Story by Joshua Swanagon, Photos by Tanner Swanagon
Editor’s Note: I recently posted the Improvised Weapons story – due to the increasing violence in our city streets and rural areas this year – and mentioned that I would be posting one more self-defense related article from me. Although this story doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of knives or gear, I thought it would be helpful to some, who may find themselves in a precarious situation. Knowing that there could be trouble before it begins, can be the difference between life and death – or serious injury.Please make sure to also come back every 4th Sunday of the month for great knife related self-defense and combatives from Michael Janich.
Story originally published in S.W.A.T. Magazine, June 2016. Re-published here with the consent of S.W.A.T. Magazine and its Publisher.
Everybody has some form of “tell” when they have nefarious intentions. Being able to read their “tell” during an aggressive encounter could be vital to successful defensive measures. Whether you are professional personnel or just want to protect your family, always be aware and alert to what the aggressor is telling you – even when he isn’t aware that he is.
You may see or experience many of the cues (discussed below) simultaneously. There is no set structure to how the aggressor will behave, so be aware of all given cues.
While some of this may seem elementary, constant study makes for increased and rapid utility.
Some auditory cues may be a little harder to key in on than others, while some may be misleading. However, it is still important to look for them and understand them, because with some aggressors they may be the only cues you get.
Due to the effects of an adrenaline dump, the heart rate quickens, requiring more oxygen. At this time the person will begin to breathe more rapidly to compensate. Although a little more difficult to spot, if the aggressor is breathing rapidly, it is possible that he is experiencing a surge of adrenaline in preparation for attack.
Shaky Vocal Patterns During Speech
During an adrenaline dump, the body experiences a rush, brought on by the surge of glucose into the blood stream, which can cause uncontrollable shaking and affect the vocal and speech patterns. If an aggressor is speaking in a shaky voice, it may not be an indication of fear, but a sign that his body is preparing for the impending attack.
Deepened or Louder Speech
Used as an attempt to intimidate their victim, an aggressor will often deepen his voice to sound more ominous or authoritative. The aggressor may also yell, to place the victim in a passive state or trigger a response of fear.
Along with the deepened or louder speech, the aggressor will often use threatening speech to try and intimidate you. Often the more outrageous the statement, the more nervous he is, causing him to overcompensate and build himself up more. He may say things like “I’m going to rip your head off and shove it up your ass!”
Often times an aggressor will use dialog that distances himself from guilt, as a way of disassociating himself from blame and placing it on the victim. It might be something along the lines of “What’s your problem?!” “What are you looking at?!” or “Don’t make me kick your ass!”
Not everybody is adept at reading another person’s face for emotional cues, but often times an aggressor will tell you volumes about his plans, with a series of subtle facial cues.
1000 Yard Stare
During the 1,000 yard stare the blink rate will slow to 2 – 4 blinks per minute and the aggressor will appear as though he is looking right through you. They will often have a glazed or empty stare and their expression will become flat and emotionless. He is removing all emotional and moral implications of the impending attack.
If their eyes are scanning your body while they speak to you, they may be attempting to acquire a target for maximum impact during their initial strike. Pay attention, this will not only allow you to be aware of the impending attack, but also alert to where the first strike might occur.
Avoids Eye Contact
This could mean a variety of things. One, he may be showing you that he lacks respect for you; in some parts of the country and in some cultures, eye contact is a sign of respect. Two, it is possible that he may be intimidated by you and is avoiding eye contact while he builds himself up for the attack. Three, he may be attempting to avoid letting you see his plans, by preventing you from looking into his eyes.
Intense/Focused Glare or Attention
The opposite of avoiding eye contact, if he is staring directly into your eyes with an intense or focused glare, he is attempting to get into your head and psych you out while psyching himself up.
The typical blink rate in most individuals is roughly 20 blinks per minute; the number will vary slightly between persons. However, stress will often cause rapid blinking, which is an indicator that the aggressor may be lying about his intentions or working up to an event.
Jaws Clench and Un-Clench
This is a sign of pent up energy, usually resulting from an adrenaline dump. The act of clenching the jaws is also used by fighters to decrease the likelihood of being knocked out, losing teeth or biting their tongue in the event of physical contact.
Due to the need for more oxygen during an adrenaline dump, the aggressor’s nostrils may flare to allow for deeper breaths through the nose. This is especially true when he is clenching his jaws.
Lowering the eyebrows indicates aggression and ferocity. When an aggressor does this, he is either attempting to intimidate you or psych himself up.
During an adrenaline dump your body’s vascular system will expand (vasodilation) to deliver epinephrine to all parts of the body. During this time, some may experience a reddening of the face.
Although an aggressor can suddenly strike without demonstrating any physical cues, if he is exhibiting physical cues, he is most likely preparing himself to attack in short order. With some of these cues he is possibly also testing you, to check your awareness and your ability or willingness to respond.
Fidgeting is often a sign of stress, which may be a result of his intentions. Watch for fidgety hands, such as putting them in and out of his pockets. Also, watch for his feet to be fidgety, like kicking small rocks or trash on the ground. He may even be trembling slightly, due to the increased adrenaline in his system.
Fists Clenching and Un-Clenching
This is also a sign of high energy and can be meant as a means of intimidation. He may also be testing your awareness and trying to desensitize you to his fists clenching, so you won’t realize it when they finally clench for business.
Jumpy or Bobbing
Acting jumpy or bobbing around is a sign of high energy, most likely caused by an adrenaline dump. It can also be a means of loosening himself up, or desensitizing you to exaggerated movement, making you unprepared for the actual attack.
Adopting an Aggressive Stance
If he adopts an aggressive stance, or fight stance, this is a sure sign that he is getting ready to launch an offensive – be ready.
If he is circling you, he is looking for a weak opening to attack or attempting to flank you. This will often be in conjunction with adopting an aggressive stance or jumping/bobbing around.
Often, when an aggressor feigns punches or kicks, he is testing your awareness of the situation and your reaction and response to aggressive behavior. He is also attempting to desensitize you to fake punches or kicks, so you will let your guard down for the real punch/kick.
Before an attack, many aggressors will start looking around (scanning the area) to see if there are any witnesses, or if either of you have backup close at hand.
Holding a hand behind his back
If he is holding a hand behind his back, or straight down his side, with his hand hidden behind his leg, this is a sign that he may have a weapon. Keep a careful eye on that hand and stay clear, outside of his arc of deployment.
Removing Articles of Clothing
Often times, when preparing for an aggressive conflict, guys will take off articles of clothing, such as jackets, hats, glasses and shirts (I have even seen guys take off their shoes). There are varying reasons for this behavior. It could be to free up their movement, or possibly more posturing. In some cases, it is to prevent that article of clothing from being used to grab or tie him up.
Maintains Raised Hands
If he is talking with his hands a lot, or holding them in a higher posture, possibly even touching his face or hair, he is potentially getting ready to strike. This is a means of keeping the hands at optimal striking level, without projecting.
Whether you are military, law enforcement, security or private citizen, when you see any of these cues, make sure to maintain a strict reactionary gap. Pre-assault cues often happen on a subconscious level and give indications of a person’s intent towards violent action.
Maintaining a heightened level of awareness, of not only your surroundings but also the aggressors’ actions and conscious/unconscious cues, will give you an edge in the possible impending confrontation.
Often times, your awareness will put him off guard or back him down completely – assailants prefer easy victims.
Keep it real and stay safe. K&G
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Joshua Swanagon has studied survival in both urban and wilderness environments in Colorado and Michigan for most of his life, while also adding experience in harsher terrains abroad. He utilizes his experience and years of diverse martial arts and combatives training and real world application as a self-defense/combatives instructor, published freelance writer and Field Editor for various magazines in the fields of knives, survival, self-defense and tactical subject matters. Joshua also brings with him his years of experience as Editor of, and Subject Matter Expert for Knives Illustrated Magazine.
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