Gershon Ben Keren recently published a fantastic article about reading and masking intent in martial arts and self-defence. You can read it here.
It illustrated beautifully the importance of being able to mask one’s own intent while reading an opponent’s intent (or that of a potential attacker) as key to successful attack and defence. Everyone who has engaged in combat sports is familiar with the concept of telegraphing, both physically and otherwise.
We can conclude from this that intent plays a key role in success in the martial arts. Intent is what allows you to predict and avoid attacks, as well as land your own. But this does not relate only to physical movements.
Let’s take a detour and look at confidence, machismo, honour and respect. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Martial arts teach us confidence, honour and respect when done in the right environment, but can also come with a certain amount of machismo, or ‘fake honour’. Conflict over perceived insults or disrespect can arise, when intent is not well understood.
So how do we get better at reading intent?
If you truly understand your own intent and convey it with confidence, care and honesty, then it is less likely to be misinterpreted as criticism or insult. In much the same way, understanding another’s intent – why they act in a particular way – will allow you to accept criticism with an open-mind, or admit when you’ve made a mistake. Therefore understanding intent can help minimize ego-based conflict, both inside and outside of the dojo. This is one of the most valuable skills one can possess in self-defence.
If your behaviour has caused some aggravation or conflict, being able to understand the true intent of a potential attacker will be integral to being able to diffuse the situation. This could be as simple as asking ‘how can I help?’ when someone is going off at you, thus prompting them to reveal their intent. If you know the source of the problem then you can make the informed decision to diffuse, or, where appropriate, to take other measures to deal with the problem.
An important question to ask at this point is ‘does the ability to understand intent relate to one’s confidence’?
If one is truly confident in their ability to handle conflict, physical or otherwise, then reading intent becomes considerably easier. It will be done from a place of calm reason, rather than emotion. Emotion is both the great obscurer and revealer of true intent. When one is emotional, their intent rises to the surface and their focus shifts from reading and masking intent to projecting and imposing intent.
We all get emotional, as we are all human. But being able to detach and examine intent is the difference between good and great martial artists, and can be the difference between success and failure or even life and death.
A tool that I find useful for this is something that my Krav Maga brother Dave Congerton once said to me in passing during a conversation (isn’t it funny how someone’s passing comment can make a fundamental shift in how you think?). And this is what he said:
Yup, you read it correctly. The first word is indeed ‘woof’, and is followed by the second word, which is, as you may have noticed, also ‘woof’.
What he was saying to me (other than making dog sounds) was that when someone is going off at him, the first thing he hears is a dog barking. And once this happens, it opens up a great opportunity to deal with the conflict with calm detachment and read true intent. Here is the analogy that I see:
Imagine that you are going for a walk. You walk past a house, with a tall fence and a ‘do not enter – beware of the guard dog’ sign. As you walk past a big dog runs up to the fence and starts barking aggressively at you.
You are likely to get a bit of adrenalin running through our system at this point, even though you know the dog is behind the fence, and you read the sign before the dog came into view. This is normal. The question is how you react.
Do you jump over the fence and start fighting the hound, or do you keep walking?
How many of you reading this thought the first option sounded reasonable? Not many, I wager.
You are safe as you are behind the fence, and you are aware that there is nearby danger if you go over that fence. The intent of the dog, which is to protect its territory, is easy to read – there was sign telling you about it! However, the dog doesn’t know what your intent is.
Most of us would shrug and, understanding the intent of the dog as well as our own intent to enjoy a leisurely walk rather than get bitten, continue walking.
In much the same way, confidence and intent are connected. Your ability to defend yourself and de-escalate is the fence. If you are safe behind your fence and don’t panic, you would clearly see the sign and walk away. If you still decide to jump the fence, you deserve what you get.
But here is perhaps the most important point:
How many of you thought ‘how dare that dog bark at me?! I’ll teach it a lesson!’. If you did, then your ego is getting the better of you, and you are probably unable to mask intent at all because your confidence in yourself and your abilities – your fence – is not strong enough. Your focus has shifted from reading the intent of the dog from a safe place, to imposing your own, which is to bolster your ego in the absence of real confidence.
In much the same way, when dealing with conflict, I immediately imagine myself behind a tall fence (interestingly enough, a ‘fence’ is also a term for s defensive posture a-la Geoff Thompson). I remind myself that the dog is behind the fence. When that happens my focus shifts to reading the sign - i.e. intent – instead of worrying about the dog. At the same time, I am able to focus on keeping my own intent masked or revealed as necessary.
And my intent is to keep enjoying my leisurely walks, unafraid of barking dogs, detached from ego whenever possible, and focused more on smelling the flowers then the dog poop. I hope yours is too.
Hence, ‘woof woof’.
Stay safe, stay tuned.