“Responding to aggression — Part 1,” by Tom Collings


“Proactive aggressors are strengthened by their control of space and time. They count on choosing the time and place, and rely on their prey reacting too late.”

For most of my adult life I have worked in law enforcement, in psychiatric hospitals or youth residential facilities, jobs with the common thread of working with desperate people who are prone to violence. There are excellent violence management systems available which provide practical training in both de-escalating potentially violent situations and physical interventions if required.

Three major training organizations are CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute), NAPPI (Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention), and TCI (Therapeutic Crisis Intervention.) I have found all three training programs fit well into the mindset of Budo as presented by Aikido founder Ueshiba in their concern for the welfare of the individual posing a threat as well as ourselves and co-workers. These training programs are open to anyone working in law enforcement, health care or education, and they effectively expand our martial skills for broader application outside of the dojo.

In the Cornell University Therapeutic Crisis Intervention System (TCI), aggressive behavior is differentiated into 2 distinct types, each having different dynamics and requiring very different responses. The first type of aggressive behavior is “Reactive Aggression” which is characterized by high emotion charge, loss of mental and physical control, and little or no motive other than the discharge of anger. This is the psychotic psych patient, the driver filled with road rage, the mean drunk, or anyone whose emotional charge overwhelms their ability to cope in a non-violent way. The target of this rage is anyone nearby. This behavior erupts like a volcano, there is little or no conscious choice to act or not act.

The second type of aggression is referred to as “Proactive Aggression” characterized by little or no emotion, a specific motive, and a moderate to high degree of mental and physical control. This is the bully using violence or the threat of violence to intimidate, or the predator practiced in violent assault. The target of proactive aggression is chosen carefully, as well as the time and place. If the victim shows signs of being a “hard target,” the violence is usually aborted or directed elsewhere.

Both types of aggressiveness are potentially violent situations but whether violence actually occurs in a volatile situation is influenced by our actions. Our response can minimize or increase the likelihood of violence. Violence does not occur in isolation, it is an INTERACTIONAL PROCESS.

The best response to the emotionally charged reactive individual is to remain calm and stable. O’Sensei symbolized this attitude with the square, the qualities of EARTH. The rage of the emotionally charged individual can often be de-escalated with an attitude of empathy, a calm presence and giving the individual space and time to ventilate long and loud. The most powerful and successful violence control tool I have found is LISTENING. This does not sound like much, but being a very good listener is difficult, it means – not interrupting, not arguing, and not lecturing. Skillful listening means shutting up and focusing on being calm OURSELVES, and not throwing gas on the fire by using the common but unhelpful phrase “calm down,” which trivializes the intensity of the hurt.

Rather than attempting to quiet angry people down, I actually do the opposite -– I encourage them to release their rage verbally, to ventilate long and loud. This allows for the same discharge of energy as violence but without the danger or damage. The settled back “non-action” of listening well draws heavily on the Earth element within us, that quiet place that allows us to be with all the sound and fury, without the compulsion to “do” anything about it. My friend Terry Dobson used to say that “sometimes doing nothing is a very powerful response.”

In cases where the reactive individual’s rage overwhelms their capacity to control we must be prepared to respond physically. The aroused individual tends to telegraph violent intension, and since we have given this person lots of personal SPACE to reduce stimulation we have TIME to react. The reactive attackers have lost control of themselves mentally, so when their violence explodes they have a lot of energy but very little physical control; their balance is poor and is easily compromised. Non-resistance, symbolized by WATER, works very well to unbalance these individuals. O’Sensei speaks of “BECOMING WATER” which is soft, receptive, and does not offer a struggling person the resistant stability they need to avoid falling. Aikido as it is commonly practiced is good training for this type of violence since the emphasis is on soft non-resistant blending.

The proactive aggression of the bully or predator has an entirely different dynamic requiring a proactive response. The passive nature of modern aikido does not prepare us for this. O’Sensei often described FIRE as an essential element of his Aiki which brings energy -– focus -– intensity to our actions, but this is rejected in most aikido practice where moving during or after the attack is the norm. Both meaningful atemi and kiai, so prominent in the Founders practice is conspicuously absent from most aikido today. But FIRE does not have to be destructive, and does not necessarily mean hard, it is the element of ASSERTIVE EARLY RESPONSE.

As the predators begin their approach, FIRE within us blasts a forceful “Stay Back” command accompanied a gesture, tone of voice, physical demeanor and eye contact with the crystal clear message ‘YOU ARE WARNED.” This is the energetic “moat” the Founder described. The message carries important information FOR THE PREDATOR: this prey is aware there is danger (regardless of my deceptive words); this prey knows my intentions (from far away); this prey may be a hard target, why not wait a few minutes and choose an easier target (to get close to.) Used judiciously and with good timing, the FIRE element within us can make a bully or predator back down. This is not mere theory. On more than one occasion, I have stopped criminals in their tracks who were stronger and tougher than me. I believe on a least one occasion, it saved me from the agony of shooting someone.

Proactive aggressors are strengthened by their control of space and time. They count on choosing the time and place, and they rely on their prey reacting too late. They use verbal deception, distraction and momentary confusion to get close enough to launch their practiced attack with or without a weapon. Once they have closed the distance (amazingly easy to do with most people), NO ONE CAN REACT IN TIME. This is where magical thinking permeates all martial arts. “If I develop really good technique I will be able to at the last minute successfully. This thought process is so pervasive and accepted it is almost a universal martial arts myth, reinforced by the subtle choreography of flawless martial arts demonstrations.

Modern police training helps officers understand that once they have allowed an aggressive individual to get close to them reaction time is rarely sufficient to defend themselves either with a weapon or hand to hand. This is why 50% of officers killed are killed WITH THEIR OWN GUN. Modern research based police training now teaches officers they need 21 feet of space to successfully react to a sudden knife attack. Yet many of my martial arts friends still believe they can wait (and wait and wait) until the intent and attack is clear before they act. .

FIRE, while not necessarily hard, is EXPLOSIVE AND UNEXPECTED. If the response to our powerful warning does not result in immediate stopping of the approach (regardless of cunning verbal reply), we ACT. This may be a strike, a deceptive movement, a distraction followed by throw or pin, deployment of a weapon, calling loudly for help, or running away. More important than WHAT the act is, is the timing of the act. By moving FIRST you now PLACE THE AGGRESSOR AT THE DISADVANTAGE OF HAVING TO REACT TO YOU. The intended VICTIM IS NOW CHOOSING the exact place and moment of the physical interaction, it is now the aggressor who is “behind the eight ball.”.

Most of my forty years of aikido were spent on the mat passively waiting to be grabbed, or waiting as my training partner came up to me to strike. They of course grabbed or struck in the prescribed manner, so it was easy to maintain the illusion I had “reacted” successfully. Even in Japan, I found only two dojo where moving first to set up the technique (set up the uke for the technique) was practiced by the defender. These were exceptional dojos where kiai and dynamic atemi of aiki budo was still the heart of aiki training.

There is now enough documentation of O-Sensei’s many talks and admonitions to know – except for preliminary exercises (kihon dosa), he did not believe in waiting, he believed in taking control EARLY AND ASSERTIVELY. His direct students have said many times that O-Sensei looked passive because his initiating actions were so subtle they had not realized he was moving. It looked like he was reacting to them, but this was an illusion. One of my teachers, Kazuo Chiba, recalled Ueshiba saying “it is not Budo if you begin your movement only after the strike (attack) is in motion.”

We can remain in our comfort zone or take O-Sensei seriously when he urges us to practice TAKEMUSU AIKI – the willingness to embody whichever element the situation demands:
EARTH– WATER – FIRE My training in recent years has entered new and strange territory. In addition to static and fluid blending exercises, I now practice setting up my techniques by NOT WAITING FOR THE GRAB/NOT WAITING FOR THE STRIKE – BUT MOVING FIRST to set up the technique. This practice is difficult, it is less predictable. Less predictable means more dangerous, therefore, the speed of practice must be carefully adjusted to each partner’s ability.

I am describing “research based” practice rather than our usual artistic based (embu) practice. My practice no longer looks as graceful and artistic as my old choreographed aiki practice. There is no future for me on Youtube. But daily training after 40 years is more exciting than ever before — like beginning again, at the next level. It is playing with space and time and playing with uke’s (the attackers) reactions. I think O-Sensei called this practice “cultivation of attraction.”

We can prevent violence and respond skillfully if violence is inevitable, but we must have spontaneous uninhibited access to all that is within us, the full range of our human response. TAKEMUSU AIKI is not just a philosophy to be read and discussed, it is OUR PRACTICE and if practiced, will not fail us.

Click here to read Part 2 of this series


  1. Very thought-provoking. My dojo business partner is a long-term Aikidoka and police officer. His experiences confirm and reinforce everything you have said. I will be sure to pass this essay on to our students. Thanks for taking the time to craft it.

  2. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and it was also based on your vast knowledge and experience. I thank you for sharing.

  3. 21 feet seems a pretty good rule of thumb. The question is what to do at that range. My experience suggests that irimi works. Yes, the attacker thinks he is in command of space and time, but irimi unbalances time. I could go on, but it would be more productive for anybody interested to practice randori and consider Musashi’s teaching on timing. The “hajime” moment is when the suspect enters the relevant distance.

  4. I’ve been waiting for an article of this caliber to emerge for quite a while. This is the best information to come from a true Aikidoka for quite some time and remarkably it’s free of charge. This is the knowledge and street wisdom of one who has been there and survived. Thank you ever so much Tom. I sincerely hope people are reading and taking note.

  5. Brilliant brilliant brilliant.

    At last no BS. It’s like a breeze of fresh air.

  6. Pierre Ghassibi, md says:

    Very very true. Beautiful article. I am keeping it for reference and teaching.

  7. Dennis Chua says:

    Very nice article! I am also at a new beginning… After years of training , I have discovered that there’s so much more to learn.. Actually so much to unlearn and relearn. I think it’s a difficult task but I welcome the challenge. The realization of being able to do the techniques ‘properly ‘ is mind blowing! Sad to say so many fellow aikidokas don’t and won’t realize this big difference! Sigh. KIAI!

  8. Thank you to Dennis and the other gentlemen who took time to respond to my article. For all who have interest in aikido as a practical tool for responding to aggression – I have expanded this series of articles into a book titled “Searching for O’Sensei – Learning and Living the Wisdom of the Warrior.” It should be available in the next month or two. Warmly, Tom

  9. Pablo Arnaud says:

    Very good essay. I am very happy I read it. I am starting in Aikido now and many people say to me that this is not a real martial art and that it won’t be of any help if I face a dangerous situation. Nonetheless, I reckon from your article tha Aikido is effective!!!!!!
    I’m so very happy i read it. Thanks for writing. Greetings from Brasil!

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