It was 23 years ago, but I remember every detail in vivid color.
A beautiful spring day…
A mild breeze carried the scent of freshly mowed lawns.
The sun was warm. Occasionally it hid behind clouds like a first-time parent playing peekaboo with a newborn.
I was doing my rounds at Hesed House, a large homeless shelter outside of Chicago.
The fight started like every other “peacock” fight: VERY loudly.
I ran over to the source of the noise:
- Jonathan was in his early 60’s. He was severely out of shape and overweight. Jonathan was harmless but had a nasty habit of criticizing others.
- Albert was in his early 20’s. He had just finished a two-year stint in prison, where he had—apparently—spent all his time lifting weights. Albert literally could not put his arms down because his trap muscles were so large.
There was a foot between the two of them and they were screaming obscenities in each other’s faces.
I ran up between them, wedging myself in the middle to create some space.
Even in my adrenaline-fueled state, I noticed that Albert was doing something weird with his right hand.
Why is his hand directly behind him, where I can’t see it?
Jonathan said something unkind about Albert’s mother. In response, Albert lunged towards Jonathan.
I put one hand on each of their chests to push them apart.
Albert knocked my hand away with the wrist of his right hand. Immediately I knew something was wrong.
Why did he knock my hand away with his wrist and not his hand?
I didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
Albert’s hand came back around and pointed directly at my face. Except he wasn’t using his finger to point.
Like in a movie, time slowed down, almost stopping.
Sun light reflected off a large knife in Albert’s hand.
The knife looked new. No dirt. No rust. (That isn’t actually relevant to anything—a dirty knife hurts just as bad as a clean one. For some reason I noticed it, though.)
Albert’s eyes were piercing into me.
His face contorted in anger.
Immediately, my physiology changed.
My vision narrowed to “tunnel vision.” I didn’t see much beyond the knife and a few feet on either side of it.
My heartrate sped up, providing extra blood to my muscles in case I needed to fight or flight.
Adrenaline flooded my bloodstream, providing an additional boost of energy and focus.
And more importantly, my brain changed.
My Amygdala (the part of the brain most responsible for fight or flight) took over.
My Prefrontal Cortex (where you think logically and calmly) shut down.
Staying calm in conflict
This is obviously a very extreme example of stress during a de-escalation situation.
If your job requires you to deal with the public, you have dealt with conflict. If you deal with conflict, you have probably had situations where you had trouble staying calm and managing your emotions (fear, anger, frustration, etc.).
I’ll share some practical tips in the next few weeks of this email newsletter. If you want to learn practical skills for staying calm during conflict, you should check out our next live training.
The end of the story
I remember trying to leave my hands up to hold the two men apart.
I tried to keep my torso back, though.
My “thought” was—I think—that a knife wound to the hand or forearm sucks, but a knife wound to the belly can be fatal.
I am sure I looked like an idiot with my hands up and my butt out. (Looking “cool” wasn’t on my mind at the moment!)
Sensing what was happening, a mob of 20-30 homeless men came running directly at us.
They made a large circle around the three of us and yelled angrily at Albert to put the knife away.
For some reason it worked (thank goodness!).
When the knife was back in Albert’s pocket, the angry mob broke into two:
- One half circled around Albert to keep him from leaving until the police could arrive.
- The other half circled around me to protect me from Albert.
With a few decades to reflect on this, I’ve often wondered how I would handle it now.
Honestly, I have absolutely no bloody idea.
By the way, nothing in this email is advice for how to handle a fight or a weapon. It is simply a retelling of how I handled a situation when I was 22 years old.