12 min read
22 Jul

 They tend to see violence as a legitimate tool for achieving goals that are important to them, including complete control over their partners. They tend to see relationships as systems based on interests, which is why they are always on guard due to the lack of trust in their partner. At the base of these men’s motivation is the need to create control over their partner at any given moment, and vengeance is a key tool in achieving this goal. 

Dr. Yair Apter 

But it's your turn to talk
for once I'm listening

Jacob Banks - Unknown (To You)     


Something that you read in this article may save your life, or the life of another. It may prevent or minimize a violent domestic event. It is however crucially important that you understand and heed the limitations of the strategies and techniques discussed here, so please ensure that you carefully read and consider this introduction.    

The national disgrace that is the South African gender based violence experience is documented well-enough, and discussed in the media, seminars and various information campaigns sufficiently in order for us not to need pause here in reflecting on the size and scope of the problem. The statistics, such as they are, are easily obtainable. This article will not deal with that aspect of our GBV problem, as the existence and range of the problem is assumed. In recent years some practical and academic work has been done on the causes and triggers of these domestic violence events. Causes such as unresolved trauma, unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, violence as perceived solution for diminishing influence and a series of other causes have been accurately identified, and will not be focused on here, other than a brief reference to conflict assessment later on. 

Gender based violence affects victims of all genders. This article is however designed to be of possible assistance in last line of defence situations, where no immediate alternatives exist, and in those scenarios it is undeniably women who bear the brunt of these events. In focusing on strategies specifically designed for the benefit of women here this is purely a practical consideration, and no slight is intended against the GBV events suffered by men or children. Gender based violence assumes many different forms, including emotional, verbal, economic forms of violence. These are all correctly assessed and dealt with as forms of violence. 

This article will however focus specifically on instances where physical violence has occurred or is threatened or imminent. Again, this is not to imply that other forms of gender based violence is of a lesser nature. Gender based violence events can be extremely volatile and violent, often ending in fatal attacks. The perpetrators are often irrational as a result of one or more factors, such as alcohol, drugs, mental health difficulties or emotional distress. The rules of our more normal conflicts and rationality change or are not applicable, and in a perfect world only law enforcement officials or conflict professionals trained and experienced in these situations would need to participate in such events. Where at all possible, leave the area where such a violent event has occurred, or may (again)occur, call for the assistance of law enforcement or security officials to assist you and those in your care. Where appropriate, make full use of remedies provided by law enforcement and the justice system. 

The strategies and techniques discussed in this article require a measure of skill and experience, and should only be used as an absolute last resort, where no other alternative such as discussed above proves to be available. Please bear in mind that as these events deal with the irrational, such techniques and strategies are by no means guaranteed to succeed, as they are designed simply to improve the odds of dealing with violence or its escalation. 

A note on the proper response to GBV 

Ongoing and pervasive media treatment of the BV scourge has, quite appropriately, increased the level of public disgust and rejection of GBV. The failures of law enforcement and the justice system to adequately protect those vulnerable to these events have similarly been given high media focus, and the urgent need for reforms and better application and implementation of existing laws and measures speak for themselves. The narrative in the popular arena would, quite understandably, have the perpetrators of GBV be dealt with in the harshest possible way. 

With that approach in mind, some of the strategies discussed here may appear to be unduly forgiving of or gentle toward such perpetrators. The easiest way to understand this important distinction is to remind ourselves that there is a vast and practical difference in a debate as to how GBV should be opposed and sanctioned, on the one hand, and how the victim of such GBV should approach such a threat late on a Saturday night, on the other hand. General conflict considerations, such as standing your ground, not avoiding difficult conflict areas and facing up to difficult topics may therefore be completely inappropriate and dangerous in an actual or potential GBV scenario. As such, relevant strategies and techniques discussed here should be seen in such context as survival mechanisms, and not as long term sustainable conflict considerations. What may be a good and necessary approach for a personal relationship may be harmful advice in such a GBV event.    

GBV survival strategies and techniques 

Bearing in mind then the above caveats, and understanding that with GBV the best strategy to win the fight is not to be there in the first place, let us look at a few strategies and techniques that may be of practical value to someone trapped in such a GBV event where no alternatives exist at that moment. 

  • Understand the buttons and levers

 The quicker and the more accurately you can identify the causes and triggers of an emotional or violent outburst or threat, the better your chances of successfully getting through the event will be. This is not a psychological session, and should be done in as calm and non-judgmental a manner as possible. Do not express your assessment verbally, as this may cause further aggravation or confusion, but simply work with what you know. Example: do not say “James, you are drunk again”, but simply see the conflict cause and respond to it as best you can. Learn to understand how conflict triggers work – a seemingly banal discussion about the amount spent on a six-pack of beer may trigger insecurities and feelings of guilt about unemployment, abilities and failure. Violence does not begin when someone is hit, it starts earlier. Find that place where it starts.    

  • Empower, if need be ostensibly relinquish apparent control

 Anger and violence often escalate not because of the merits of what is being argued about, but because of a growing (and often unacknowledged) sense of powerlessness and even helplessness in the would be perpetrator of GBV. A cumulative sense of losing control, of not being heard, of not “being a man” can have extremely adverse emotional consequences, especially in a patriarchal society. Further reminders and arguments as to this powerlessness can easily trigger violent expressions, as violence is often perceived as a valid, visible means of regaining that control. Such an expectation of dominance or control in a mature and loving relationship is of course unwarranted, and should be confronted and dealt with without much credence given to such expectations, but in a potentially violent and escalating conflict environment a semblance of control being acknowledged or even restored may de-escalate the situation to manageable dimensions, and to afford the parties to consider the position under calmer circumstances. Here this semblance of control in favour of the aggressor should be established without making concessions that can be used against the victim later on, or that may lead to future accusations of broken promises or dishonest behaviour, but in a real, tangible way that can be sensed and experienced there and then, without too much intellectual effort and even by someone who may be under the influence of alcohol, drugs, mental health challenges or strong emotions. 

This technique, often referred to as “lining up”, simply aligns your words and actions with the words used by the aggressor, giving him a sense of being heard and understood, of possibilities, of potential and the outcome of problems being solved. Remember that much of this seems counter-intuitive and as molly-coddling the perpetrator. The rights and wrongs of a healthy, long-term relationship however are of secondary importance in these violent, or potentially violent, situations, and we are dealing with de-escalation strategies, not relationship best practices.  Example: do not say “You are right, I am a bad wife and mother” or “I agree, I will stop spending so much time with my friends”, but say something like “You have given me much to think about my role as mother, I would like to think about this. Can we discuss this when I have done so?” or “I have never thought about this like you have expressed yourself right now. I want to make sure that I understand your position correctly. Can we talk about this some more on the weekend?” Try not to interrupt his sentences (leading to a perceived loss of control, not being heard). Try to find, and not cross, the line between restoring or sharing control on the one hand and signalling unconditional weakness on the other. The latter may trigger its own violent behaviour. Relinquishing control temporarily should not erase you as a person, one with dignity and rights.     

  • Tone of voice and non-verbal behaviour

 Actual violent GBV events or videographed studies show the marked and significant effect of nonverbal behaviour on the escalation and outcomes of GBV conflict events. These outcomes often hinge on a critical few seconds where a potential victim quite understandably raises her own voice, loses her own temper, returns an insult or does something even more viscerally significant at that stage, such as raising her hands, standing up quickly or making a gesture that is perceived as an insult (such as an eye-roll, tongue click, dismissive sneer etc.). Try to slow down your movements and speech, pause between sentences, break down escalation events with everyday neutral occurrences such as making coffee, where possible use an even, calm tone of voice (see examples of physical situations below). Do not use patronizing or challenging tones or nonverbal behaviour in these events. Escalating conflict events, regardless of their causes, and regardless of any other chemical substances that may be present in the aggressor’s system, also dump (in the space of a few seconds) a cocktail of chemicals into the participants’ nervous system, so meeting such behaviour shout for shout, insult for insult quickly reaches a point of no return even just on a chemical level, and this escalation can be controlled and steered with some understanding and experience. 

Again, a mostly counter-intuitive strategy, and a reminder that we are not dealing with the best strategy for the relationship in the long run, but what may be immediate survival. Anger and aggression returned cause a feedback loop of emotions and neurochemicals that become unmanageable for many people, all within seconds. Your tone of voice, where possible, should use a firm, low pitch. Do not try to be overly sweet or condescending. Use a commanding voice only when you are on the edge of escalation into violence. 

  •   Notice the difference between anger and rage

 Conflict management studies distinguish between anger (a static or escalating experience) where a person still has a measure of control over events, their decision making processes, conduct inhibitors and where they understand and care about the consequences of their behaviour. This can escalate to rage, where such inhibitors are no longer relevant or operative, where the person may not physically hear what you are saying, or care about consequences, and where they may be more interested in destruction than anything else. Rage is a state where rationality is either a hindrance or an irrelevance, and where your first priority must be the survival and defence of yourself and those in your care. Working towards de-escalating conflict events not to reach that rage level now becomes of practical value and importance.  Fear when facing rage is quite an appropriate reaction, and it will be helpful if you can teach yourself that the one emotion (fear) need not lead to another (helplessness). The first emotion is a reaction, the second a conclusion.    

  • De-escalate, and then solve problems

 It is tempting to stop escalating violent behaviour with solutions and answers on the spot. This is understandable, but is wiser to seek de-escalation and then, at a calmer moment, start problem solving with that person. This can be achieved through positive, constructive, respectful exchanges of ideas and indications that you will work with that person towards resolution.    

  • Mindful watching, presence and monitoring

 A difficult ask, but try to stay with the moment as it develops around you. Try not to be drawn into emotions and escalating insults. The benefit of this is that you remain in as good a position as possible to see and assess your options as they develop and change, new threats, escalations, solutions. A relatively calm presence can actually influence and halt escalation of violence. This calmness is not dismissive or judgmental, it is not challenging or threatening.  If there are more than just the two of you in the conflict event, try to let the aggressor speak to only one person, as this further calms down the sense of losing control they may be experiencing. Try to calm down and control your breathing, and while remaining alert to any physical danger your body posture should be one of non-threatening respect and general listening, receptiveness. Mirror the behaviour that you want the aggressor to exhibit – a calm discussion, non-threatening body positioning, respectful listening. 

  • Physical confrontation and de-escalation

 Most GBV events occur around the border where anger becomes rage. When these events cannot be avoided or remedied in other, safer options and when you are absolutely forced to momentarily endure such face to face potentially violent physical environments, the following physical techniques may assist you, or improve your probabilities of de-escalation and survival. Remember that how you stand, your breathing, how you use eye contact, your gestures, tone of voice all can make a very real difference in these conflict outcomes. In this awful territory the “right words” may not be enough, and your physical conduct may be necessary to de-escalate the situation to manageable dimensions. Signals indicating your fear, irritation or unsettled reaction may make all the difference in these events. Accept that you cannot de-escalate these potentially violent events if you are overwhelmed by your own anger or fear, and that such responses simply often give the aggressor power. 

A few of these physical strategies and techniques would include the following teachable skills. Learn to breathe with your entire torso, not just shallow breathing high in your chest. This assists with a calmer presence, and it actually prevents your brain and neurochemicals from over-reacting to perceived danger. During these de-escalation events, learn to think practically as if danger and violence may actualize any second now. These are practical considerations such as whether you should be sitting or standing, whether you can manoeuvre so that there are items of furniture between you and the aggressor, whether you should be carrying what you are (dishes, a stack of books)in the event of violence erupting, where venues of escape from that area may be and so on, all done in a second or two, and without losing your calm presence. 

How and where you stand when dealing with an angry person is also important. The modern best practice suggested by conflict studies is an angled stance (often referred to as a “blade stance”), where you stand with one foot in front of the other, the back foot at a 45-degree angle, and with some space between your legs. In this angled stance your appearance is neither threatening or fearful, and it of course is a good position to be in should you in fact be attacked. It is also less threatening than the alternatives such as the feet apart, hands on hips, squarely facing options. Be alert to physically being too close to the angry person. People have different experiences of personal space, and proximity can be perceived as threatening, especially during these heightened conflict events. Angry people may not be able to accurately read your intentions, so during these events try to move slowly and smoothly. Gestures of frustration or fear that come across as sudden or jerky may appear threatening or suspicious to them. This is particularly so with your hand movements. Use the so-called “quiet hands” movements, minimizing hand gestures, limiting the raising of your hands or suspicious movements like reaching for something in your pocket and generally keeping your hands visible and moving slowly. A good posture here would be to clasp your hands in front of you (or gently hold the one wrist with the other hand) when speaking or listening to them. Be careful not to wave your hands around. 

Eye contact with the aggressor must, like with other parts of the physical considerations be both unthreatening and unthreatened. Glaring, looking around nervously, or challenging stares may increase escalation or lead to an attack by the aggressor who may feel threatened by such eye contact. Given that domestic violence situations are often little more than totalitarian dictatorships, eye contact during these events may be seen as provocative, and research shows that these aggressors deeply resent any sign of integrity (such as eye contact), so if your assessment is that this is the background of the conflict event then eye contact during escalation should be avoided or minimized.  Regardless of your assessment here, do not lose sight of them in totality, and always have at least a peripheral sense of where they are and what is happening in that area. 

  • The contents of your discussions

 During these de-escalation events, remember that honesty and open discussion still has a value. Do not lie or agree simply to keep the peace unless it is your last option. Remember that in these events the object is not to win, but to establish a situation from where peace or solutions can be achieved. Do not get sucked into argument frameworks of the aggressors making (“I am going to lose my job” or “We are all going to suffer because of what you have done”), as this creates a sense of crisis for you, and then you start reacting to those same triggers. Speak in simple terms, avoid overtly complex or convoluted discussions. 

Remember to, where appropriate, leave room for the aggressor to save face, to have an exit strategy for what may have been said earlier. Try to feel and convey sincere empathy with what they may be experiencing. This may be the first time that they feel the power of that empathy in their lives, and research and case studies across several disciplines clearly show how people who know that they are holding an unacceptable position are willing to step down once they feel that their position has been heard. Be careful not to be over empathetic, as this will probably cause more harm than good under stressful conditions. 

Teach yourself how to create legitimate doubt in the mind of the aggressor without arguing. Respectful questions asking about sources of information, thought processes and alternatives could de-escalate a conflict without anyone being declared a winner or loser. Example: “Who told you that I was having an affair”” or “Are there other reasonable conclusions that we can draw from those facts?” Speak to the best version of the aggressor. Without appearing fearful or condescending, remind them of something that they may value, such as their reputation as a fair person, or a good father, or an intelligent businessman. Work from that foundation to establish less aggressive points of discussion. Allow them time to clear the air, to get their views heard. Do not rise to every bait and insult. Listening does not mean agreeing. Use small agreements to create small senses of co-operation, of what is possible. Clarify in simple terms, with no argument. 

Ask them what they want you to do, ask them to explain what it is that upsets them. Take responsibility where you are wrong, and make this a sincere gesture. A heartfelt and sincere apology is a great domestic conflict de-escalator.          


In the years since my 2013 involvement with the national Stop Rape Campaign and its GBV developments very little has happened nationally to give me any realistic hope that as a nation we are making meaningful headway in fighting the scourge of gender based violence, and on some days it simply feels as if it is getting worse. During these years I have changed my ambitions of making a real difference in our national problem to simply helping as many individual GBV victims as possible, and it is from that perspective that this article is written. 

Nationally and internationally various programs designed to treat, minimize and eradicate domestic violence in its many shapes and definitions continue to show mixed results. Case and field studies, research and academic work continue to try and find improved results and strategies for this type of domestic conflict. Most of the positive results are found on an individual level, reminding us what is possible. Structural and macro-studies however continue to show very little progress, if at all.    No one wants to see you in a relationship where any of these strategies are necessary. GBV is an awful, cowardly crime and it deserves all of the public censure that we can bring to bear on it. If you can leave such an abusive relationship that would be a strong alternative, a solution that you should give much attention and consideration to. Where you can avoid these GBV incidents and domestic violence you should do so, where you can make effective use of the mechanisms provided by law enforcement and / or the justice system you should certainly do so. 

But hopefully these strategies will help a few victims who do not have these options at that moment. It is clear from our media reports and everyday life that an inordinate number of women are regularly on the receiving end of gender based violence. Where you can use these strategies to discreetly help or guide a friend who is a victim of such abuse that could also serve to strengthen the options available to the victims of GBV. 

I trust that the techniques we have so briefly discussed here remain nothing but words on a page in your life, nothing more than an interesting irrelevancy that happens to other people. But if not, if you find yourself in need of these skills then I wish you well, and I hope that these skills are of practical benefit for you.           

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information

July 2022

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