Verbal Commands: The only fight you can’t lose is the one you never have

The use of verbal commands to diffuse a threatening situation is not only smart, it might also save lives, legal fees and potentially spending years in prison. If you never need to use lethal force, then you’ll never have a lethal encounter that you can lose or win. And, you’ll never be criminally or civilally charged either. Even though we teach the Permit to Carry courses, we teach it from the viewpoint that shooting is a *last resort*. And we strongly emphasize that the permit to carry course is just the beginning of your education – you need to take the responsibility to learn how to safely handle your firearm, but you also need to push yourself to be mentally and physically prepared as well.

As part of your overall training, you’ll need to learn and train on how to use verbal commands to diffuse a potentially life-threatening situation. Merely knowing how to shoot a gun at a range – which is all most permit to carry people ever do for training – you’ll find is inadequate and ineffective to successfully getting through a life or death situation. Learning the proper verbal commands to diffuse a potentially threatening situation is a critical skills that must be practiced as part of your regular self-defense training regimen. According to Bill Lewinski, law enforcement psychology authority and director of the Force Science Research Center (FSRC) at Minnesota State University Mankato, “If integrated properly into a patterned, programmed package, an officer can talk, move and shoot effectively without conscious effort, but it takes training and practice.” We are no different. Given the tunnel vision and loss of auditory and fine motor skills during a life or death confrontation, you’ll need to multi-task at a time when your skills that support multi-tasking will likely fail you. So, you’ll fall back to doing what your training has taught you to do. If all your training is shooting at a range on a clear, sunny, warm day – you’ll probably end up dead or in jail. Part of being effective in a life-threatening situation is knowing what to say, when to say it and then, if necessary, when to stop talking and shoot.

The use of verbal commands is intended to put you in charge of the situation. When you are giving commands, the assailant is having to respond to you. Hence, you are more likely to survive and successfully navigate a potentially life-threatening situation by being in charge through the use of verbal commands.

Diffusing Commands to Stop Threatening Escalation

Sometimes, you’ll encounter an assailant who is not making life-threatening indications and you want to keep it that way. High stress commands (next section) are used when the escalation toward imminent death or bodily injury is rapidly evolving. Some encounters don’t evolve rapidly, and that’s when other types of verbal command can keep your encounter from escalating to the point where you have to use high-stress commands. All defensive tactics must involve both physical alternatives and verbalization skills. You can always disengage or escalate as the situation warrants.

The most effective application of words and physical control techniques progresses like this:

  • Initial verbalization should calm the subject and give them direction. Example: “Just relax and take it easy. You don’t need this type of trouble.”
  • Verbal direction accompanies physical intervention and combines an initial, loud verbal command; rapid, intense application of technique; and simultaneous verbal stunning. Example: “Stay back!”
  • Stabilization commands should follow verbal direction to assist in the maintenance of control. Example: “Get down on the ground!”

In all cases, you’ll get father with an assailant if you treat him with respect and speak in a calm but firm tone. Stay away from derogatory terms and the use of vulgar language. Even if the subject is not acting in a respectful manner, you’ll have a better chance of staying in charge and diffusing the situation if you use respect as opposed to disrespect.

High Stress Commands

Verbal commands during high-stress encounters is somewhat controversial. Randy Clifton, an internationally known Simunition Master Instructor, says, “If you are thinking about what you are going to say, it will slow down your trigger pull,” which could interfere with your survival. Therefore, once you make the decision to shoot, stop verbalizing.
The challenge with verbal skills is to develop and practice commands we can use universally. Research has found that during high-stress encounters, people will have the tendency to repeatedly give “beta” commands, which basically convey little information, particularly to emotionally distraught or emotionally intense individuals. Example: “Don’t make me shoot you.” It’s clearly a warning but gives little direction to the subject during an intense, rapidly unfolding, dynamic and perhaps confusing situation and could land you in prison if witnesses take that type of command as a threat from you to the assailant. Therefore, your commands should convey direction or action that you want the subject to perform. Typical commands of this type would be:

  • Drop the knife!
  • Put your gun down!
  • Don’t shoot!
  • Get on the ground!
  • Stop!
  • Listen! You don’t want to do this!

Hence, there are several rules to follow:

  • Your commands should focus only on what you want the subject to do
  • Keep your commands short and direct – remember, your assailant might be having tunnel vision too, so short commands that are easily followed is best
  • Keep your commands simple – multi-tasked commands will only confuse the assailant. Don’t say “Drop your knife, get on the ground and get your palms up!” Instead, say “Drop your knife!”. If the assailant drops his knife, then give the next command: “Get on the ground!” and so forth
  • Never yell out what you will do. Everything you say about what you will do can be (and likely will be) construed by the prosecutor as A) you’re now a willing participant and B) your willingness is evidenced by your threat. Avoid phrases like “I’ll shoot!” or “I will use my gun!”. Don’t give the prosecution or any witness any reason to believe you’re willing participant.
  • Select your commands in advance and practice them in a shooting scenario.
  • Do not use demeaning, belittling or vulgar language. Command: “Put your gun down!”. Don’t command “Put your gun down, you little fucker!”.
  • Be authoritative and confident in your commands. Yell them out in a clear, crisp cadence.

What if the commands don’t work?

If your verbal commands are met with more escalation or indifference, then it might be time to shoot. The core principle here is that once you have decided that the use of lethal force is the only way you can prevent death or severe bodily injury, then it’s time to stop talking. Don’t command and shoot at the same time. The reason for this is simple: the less multi-tasking you ask of yourself during a time when you’re experiencing tunnel vision, loss of fine motor skills and auditory degredation, then better you’ll perform at those tasks that you need to perform – in this instance – aiming and shooting.

Surrender Commands

If the commands do work and you successfully diffuse the threat itself, your overall situation may not be over. In order to fully resolve the situation, use commands that put the assailent in a vulnerable position while you call the police. Commands like: “Get on the ground!”, “Put your palms up” and/or “Don’t talk” are the types of commands that will enable you to keep your firearm out and pointed at the assailant while you wait for the police to arrive.

Another possibility is that your assailant decides to flee when you’re giving commands. If he flees, let him go.

More Training

In our simulation course, we go over the principles and commands that you can use in various situations to learn how to use verbal commands while having to make shoot/no-shoot decision. If you want to learn more, contact us at


Bill English

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