailant looking to attack someone, they may start with talking (or yelling) to the victim. Talking lowers the victim's guard enabling the assailant to get close enough to grab or attack them.
One of the biggest factors I learned from victims (including myself) of fights or attacks, is that we didn't pick up on the verbal cues beforehand. For example, the road-raged guy who gets out of his car and starts yelling and cursing at you which leads to a fight, or the assailant who walks up very close to you, in order to mug or attack you.
So how do you avoid the fight/attack before it begins? Use "verbal defense"!
"Verbal Defense" (AKA verbal judo) is a method of communication used to either de-escalate a fight, or to thwart an attack:
In the example of the road rage guy screaming and cursing at you, an effective verbal defense strategy would be to de-escalate by not screaming and cursing back at him, but rather apologizing and admitting fault (even if you were not in the wrong). While you do this, raise your hands in an apologetic, non threatening manner. This will help you to defend yourself if they decide to strike you.
In the example of the stranger trying to get close into your space to grab or attack you, an effective verbal judo strategy would be to put your hands up in a defensive posture and yell "STOP!" or "BACK AWAY!" (children should yell, "STRANGER DANGER!"). Additionally, yelling other terms like "HELP" when there are other folks around, is usually enough to scare off the criminal who doesn't want to get caught. However, if they continue to come at you, RUN AWAY!
NOTE: In both of these scenarios, you must bring your hands up. This is crucial for blocking or counterattacking, in the event the situation turns into a physical fight.
While these tactics may make you feel uncomfortable (apologizing even though you were not at fault, or yelling at a stranger getting close to you), they may just save your life. Practice them!
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Author, The Short Fight