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How to Stay Safe in the Physical World and Defend Yourself in Public


As humans who live in societies with other humans, we have to be aware of the fact that someone else might try to hurt us. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid of everyone; it just means that you should learn how to be more aware. You should also know how to defend yourself if it comes to that.

Most of the content we share on is geared toward online safety. But you don’t want to neglect your personal safety in the physical world too. We’re sharing some tips about how to protect yourself in public places that we learned from Tim Larkin, a recent guest on the Easy Prey podcast, which is hosted by’s founder Chris Parker.

Tim is the founder of Target Focus Training. Over the last 20 years, Tim has trained law enforcement, Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, the US Border Patrol, and corporate clients from around the world. On the podcast, Tim talked with Chris about how important it is to stay aware of your surroundings, how to think like a predator, and why smartphones are the biggest threat to safety.

Here are some ways to stay safe and avoid exposing your vulnerabilities.

Personal safety is proactive

One of the points Tim stresses is that learning to defend yourself is better when done proactively. If you don’t think about your personal physical safety until after you’ve experienced a violent altercation, it’s too late. Tim estimates that 70% of his clients are people that come to him after having an incident, and the other 30% are the proactive ones.

Be like those 30% and consider what kind of training you might need to defend yourself before something bad happens.

You don’t need to be a Navy SEAL to protect yourself

Some people might put off getting self-defense training because they think it’s too involved or that it takes years to become proficient enough. The reality is that you don’t need Navy SEAL training to minimize your risk of experiencing violence. Knowing how to inflict damage on someone else when you’re in a dire situation is part of it, but having an attitude shift and taking fewer risks makes a huge difference too.

Don’t be too distracted by your phone

While it’s true some tech can save your life, having your nose buried in your phone can also pose a risk to your safety. When you’re looking at your phone with your headphones on in a public place, like a bus or a subway, you make yourself a target. You’ve effectively blocked out two important sensory systems in your body that can help alert you to danger. And predators know to look for people who are distracted by their phones.

Dividing your attention and depriving you of sensory input isn’t the only way a smartphone can endanger your life. Tim points out how much value we place on our phones and how sometimes, when it comes down to it, our instinct is to protect our phones rather than our bodies.

Tim often uses an example of an armed bus robbery in Seattle. A man with a gun is walking through the bus and nobody notices because they’re all looking at their phones, with headphones on. When a man finally has the robber’s gun inches away from his face, he snaps into action. Does he brandish his smartphone as a weapon against the robber? No. He stuffs it into his pocket so it doesn’t get damaged. You can watch the video of the robbery with Tim’s narration here.

Go running with only one earbud in

When you’re out for a run you usually don’t have many items with you, but you almost certainly have your smartphone so you can listen to music or call someone for help if you get hurt or lost. If you do like to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while running, only keep one earbud in. That way, you still have one ear free to detect suspicious sounds, such as footsteps coming up behind you.

Learn how to identify predators when you’re out and about

Tim’s advice for picking out people who might do you harm is: You never really know who can hurt you. Many predators are physically average, and have no distinguishing attributes that you can point to and say, “That person is most likely a predator.”

So if you can never be sure who wants to harm you, what should you do?

You can do what Tim does, and stay on alert with every new person you interact with. Pretend like all it takes is one flippant comment to set someone off and make them violent. This mindset will force you to be always polite, respectful, and most importantly, aware.

Study human behavior

It’s not easy to know when you should behave a certain way or if something you say or do could cause a person to get violent. One example from Tim’s and Chris’s conversation on the podcast is whether to make eye contact with a homeless person you pass on the street. Meeting their eye could be seen as confrontational, but avoiding eye contact could be construed as ignoring them and therefore also confrontational.

Another example that’s more common with women is how to interact with a man who’s making advances that you’re not interested in. If you politely tell him no, your courtesy could be taken as interest or encouragement to keep pursuing you because you’re “playing hard to get.” If you assertively or aggressively tell him no, he could get angry and become violent.

Both of these examples feel like no-win situations. How should you know the “right” thing to say or do so as not to provoke a violent reaction in someone else? Tim’s answer is to learn about human behavior.

He suggests reading The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene. The book covers human interaction and will make you rethink how you relate to other people. Studying the ways people behave will help you be able to read cues and recognize when others try to manipulate you. As Tim puts it,

“We all have these nonverbal ways our bodies try to warn us, that we ignore.” When you’re more in tune with human behavior and reactions, you’ll be able to feel when something is off.

Recognize when your own body sends you danger signs

People often ignore feelings like hair standing up on the back of their necks or queasiness in their guts when they’re in a social situation. Even if they have a bad feeling about someone, they don’t want to risk embarrassment or seeming socially awkward, so they ignore the bad feeling they’re getting.

Tim tells his clients to always risk embarrassment. You’d rather feel awkward for a few seconds than to get into a violent encounter, right? If someone you don’t know steps onto an elevator with you and you don’t feel right, for example, get off the elevator. Don’t stay in a potentially dangerous situation just because you don’t want to seem rude.

Know when it’s ok to use violence to defend yourself

Tim considers violence a tool that everyone should know not only how to use but also when to use. You should only choose violence when you’re devoid of all other choices and you feel a credible threat that you cannot disengage from. If someone insults you and bruises your ego, that’s not a time to use violence. If you feel like a situation can be decompressed with communication, that’s not a time to use violence either.

It’s only when the environment becomes “asocial” that you should consider violence. For Tim, an asocial environment is simply one that lacks communication. When it gets asocial, the other person is not using words and resorting to violence. Only when you realize that words cannot help you should use the tool of violence.

How to know when to use violence: 3 scenarios

When teaching his clients about when to use violence, Tim sets up three scenarios:

  1. You’re in a Whole Foods parking lot waiting for a parking space to free up and just as the car you’re waiting for pulls out, someone driving a Tesla pulls into the spot. 
  2. You’re in a bar and a stranger walks past you and says, “You’re too fat to wear skinny jeans.”
  3. You’re on an elementary school campus and there’s an active shooter who’s already shot several people. You’ve managed to knock your kid to the ground so they are safe, when you see the shooter reloading their magazine not far from you.

You should not use the tool of violence in the first two scenarios. It wouldn’t be justified and you would probably end up getting arrested. In the third scenario, however, you would most likely be justified in using violence against the active shooter. Knowing the context is extremely important.

Staying safe in public

Watching out for your safety is vital in both the physical and online worlds. It takes vastly different techniques to protect yourself in each of these domains, and it pays to know them. For more information about personal cybersecurity and staying safe online, browse our many articles on the subject. Some good ones to start with are:

To learn more about safety in the physical world, you can read Tim Larkin’s book, When Violence Is the Answer or visit his website.

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