Staying Aware: 5 Warning Signs Preceding an Assault


Working as a security or law enforcement professional, you face an increased chance of interacting with people who will try to do you bodily harm. There are a number of signs to look for when dealing with a suspect or patron that may indicate an physical assault is imminent. While these signs are especially helpful for those of us in the security & law enforcement fields, they also pertain to anyone who regularly deals with the public, and especially for men who frequent bars, pubs and concerts, since the majority of assaults on men involve alcohol.

Last week I wrote an article on The Importance of Instincts in Threat Assessment. Today I’m going to further explore some of the signs you can use to spot a potentially assaultive situation before it occurs. So when the hair goes up on the back of your neck, here are a few of the warning signs to look for that someone may get assaultive. Keep in mind that most of these on their own don’t mean someone is going to attack you, but a combination of these factors can be a strong indicator of an imminent attack.

1. Crossing Your Boundaries

Someone gets inside of your personal space, perhaps lays an hand on you, or an arm around your neck. While in the context of a loud bar or music show, it’s natural for someone to get close in order to be heard, the usual behaviour is for people to lean in close. If they step into your space, put an arm around your neck, or grab your arm and pull you into their space, they may have aggressive intentions.

2. Isolating You

This is pertinent for both physical assaults on men, or sexual assaults on women. Attackers will often try to separate you from your group. This can take the form of entering your space to talk to you, forcing you to step back, away from your friends, or the attacker may intersperse themselves between security guards slowly talking someone into a corner. In the example of security guards, they may approach the lone guard at a door, or the guy at the end of the barricade at the concert, someone who can’t easily receive backup.

3. Intoxicated or Under the Influence

Ignoring mental illnesses, someone who consumes alcohol is more likely to become aggressive and assaultive than someone who is sober. Verbal de-escalation tactics that often work on a sober individual can sometimes frustrate and aggravate a drunk person. If someone near you is consuming a large amount of alcohol, it’s good to keep aware, as aggressive behaviour can follow. When it comes to drugs, people can have negative reactions, “tweak” or freak out pretty unexpectedly. It’s harder to see something like that coming, so context is important. If you’re at an event where drugs are likely present, or if you see someone passing pills, etc around, then there’s a potential for unexpected behaviour.

4. Verbal Cues

Not everyone who talks aggressively will get aggressive. There’s a reason there’s a saying “his bark is worse than his bite.” That certainly doesn’t mean you should ignore what someone is saying to you. If someone says, I’m going to mess you up, then listen and act accordingly. Likewise, if someone is talking a mile a minute, and just stops talking, that’s a sign as well. For security professionals this is especially important. People generally can’t talk and do at the same time. If someone suddenly stops talking, it’s because they’re thinking of doing something, like throw a punch, or running away.

The other verbal cue is a sudden change in “mood.” If they go from threatening to punch you in the face to apologizing and saying “put ‘er there man,” in a matter of seconds, it’s likely they’re trying to put you off guard. It generally takes a couple of minutes to talk an aggressive person down, and you should see a gradual shift in their mood. A sudden change is often a prelude to a sucker punch.

5. Body Language

I think everyone’s heard that the majority of communication is non-verbal. Clenched fists, puffed chests, chin out, dropping into a stance, or pulling up to their full height are all signs someone is preparing for a physical confrontation. The eyes can also be a good sign, as people may avoid making eye contact, or try to pierce you with a glare. You should also be mindful of hands that disappear behind the back or reaching for pockets or the waistband as they may be reaching for a weapon. For the most part, your instincts will pick up on an aggressive stance, so if you feel uneasy about someone but can’t explain it, it’s probably something non-verbal you’re picking up.

So, should you be walking around with this list in your pocket and taking stock of everyone’s behaviour? No. It’s all about context. As a security professional, I regularly work around people who are consuming alcohol and potentially drugs, and when I’m in that environment my awareness is obviously quite high. But I routinely have people grab my arm and pull me in close to get my attention in a loud bar because their friend needs medical attention, or come up to me while I’m alone, because they need directions to the bathroom. But if someone I don’t know walks up to me and without any other warning signs says they’re going to punch me in the face, I don’t assume it’s a joke.

So regardless of whether you’re on the job, out for a post work drink with friends, or just taking the bus home, listen to your instincts, and if you notice these warning signs, then take action to keep yourself safe. Awareness and self-protection are a balancing act. You don’t need to walk around in fear, just keep in mind your context and environment.

Have any stories where the warning signs got you out of trouble? Please share them in the comments.


Comments (4)

4 thoughts on “Staying Aware: 5 Warning Signs Preceding an Assault

  1. Interesting article Chris, thanks. Being able to read a potential attacker’s intentions is indeed a valuable skill and at least as important as knowing physical techniques and defences. Obviously it’s important to stay away from someone who might take a swing at you but I do have one question: what would you do if someone kept coming up to you (invading your personal space) without showing overt signs of aggression (verbal or physical) and you couldn’t back away. Would you take to the offensive or not? My concern here is that if I started fighting in that situation (obviously there’s a very real danger of getting suckerpunched or, god forbid, stabbed) it might be difficult to prove afterwards you weren’t the attacker and you might run afoul with the law eventhough you didn’t do anything wrong per se.

    1. Zara,

      That in itself is almost a blog article. I can’t give legal advice as I am not a lawyer, but in Canada, pre-emptively striking someone is acceptable for the purposes of self-defense if you can articulate why you needed to strike, and that you felt in danger, and it was the only practical option. If it’s a salesman at your door, you obviously are better off shutting the door. But if it’s some drunk guy who’s cornered you at a bus shelter on your way home from work, and he’s mentioned how you’d look better with a broken nose, then hitting him first might be the best option. A big part is verbalizing your unwillingness to engage in an altercation. As for actual non-use of force options, I’ll see about covering that in a future article.

      1. Thanks for the answer. I am studying law (first bachelor year) but since I haven’t had a course on criminal law yet I don’t really know the position of the Belgian legal system on it. I do know the law doesn’t explicitly state you can pre-empt an attack or what constitutes an attack in general (obviously you’d have look for jurisprudence on this subject but I’m swamped enough as it is) but common sense would suggest you don’t let anyone come close enough to bypass your defenses and it’s a well known fact that people who commonly engage in violence will want to overwhelm you and get the first hit in by catching you unaware. What I do teach our students is to always take up a defensive position (i.e resembling a boxer’s stance but with open hands), retreat if possible and state loud and clear they don’t want any trouble: that way you’ll have potential witnesses on your side should you have to defend yourself. I suppose it’d be clear to a judge you weren’t the offending party if he kept coming at you and you retreated and voiced your objections: it makes no sense to wait untill he actually throws the first punch if you know that’s his intention anyway. I’d rather have to explain my position to a judge than end up with broken teeth or worse because I did nothing fearing it might land me in hot water with the law. Obviously being an upstanding citizen with no criminal record will help a great deal should it come to a possible courtcase.

        1. Zara,

          What you tell your students sounds very much like what we tell our students. Our law doesn’t explicitly state you can punch first (as far as I know), but does indicate you can legally defend yourself, and pre-emptive strikes are acceptable as part of that. I think the key concept is that once the situation is under control, whether that be the attacker is down and unable to continue his attack, or you’re in a position to escape, you don’t continue your defense unnecessarily. Use as much force as is necessary to stop the attack. Stomping on his head once he’s unconscious is no longer self-defense. 🙂

          Sounds like you have a solid grasp, and that Belgium is similar to Canada in this regard.

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