The Psychology of Deterring Attackers–Part 2 From The Armed Citizens Defense Network, Inc


An Interview with William AprillAprill 2015w

Interview by Gila Hayes

Last month’s journal featured the first part of this interview with clinical psychologist William Aprill, introducing readers to his strategies for filtering out and avoiding contact with people who approach hiding bad intentions behind a guise of needing a quarter, a cigarette, or to ask you if you know the time. If you missed the first half of this conversation, please read, then return to complete the article as we move forward into topics including tactics to prevent the possible threat from getting any closer and how to quickly act to avoid unwanted contact with strangers without causing offense or escalating the danger.

eJournal: We’re back, and last month we discussed detecting and avoiding possible threats based on behavior and demeanor, whether the actions of a person raising concern are congruent with the setting, and how to change our own behavior to avoid being selected as a victim. Well, sometimes we make mistakes, so let’s say we’re selected to be the victim of a crime. Once we’ve caught the predator’s attention, what steps can discourage an attack?

Aprill: What scares people most is an all-out blitz attack, so let’s be honest, that kind of attack is rare! Instead, there is typically some kind of phased introduction of their presence to yours called the interview. I wish I could remember who coined that phrase! It is a funny way to think about it, but you are being interviewed for the victim’s job. It might be a nonverbal interview, but the interview has to have some kind of initiation.

That can be just physically entering your space–an engineered bump, let’s say. I will make it so that you and I bump into each other going through the door as we leave the store. That almost always produces some kind of reaction that lets the bad guy interpret your behavior. If you start apologizing profusely, I get a pretty clear line on which one of us can dominate this transaction.

The interview might be what I call attention theft. I often joke that there are apparently three critical shortages in the world: cigarettes, quarters, and knowledge of the time because three of the most common questions you will be asked by random strangers after they have entered your space is, “Hey, man, do you have a quarter?” “Do you have a cigarette?” “Do you know what time it is?”

Those people are not particularly interested in quarters, cigarettes, or knowledge of the time in my experience. What they want is some of your attention, and they want some information about you. That’s where people tend to fall short.

If you overlooked the victim selection process earlier, you are now further down the path, and you have less time and fewer options. You will have to be much more assertive if you want to get back in charge of this game. The unknown contact’s job is to steer the transaction the way he wants it to go. Your job is to get out of it as best you can. That takes assertive action. It is a little like regaining control of a piece of equipment that’s getting away from you.

The more time spent under the control of an unknown person, the worse it can get–we don’t know anything about him! All we know is that you have been picked by him. You did not start this interaction, and you’re not steering it, so you’ve got to re-assert control immediately.

eJournal: As we re-assert control, are you concerned we will escalate the violence by word or gesture?

Aprill: Nice people are worried about that part, but nice people do not fly off the handle or become abusive right off the bat. To quote the late trainer Paul Gomez, the biggest problem nice people have is that they don’t get aggressive enough fast enough.

I encourage people to start the process much earlier than they think they should–before the interview starts. As soon as I am aware that someone has some interest in me, I start taking an interest in them. Get at it early and get it going as soon as possible, one way or another.

To do that, I need certainty. I need to avoid uncertainty about this person I am encountering to certainty about what I need to do. I need to get to certainty quickly. I have a repurposed three-step technique from the ancient days of policing that can help nice folks ramp up to the level of aggressiveness they need. It is called Ask, Tell, Make.

The steps are helpful because I don’t want to get stuck in a loop being too nice, nor do I want to point a gun at everybody who asks me for a quarter, so the first thing I like to do is ask the unknown person a question.

With a friendly hand, a friendly face, a friendly voice, ask, “Hey, sir, could you hold up right there for me?” That question is asked in a friendly tone, but it gives me a response that I can judge. If I ask someone, “Sir, could you hold up right there for me?” and he stops in his tracks, the odds go way down that he is a dangerous criminal in the midst of attacking me. My certainty goes way up.

If he “fails over” when I ask him to stop, next I will tell him to stop. Telling is a command in a time frame. Now I have unfriendly hands, an unfriendly face, an unfriendly voice. We are justified in moving from friendly to unfriendly because he didn’t do the first thing I asked him to do. This is someone who has gotten my attention, who I asked to stop, who didn’t stop. Now they will get yelled at, and it will be an unambiguous command in a time frame. “Sir, stop now.” “Stop right there,” and that is going to give me a response that I can judge.

Let’s say the person being yelled at jerks to a halt. They may have been spaced out, talking on their phone, and just did not notice me. It was not an attack; it was completely benign. I am now reassured. Maybe they’re a little upset at being yelled at, so I have plenty of time to apologize. “I’m sorry, sir, I thought you were someone else.” “I’m sorry, sir, I thought we were going to run into each other.” You can always fix it.

If it indicates something malign, let’s say I ask him to stop and he doesn’t, he fails over again, and we are into “Make,” as in make ready. I will make ready to execute my defensive response, whatever that is. What am I trained to do? What am I set up to do? Is that to run away? Is it to draw a gun? Is it to prepare to fight hands-on?

The most important thing about these three steps is that each is limited. We only say it once. We ask once; we tell once, and then we make ready. People get caught up in a loop, “Stop right there. Stop right there. Stop right there. Stop right there.” Well, the hundredth time you give a command is not magical! You can see some pretty dysfunctional police behavior where the same person will be giving the same commands over and over, or multiple police officers are giving conflicting commands, and nobody knows how to get out of the behavioral loop they’re stuck in. Nobody knows how to draw it to a close.

The beauty of Ask, Tell, Make is that it is just three steps all the way to the end. By the end, if you are using it right, I would expect you to be more confident about what you need to do. Your certainty has increased. You are going to be doing what you need to and not waiting around.

Most importantly, it is the basis of an articulable theory of why you did what you did. “This guy caught my attention as he was looking at me in the parking lot because there was just something about him. He kept on walking toward me, and I didn’t like it, so I asked him to stop where he was, and he didn’t. He kept walking toward me. That really got kind of scary, so I told him to stop. In fact, I yelled at him, ‘Stop right there!’ and he didn’t. He kept walking toward me. So yeah, I moved behind the front of my car, and I put my hand on the butt of my gun.”

Ask, Tell, Make provides a layered, articulable explanation for what you did and why you did it.

eJournal: What if some of us are not very nice, and while deflecting unwanted contact with someone we do not know, we get snarky, sarcastic, or demeaning? What’s the risk of escalating begging into violent robbery?

Aprill: That bears our attention, especially when you are looking downhill on the socioeconomic gradient. Many street people are not someone we want to interact with, so it can be easy to speak a little bit more brusquely, a little bit more dismissively.

You have several choices with your words. Are they inflammatory? Inhibitory? Neutral? With unknown folk, neutral is by far the best. I really want to make my words just matter-of-fact. Pay attention to the tone: not sympathetic, but not hostile, either. Why start a fight if you don’t have to? I often say you would not walk around with a sign around your neck saying, “I’ll fight anyone.”

eJournal: But, do our words sometimes say that?

Aprill: …and our demeanor even more. You can zip your lips and still send a message very clearly. That is why demeanor is so critical. If your demeanor is sending the message that you find the person irritating, disgusting, filthy, and hate homeless people, you are communicating loud and clear. Do not be surprised if somebody picks up on it.

We are nowhere near as slick as we think about hiding our messaging. I do think most people could bear to pay a little more attention to how they come across, especially with people that they do not think they will ever interact with again.

eJournal: Sometimes, those slipups happen so unexpectedly. I will tell on myself because while I think I treat people with respect, mistakes happen. Some years ago, I was in a grocery store checkout line at night. Two men in their early 20s begin trying to figure out if they had enough money to pay for their snacks. They were pretty raucous, and one hit me up to pay for their stuff. I said, “No!” in a disgusted tone of voice and turned away. I realized that I had been rude, and now I had to go into a dark parking lot after them. Not my proudest moment!

Aprill: It is funny, but sometimes people in the self-defense community talk about themselves in ways that make them sound boxed in by situations. You will hear people describe situations, and sometimes they will say or imply, “I couldn’t back down.” I find that really sad because I could get killed over all the world things; my own stupid ego is the lowest on the list.

I have something that I often use clinically and offer as a tip. You do not have to say the words “I’m sorry” to apologize. You would be surprised how people choke on those words. You do not even have to say “sorry” if you realize you have done something wrong.

Let’s say you’re in the checkout line, and you did accidentally say something rude. You were a little frustrated, something leaked out, and you wish you hadn’t, but you said it out loud. The person in front of you heard it, and they are offended. It does not cost you a nickel to say, “Whoa! That was a stupid thing to say. My bad.” By and large, you are off the hook at that point, and you don’t have to say the words “I’m sorry,” you do not have to grovel; you can literally just say as colloquially as you want, “Whoa! That was stupid. My bad.”

If you will do that, it is amazing how quickly things get better. People realize they have done something offensive, and they are followed up in silence because they are embarrassed. Well, a nasty remark followed by silence reads as hostility. The last thing you want to do is insult somebody, then “mean mug” them, because now, it might look like you are starting a fight with any observer.

We are never as stuck as we think we are if we keep thinking and keep processing information. You say it can be pretty superficial; it does not have to be the Gettysburg address to get your point across and defuse the situation.

We judge others globally by behavior and demeanor. Global gestures like the stereotypical hands up, palms out accompanied by the phrase, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” are postures of dissuasion for most and say, “I don’t want to have a problem with this! Hey, I am sorry about this! Hey, that went the wrong way.”

There are ways we can communicate in bulk. Every little word, every little gesture, is not so important because they are situated in a nexus of communication that sends the message really loud and really clear. Self-defense people worry about stepping into a trap from which they cannot step out. Take a little more careful about your messaging; fix it when you can and when it’s necessary. Those traps are fewer and farther between than I think it is justified to believe.

eJournal: What about dishonesty? Suppose my core belief was, “I can’t believe those freeloaders thought I’d pay for their junk food!” How congruent is my message if I only act apologetic? Can we fake contrition?

Aprill: That is really hard. Verbal dexterity is a skill that either people have, or they don’t, or a person has it to a greater or lesser degree. For example, you can’t pretend to be clever; you can’t pretend to be quick-witted. When people make what they think are snappy statements, but they are a little bit off, fatigued, or outraged, the sentiment they don’t intend to communicate can leak out. Think how often we snap at people when we are tired. What you mean to say is, “No, thanks, I don’t want to cook dinner right now, I am drained,” and what you actually said was, “Oh, sure, like I am hungry.”

It is really hard, so rather than trying to hide your feelings, I would like you to put some thought into things you are going to say that mean, “No.” You know how John Farnam talks about tape loops? It is important to have those at the ready.

For example, when someone says, “Hey, have you got $10?” that is oblique, so you can’t answer with a “No” or a “Yes.” What you need to say must functionally mean “No.” Someone who says, “Hey, I’m just trying to get these kids fed,” is putting pressure on you because he is not just asking for money, and you have got to come up with a response.

Your response has got to be something that you had going in advance so you cannot be flummoxed. We do not want to get drawn into a conversation. When someone says, “Hey, have you got $10? I’m just trying to get these kids fed,” a chatty person might say, “How many kids do you have?” This is not a conversation they choose to be having and certainly should not be having.

I have a friend who does a wonderful technique. Whatever someone he doesn’t know engages him and asks for something, like the three universal shortages– quarters, cigarettes, and knowledge of the time–he says, is an incredibly bright, cheerful voice, “Why, no, but thanks!” I have actually seen street people stop, just completely startled because they can’t process his answer and are unsure whether he has understood them. It is just hilarious.

So, we need to think of something along the lines of a Farnam tape loop, but we also need to quickly think about how to get out of the box. Someone who is starting this interaction is trying to put you in a box that limits your behaviors and responses. You have got to get out of the frame of that box right quick.

eJournal: How should we safely terminate unwanted conversations?

Aprill: The first thing is, don’t stop moving. A lot of people stop moving when they start talking. Every inch is your friend, so keep moving. My version of a tape loop says the same thing to man, woman, child, 8 to 80. I say, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.” It starts with no, an unambiguous no. I don’t have a cigarette, I don’t have any quarters, I do not know what time it is. A lot of people make an apology instead of saying no. They say, “Oh, sorry!” Well, “Oh, sorry!” is not “no.”

“Oh, sorry!” means, “Ask me something else.” I start with “No!” and then say “sorry” because I am from the South; what will I do? Then I say, “I don’t” because that is universally understood, and I will not meet their needs. It is not rude, and with the “sorry” in the middle, it is a little harder to take offense than if I said, “Screw you.”

That is my standard tape loop, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.” I say it just like that, and I don’t stop moving. The reaction will give you responses from which to judge. If you say, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” and the person continues to follow you as you walk away, you have now graduated to a whole new level of concern and justifiably so.

eJournal: I like the utter repeatability, so it is available under stress, and then we don’t–literally–stop to try to work out our next move. With a pre-written script, maybe we won’t waste time trying to figure out what to say.

Aprill: Most people wait until it is too late to take control because they wish it was not happening. That unspoken wish is a problem because the reason the unknown contact has gotten your attention subconsciously in the first place is that they are not acting normal. Their abnormal content, abnormal information, and abnormal broadcast have reached you and been detected by your threat detection systems. Convincing yourself that something that is happening is not is how people get hurt.

We want to start taking control of the space dynamics as early in the encounter as possible, so consider how big of a space you need. I would much rather start interacting with somebody when they are 50 feet away from me than when they are five feet away from me.

eJournal: Statistically, a lot of violence is not enacted by total strangers. How does attack interruption work when trying to stop someone we know, perhaps from work or church? Right now, states are releasing offenders from prisons who are going back into their communities where they know a lot of gentle, vulnerable people. What is your advice to people as we adapt to what may be the new normal?

Aprill: We have got to double down on behavior and demeanor. This is especially true when wearing masks means we’re getting less and less information from the face. This is especially true for law enforcement personnel. You frequently run into people who you have arrested on the job. I have run into people in bank lines I have arrested before, which is an odd moment.

Remember, you have to value recognition appropriately. At first, all you recognize is the face. Then you realize why you recognize the face. Recognition is compelling, but we may not be recognizing them for good reasons. We may not be recognizing them because they sat next to us in third grade. Sometimes you will recognize someone, which is not a good sign as more and more people are being pulled back into the community under these weird circumstances.

Things are very unsettled right now. Two months ago, had you walked into a Walgreen’s drugstore and seen two people with masks at the counter, you would have turned around and left. You would have thought the place was being robbed! It’s strange how quickly we can get used to the new normal. We are all feeling a little off-kilter. We would use the normal cues–especially about the face–are denied us as people wear face coverings and scarves. That means we have to double down on our interest in behavior and demeanor.

Demeanor is judged by this question: how do I feel about what they are doing? Behavior is what they are doing. Let’s say they are standing at the cash register doing jumping jacks. Is it a little kid being goofy, standing there doing jumping jacks, or is it an adult male, covered in sweat, standing there doing jumping jacks? How do I feel about it? One makes me feel different. Do you see what I mean?

eJournal: Our audience typically invests a lot of time and resources going to the range to increase shooting skill, but it is a fair bit more difficult to get training, coaching, and practice on what could be called the soft skill of de-escalation. Where do we even turn for training?

Aprill: [laughing] Well, I do teach a class. I understand that people call them soft skills, but that makes it sound minor, and I often think if you are on a boat and it sinks, putting on a lifejacket is a soft skill until it is not.

These are tough things to practice! Obviously, there is no round count, and it just feels odd. Talking to people that we don’t know at greater than social distances is really uncomfortable on several levels, so most people don’t want to play around with it. I think they just assume that they are going to figure it out on the fly. For me, planning to learn on the fly under pressure just seems like a terrible idea.

eJournal: What’s your opinion about becoming more self-protective and keeping people at arm’s length. In pursuit of safety, are we isolating ourselves to an unhealthy extent?

Aprill: There is a built-in justification for doing that right now because we are all supposed to be social distancing, right? People are starting to talk about what possible good could come from this otherwise very negative COVID-19 circumstance. If one outcome is that we become more mindful of our personal space, knowing who is in our space and why and what they are doing, I don’t think that is a bad thing.

eJournal: Do you predict we will continue to demand increased personal space after the pandemic?

Aprill: I would like to think we would, especially in fall and winter, the normal flu season. I don’t think some of these practices would be a bad thing for us to carry on to help us defeat the flu, much less COVID. Being able to say, “Hey, I am trying to keep a little distance, if you don’t mind,” is not a bad thing.

Think about the big cultural transition that happened around smoking. At one time, smoking was considered something you could do anywhere and around anyone, and people who did not smoke were expected just to deal with it. Well, slowly, over time, non-smokers became more comfortable, saying, “Could you not smoke in here? Could you not smoke around me? This is a non-smoking space.” Now the norm is completely turned on its head.

Maybe distance will become a social norm for many reasons, not the least of which is COVID but also for personal safety. I don’t think that is a bad thing, but it does go very counter because we are a social species. We like to be close to people. There is an instinct called herding. We like it. We like being in crowds of people and sort of bumping into each other; that is just how we are, so we will have to fight against that. There are very few times when it is to our advantage to be crowded by unknown people, yet a part of us loves it, and we’re used to it, so we do not object. Paying a little more attention to distance might be something good to come out of this in the long term.

eJournal: We’ll need to be aware of our conditioning to break the urge to herd up. What would you like readers to take away from our talk here today?

Aprill: My big point is that we got to the top of the food chain for some pretty good reasons. Two of the biggest reasons are threat detection and behavior prediction. I want people to listen to themselves. The smarter people are, the more they doubt themselves. That is good because they are thinking and introspective, but I don’t want them to overthink themselves into paralysis.

Start with the notion that you are a reasonable person, and your perceptions will have something to them. That is a good enough foundation for starting the process of acting. When confronted with the unknown, I would like your response to be, “I don’t know if that is something, but I know that it is nothing.”

eJournal: Retraining our internal reactions is something we can all work on. Thank you for sharing your insights with us, being a great resource to armed citizens, and sharing down-to-earth strategies like Ask, Tell, Make, and all the other points you brought out. Thank you for such useable strategies and for your time.


About our source: William Aprill teaches a class titled “Unthinkable,” covering these concerns and many more. Learn more at and don’t miss the “ripped from the headlines” lessons he offers in the blog section, Instagram: @aprillriskconsulting and check in on his Facebook page for his regular “They Are Not You” commentaries.

To read more of this month’s journal, please click here.