Human beings are not good at face-to-face violence. Surprising as this claim might sound, it’s based on years of research. Many studies tell us that most soldiers will avoid firing on the enemy, even when their lives are in danger; my own research on milder forms of violence, with fists and feet, shows that most angry confrontations end in a standoff, where participants find an excuse to back down.

In fact, a propensity to get along is probably hard-wired into our nervous and emotional systems, which explains why, for most people, it’s so hard to carry out violence on someone standing right in front of you. It’s important to keep in mind that it is easier for another human being to get angry than it is for him to hit you; it means that the other person is usually looking for an excuse to avoid violent conflict.

I spent hundreds of hours watching video recordings of violent acts of every kind, as well as reviewing ethnographic accounts of violence. Based on this research, I can suggest the following steps for avoiding or minimizing violence.

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1. Bluster to a draw. Don’t allow yourself to be more intimidating than your antagonist. When confronted with bluster—that is, an attempt to bully or coerce you—focus on how to make blustering an equal-sided ritual, rather than escalating the situation by trying to top your antagonist. Potential fights wind down when the blustering becomes repetitive and boring; that’s what you should try to achieve.

2. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Military psychologist Dave Grossman observes that if you’re in a situation where tension is rising, you can feel it in your breathing and your heart rate. Adrenalin is pumping, which can go in the direction of either fear or anger, or a self-conflicting mixture of the two. These emotions are dangerous to yourself and to other people. You will deal better with the situation if you can bring your heart rate down. This can be done by breathing in while you count four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, holding your breath again for four seconds, and so on. The key is not just to take a deep breath, but to establish a methodical, four-part rhythm, slowing down all parts of your breathing cycle.

3. Don’t act like a victim. Recognize the techniques that bullies, domestic abusers, and street thugs use. This is easier said than done, but it is not a matter of your physical size: It’s your emotional energy and interactional style that counts. It often helps to try to take control of the situation early on, through some verbal assertion.

Here’s an example from Streetwise author Elijah Anderson. He is pumping gas late at night in a crime-ridden urban area when a young man walks up and asks him if he has the time.

Instinctively I looked him in the eye and said, ‘What’s up, buddy?’ as though I expected an answer. There was silence. Then I said, ‘I ain’t got no watch, man.’ Experience on the streets had taught me that one ruse muggers use is to ask the intended victim a question that distracts him, getting him to drop his guard and setting him up for the mugging. By saying, ‘What’s up, buddy?’ I gave him pause and made him rethink his intentions. In a stickup or a mugging, timing is crucial. My body language, my tone of voice, and my words, all taken together in that instant, may have thrown him off, possibly averting an attempted stickup. ... The rules of the street say that a strange black male does not approach another black male around midnight on a Saturday night and ask for the time.

This is careful micro-analysis. A naïve outsider might think that if a robber has superior force, he is going to carry out the robbery no matter what the victim does. Not so; even the habitually violent choose their time and circumstances. They attempt to establish emotional momentum and get the jump on the other by timing their approach, setting the dominance in the interaction before the violent phase. Being “streetwise” is being tuned in to these rhythms, using them to head off violent confrontations before they can happen.

4. Recognize the power of the audience. Audiences often can determine whether a fight will become serious, mild, or aborted. If you find yourself in a crowd witnessing a potentially violent situation, you will have great influence on the course of events, at least if the number of antagonists is below about five on a side. If a crowd eggs on participants, tension may erupt into a fight. Focus on calming the people around you, instead of taking the side of one of the antagonists. Without encouragement, fights tend to peter out. That doesn’t mean everybody will be happy, but we do have the power to keep violence to a relatively low level.

Eradicating violence entirely is unrealistic. But violence is not inevitable. When we accept that fact, peace becomes possible.

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