Prevention and De-Escalation
In most cases there will be some warning before an attack is imminent. I'm not as optimistic as some authors- snipers and people who kill in the victim's sleep won't tingle your spidey-sense. Nor will some very well skilled and planned assaults and ambushes. But in most incidents there are pre-assault indicators and since the payoff for recognizing them is so high (As a friend put it, "If you talk 'em down you don't even get your feelings hurt.") it's worth understanding.
This stage has a lot in it and a lot of nuance. What I said about no warning? That's sort of true. There is a variation of inductive reasoning, like inductive intuition. Deductive intuition ranges from "He just said he is going to kill me and he reached for his waistband." To "things just got suddenly quiet for no reason, something's wrong." The inductive variation is to have no clues at all but to be aware, "If I was going to pull a blitz it would be right here and I would come from right there."
So there is a level of reading terrain and possibility and an easier level of reading people and intent. Both are good skills. Both enrich your life in other ways (that terrain reading? I've been able to guess where old villages would be.)
This leads to an array of different skills, but they go right together. Avoiding situations, staying away from bad people and bad places is great. It takes some discipline and those who most need to heed the advice (young people on their own for the first time just experimenting with alcohol, drugs and social life) are the ones least likely to listen.
Escape and evasion, looking at running away as a finely honed martial skill gets lip service, but not much practice. Do you understand the difference between running away from danger and running to safety? In a new place that has suddenly become dangerous what is most likely to be the safe way out? There are exits you can see, are there exits you can make? In your home and workplace, what walls and objects are cover and which are only concealment?
Then there is verbal de-escalation, "talkin' 'em down."
There is no way I can do justice to this in a short post. If you haven't read Gavin DeBecker's "The Gift of Fear" read it for no other reason than the list of tactics that he gives of how Charm Predators get close to their victims. But that is only a piece.
Reading the threat:
Is this about status, or predation? The body language that can make a predator look for easier prey can trigger a status fight. If it is about status, is it internal or is the threat playing to an audience? How does the audience fit into the picture as additional threats or as resources?
The 'interview'- if a potential threat strikes up a conversation is it as a predator to gauge the prey? As a Charm Predator trying to lure the victim to a more conducive place or position for the attack? Or, in social violence, is the threat trying to show a justification to his audience or manufacture one for himself?
And, most important- is this an interview or is that stage (NOT always talking, sometimes just observing) already over and this is the distraction preceding the assault?
There are tools for all of this, tools and skills to determine what is really going on and tools to defuse the situation. This is probably the biggest, most important and most effective skillset in all of self defense. You can't separate it from Stage Two, you need to know what you are looking for, but the skills here are wide and deep. Physical self defense is limited by the physical body. This level is pretty much limited only by your imagination.
There are kool-aid drinkers here, too. They imagine the crazed killer of a slasher flick as the typical real villain or disdain what they call 'soft skills' because 'they don't work in the extreme, not when things go really bad.' Sometimes that's true. Don't dismiss it. But the skills work often and they can prevent much badness and they in no way detract from or interfere with physical skills.
Sometimes the kool-aid is a different flavor. There are people, (they are rare) who will teach that verbal skills are all that you need. There are people who hear about officers shooting an enraged threat with drugs on board or mental illness and consider it a preventable tragedy, something that could have been averted "if only the officers knew how to communicate."
If someone is too enraged to listen, you usually can't talk them down. If they are too unbalanced to understand your words, you can't reason with them. If the knife is already going into your stomach, it is too late to form words.
Skill at Level 3 is a skill. But it isn't an answer.