I have a friend I rarely see. I’m always glad to see him when I do. We sit around and drink coffee, or I sit and drink ginger ale while he sips his Bolton Bourbon, and we compare notes on the fine art and science of growing old gracefully. He has some great insights. But then, he’s had a few more years practice than I.
He prefers to stay anonymous, so I’ll honor that. He’s an inconspicuous older gentleman who bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” He has an occasionally annoying habit of humming the lyrics from the theme song of that ancient TV show:
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood, won’t you be mine, won’t you be mine…”
I’ll call him OM, for Old Man. He appreciates nuance and enjoys New Age stuff, so he’ll like that.
We were chatting about Accentus-Ludus and the research we’ve been doing into the neuroscience behind making “soft skills” more accessible and faster to learn. He was good enough to tell me a tale, about a gunfight that wasn’t, but might have been, in which the decisive use of soft skills settled a gunfight that almost was.
The Gunfight That Never Was
“There’s a little shop I go to a few times a week, not far from where I live. Run by a Lebanese family. All the men work rotating shifts there, 24/7. So I go in one morning, buy the Sunday paper like I always do. Have a little chat, kibitz a bit, talk about the old days in Beirut. You know, the usual.
“So this guy comes in. Twenty-something. Buff. Strung tight. Body language swaying from side to side…stalks past the cashier’s counter…looks out the side of his eyes…shifts his hand to one side pocket…then stalks from aisle to aisle in the store and heads back to the furthest corner, where he stands and stares at the milk, and shoots a look up at the mirror above his head, so he can see the whole store…
“I fiddle with the change I just received and turn so my back is to the corner where I can see out the door and the rest of the store. My Lebanese friend, no stranger to violence, started eye-tracking this guy through the store. He’s switched on because this guy’s vibe is no good.
“Mr. Just Out Of Jail stalks to the front of the store, to the only place you can stand and see behind the cashier’ counter. He looks, then turns his back and starts rummaging through the pastries. “You don’t got any Little Debbies?” he says.
“Yeah,” my Lebanese friend says. “Right there.” Mr. JOOJ looks out the other side of the store through the opposing door. Two doors in, two doors out.
I take a short walk down the aisle, pick up a bottle of orange juice to go with my paper, come slowly up the aisle back to the counter. Mr. JOOJ stalks past the counter, takes up the position I just left, Little Debbies in his hand. A woman walks in, buys a bag of chips, chats for a second or two, leaves.
Mr. JOOJ just stands there.
I say, “Excuse me, sir? You were here first. You go ahead.” Very pleasantly.
He looks at me, hesitates, gets up to the cashier counter and I have his back. He slides one hand into his side pocket, shoves a Little Debbie in that pocket while he holds the other one up. He pulls some bills out of the pocket he just shoved the donuts in. Nice shoplifting move…not such a big deal.
The little revolver he had in his pocket a concern.
So he pays three dollars for gas, and one pack of Little Debbies. Stalks out the door to his car. My Lebanese friend is showing all the tension of somebody who’s had a brush with someone who was radiating violence. “Not a nice guy,” I observed.
“He stole, didn’t he?” my friend said. “Not worth going after,” I said.
He didn’t get through the Beirut of the 80s by being a pussy. He came out from behind the counter and went to the door and shouted out at the guy. “Hey! You! I got your picture, I got your license plate! You never ever come back here, you understand?”
Mr. JOOJ feigns surprise. “What you talking about?”
“You’re on camera right now! You know what I’m talking about! You steal, you never come back here!”
Now I gotta swear a bit under my breath. I respect the man. He thinks you let somebody steal, pretty soon everybody steals. But now Mr. JOOJ, high on something, probably meth, with a revolver in his pocket, is gonna get pissed and come storming back in here.
So you know there’s no good position in here. No cover, and I already walked through. So I step out the door, past my friend. He’s cussing this guy out. I walk out like I don’t know him, looking back as though surprised. I need to get out where I can move, though there isn’t much cover out there.
My friend has retreated inside behind the counter. So I keep be bopping to the corner of the store. I have cover there, see? I’m old but I can still hit something if I need to. So the bad guy girds himself and stalks back towards the door. No gun in his hand yet.
I button hook back and go around the building to the other door. I stand outside the opposite door where I can see through the window. The guy comes in, and my buddy, now behind the counter and the acrylic partition, with two cameras on the guy, tells the bad guy to put the donuts back and leave. Mr. JOOJ has his hands up, contrite but pissed. Like a guy in the chowline in the jail getting caught. Puts the donuts back on the counter. Walks out, stands next to his car.
I stick my head in the door. “You cool, buddy?” He’s surprised. But glad. “I’m fine, my friend. Thank you.”
“Old men gotta stick together,” I say. And I wait till the bad guy gets in his car and drives away…
So some Old Guy hangs around and watches a bad guy decide not to get caught? So what?
From the perspective of soft skills informing tactical decision making:
OM has, to put it mildly, a significant body of experience in reading bodies, live, dead, violent, non-violent – he’s seen and read them all.
That experience led him to calibrate Mr. JOOJ pretty quickly as being —
• Fresh out of jail
• Under the influence of drugs, probably meth
• Contemplating violence or the threat of violence
• Scoping out the layout of the store
• Positioning himself where he could see and watch everyone in the store stay or leave
• Moving through the store to finalize his knowledge of where the money was
• Taking up a dominant control position between his car and the door, the best place in the store if you’re taking the place
• Starting to wind himself up to shove a gun in the cashier’s face, probably right after he laid the donuts on the counter and the drawer came open.
So HOW did OM know that?
• Experience (general life experience as well as specific experience in violence)
• Genetics (he possesses the “Warrior Gene” in spades, has abnormally fast reflexes even at his age, extraordinary endurance and despite wearing glasses, sees extremely fast due to superior neurological processing)
WHAT did he do?
• He made the decision to stick around as his assessment was that his friend was at risk. He could have called the police and reported a suspicious person – even with a good response time the whole thing would have been over before they got there. And, though he is loath to say so, he has a significant body of experience in fighting up close and personal. So in his judgment, based on his experience and training, he figured it was better for his friend if he stuck around.
• He took the dominant position in the store while he scoped out the situation
• When he saw the bad guy move to the opposite corner and start scoping out the store in the mirror, he knew what was happening.
• When bad guy moved front, he moved back, deeper into the store, but giving himself some concealment (not cover) and about ten yards of distance which maximized his superior marksmanship under stress AND put him behind the bad guy, who would have to twist his head around like a bad exorcism movie in order to watch him.
• When a woman (innocent bystander) enters, he moves up, which puts him within a long step of moving the woman out of the way and an angle from which to engage said baddy.
• In my favorite move, he drops into his polite older gentleman role and invites the bad guy to move ahead of him since, after all he was first. So bad guy can either refuse what is obviously true, or he can move forward and leave his back to the old man, and try his luck on the way out. Sweet move that both defuses, soften OM’s profile to polite old man instead of predatory bad-guy killer, and puts the bad guy on the horns of a dilemma: Refuse to move and draw attention, or move into a bad position with some old man behind him?
• Bad guy goes, but then the owner gets involved too fast for my friend to control him. And, truth be told, he doesn’t really want to control him. It’s his friend’s store, after all. But the owner’s decision escalates potential violence
• He decides he needs a better position in case bad guy breaks bad on the way in and he can gauge bad guys reaction to him, see if he’s made him as an armed good guy who’s looking to light his ass up. No reaction to him, since sweet move #2 is to act (deception, yeah?) as though he doesn’t know the owner and he’s hurrying away so as not to get involved.
• Once clear he can move to the corner of the building where he actually has cover and not just concealment (you do know the difference?) and watch Mr. JOOJ.
• When bad guy enters, instead of crowding up behind him, he cuts around the store and comes up on the blind side at the opposite door where he can see what’s going on and still have cover as well as concealment.
• Bad guy figures it’s not his day to rob this particular store, especially since the owner is back behind the plexiglass and he’s got cameras rolling and maybe the cops too, so he makes apologies, drops the donuts and leaves in a hurry.
No weapons displayed. No shots fired. No bloodshed. Nobody killed.
A word or two about OM: early 60s, combat veteran on the battlefield and on the street, totes a Karl Sokol customized Browning High Power he was issued by an Other Government Agency back in the 70s, with a Smith and Wesson hammerless .38 snub that was OGA issue back in the day, both of them in very well worn Ken Null leather holsters on a Null belt. Soft spoken, extremely intelligent with a Psychology degree from an Ivy League school coupled to a lifetime of experience in the worst places in the world. Book knowledge leavened with street smarts. He doesn’t go around looking for anything to prove, because believe me, he has nothing to prove to anyone.
So that’s his story. No violence happened. Violence avoided. Why?
Because of, for lack of a better term, what’s called “soft skills.” The skills that don’t involve hitting or shooting or cutting.
What kind of soft skills did he use?
Superior vision processing. He maintains a relaxed visual scan of his environment at all times. Fully utilizes his peripheral vision and knows the limit of his focus/discrimination visual zone and his peripheral vision.
Superior pattern recognition. Experience and training leads to recognize certain nexuses of behavior; the little pieces add up. He uses his superior vision processing to run faster pattern recognition thorugh the nexus of experience and training (remember the OODA loop?)
Superior body language acuity: Experience, training, genetics. Adding up things like posture, body movement marking, skin flushing or blanching from studying with people like Paul Ekman, Joe Navarro, or some oddball Welsh-Filipino in Minneapolis. What comes before what is normally taught as pre-violence indicators.
Time distortion/cognitive acceleration: How he utilizes his subjective perception of time and physiologically induced changes to his experience of time.
So how do you cram 40 years of somebody else’s experience into your head?
Train your soft skills like you train your draw stroke or other motor skills. Break it down into the component parts, train them, reintegrate them. Measure how much more efficient your brain is at processing that kind of data.
Rinse and repeat.
And stand by for the next generation of technology and training. Remember in THE MATRIX when Neo and Morpheus go for it, and Neo exclaims, after his accelerated transcranial stimulation download, “I know kung fu!”
We’re almost there….