Rory Miller

Rory Miller has been a Corrections Officer, a Sergeant, a Tactical Team member and a Tactical Team Leader; he has taught corrections and enforcement personnel skills from first aid to physical defence to crisis communication and mental health; from his home on the United States' west coast through to Baghdad.

He's the author of Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence, Violence: A Writer's Guide, and, now, Facing Violence: Preparing for The Unexpected, and he describes self-defence as being “about recovery from stupidity or bad luck, from finding yourself in a position you would have given almost anything to prevent”.


Kris Wilder says: “Sgt. Rory Miller will wipe away any fantasy you have about fighting”.

Rory's wife, Kamila, says: “It's easy to understand Rory if you work from the assumption that he was raised by coyotes”.

And Rory says: “I’m a bit scarred up, but generally happy”.


He has a rare clarity of thought and expression, he writes as well as he thinks; and if that sounds like fan mail I'm happy to plead guilty. He's the only person I've ever spoken with who I know has been zapped with a Tazer. He says it sucks...


Stu: I'm interested in your thoughts on some of the areas between awareness/prevention and having to get physical; for instance, using eye-contact appropriately. I once heard a martial arts instructor advise his students to constantly look as though they were 'up for it' and they'd be left alone. In the Naval Port where I grew up that was a good way to guarantee you actually would 'get it'. Can this stuff be successfully taught/learned in a training environment - or do we all simply have to work it out for ourselves?

Rory: Stu - It sounds like I paid you for the perfect lead in to plug the latest book, "Facing Violence."

By itself, 'situational awareness' means nothing. Just words. You need to understand what you need to be aware of. There are only certain types of violence and they happen in certain places and most have a very distinctive lead up. That can all be taught. It just takes an instructor who knows how violence breaks down, who can explain not only how predators set up, but how social violence happens.

The 'looking up for it' thing. Use your own common sense. If you're a junkie who desperately needs some quick cash for a rock of crack, yeah, you're definitely going to avoid someone who looks like he wants to fight. And if you're a young man in a Naval Port who wants to prove himself or is afraid his girlfriend will think he's a wimp, you'll be afraid NOT to fight the guy who is glaring and sneering.

If you understand the dynamics, especially the difference between social (like the Monkey Dance in the book) and asocial (predatory violence) it becomes pretty clear that what will prevent one may very well set the other off.

The skill isn't in developing your 'hard' look in a mirror. It's in seeing and understanding what is going on around you.

Stu: Thanks - that tapping sound is me placing my order for 'Facing Violence'... So, is there a role for de-escalation in a street or bar scenario? It's not something I personally have heard much detail about in a martial arts environment. Although there's a growing emphasis on teaching awareness and avoidance in clubs the favoured approach typically focusses on what to do once crisis point has been reached, whereas in, say, a psychiatric facility, de-escalation is an essential tool.


Rory: Of course there's a role. Practically, you don't want to get hurt if you can avoid it; ethically, you don't want to hurt someone else unless you have to and legally, if there was an opportunity you need to show that you tried not to fight. Any fight avoided means no injury, no lawsuit, no paperwork. That's a good day.

There are two steps before de-escalation, though. Number one is to not be there. Most social violence happens in predictable places (where young men gather in groups, where minds get altered and where territories are in dispute) Avoid those three places and stay out of ambush zones and your chance of ever needing physical skills goes way, way down.

The second level of prevention is escape and evasion-- seeing things coming early enough to leave. Knowing how to leave (exits, exits you can create, safe paths) and where to escape to (run towards safety, not away from danger).

Then you have de-escalation. You need to know what kind of conflict you are facing. The head-up, confident gaze that will discourage a predator will incite a dominance struggle. The meek social demeanor that many women use to calm men (if I don't meet his eyes or say anything or challenge him, he'll leave me alone) is blood in the water for a predator. It's not just that de-escalations for different situations are different, in some cases they are the opposite and can backfire.

The general rules for de-escalating social violence is to not be a dick in the first place. Don't be rude. Don't stare. Don't draw attention (though that one could just be an operator axiom, not universal). If you don't know the rules or the subculture, keep your mouth shut. If you are inadvertently rude, apologize. Whatever you do say, no weasel words, no trying to punk someone out or blame someone else. If you screwed up, be a man about it. Listen more than you talk.

Asocial violence is a different animal. An experienced predator works with a subconscious but very precise risk/reward calculation. How much can he get from you (whether money for drugs in a resource predator or satisfying screams in a process predator). How dangerous is it to do so. You would think that lowering your value-- dressing down, not showing cash-- would take you off the radar screen. It doesn't. Homeless people rob each other a lot. The reliable way is to raise the risk. That's not always talking or looking like a bad ass. Talking on a cell phone describing what you see around you including the suspicious character or, one of my favorites, "Dude, that's the third unmarked police car I've seen in the last five minutes. Is something going on?"

There is a third tactic, too, which is raising doubt. Non-sequiturs or acting crazy or just being unusually calm can all make the predator re-think and decide to move on.

That just scratches the surface. Conflict Communications is a five to eight hour class just by itself.


Stu: While I was thinking today about what kinds of questions I wanted to ask you I found myself confronted (unexpectedly and bizarrely) by a runaway stallion. Nothing remotely like that ever happened to me before, and I found myself kind of observing my own body take action to divert the animal away from the road he was heading for, calmly head him into a corner, instruct him to stand when he tried to rush past me, and then soothe him while I worked my way up his neck to get a hold of his head collar. Then I led him back along the way he'd come until I found his owners. My question is not “How cool am I?” because I'm seriously not - it was just luck and managed adrenalin – my question is: What are your experiences of the 'crossover benefits' of working/training under conditions of great urgency, and, is there more than one type of adrenalin in practical terms, or is it that there's more than one type of reaction to it?


Rory: I'm going to take those questions a little out of order. There are LOTS of different flavors of stress hormones, Van Canna, a Uechi-ka, coined the term "chemical cocktail" and I like it. Just like different types of alcohol affect people differently (a sake drunk is very different from a tequila drunk). Also different people have different tolerances and attitudes. Rock climbing or skydiving have a great adrenaline kick, but it is a completely different feeling from public speaking. When you know something is going to happen (a martial artist with a tournament or an officer responding to a call) you can moderate your adrenaline level with time or breathing exercises.

For adrenaline for a sudden attack, imagine the most intense danger rush you have ever felt (taking a fall climbing or a near accident driving) combine it with the way you felt the very first time you asked someone on a date (and that's a good one to remember, because most people's ability to talk and to follow a plan go to crap about the same way) and imagine it is ON, with no time to prepare, psych up or even know for sure what's going on.

Crossovers-- I'm finding new ones all the time, but lately most have been going the other way. I'll pick up a book on risk management or acting or linguistics and find a new insight into conflict or a new way to teach. But going the other way, three things from obvious to less obvious.

1) Ukemis are the most important skills in the martial arts. Very, very few practitioners will ever be attacked. All will fall down. The older you get the more important falling right becomes.

2) It gave me confidence and perspective. Everyone says confidence, but this is what I mean-- Sometimes I have to walk into an enclosed cell with a 300 pound extremely violent schizophrenic and talk him down. There is no way I could do that unless I was really confident with my close quarters skills. The confidence breeds doubt in the threat and being nice breeds trust. The combination usually means I can talk them down. Confidence means something different to me, though. Just being told you're good or having a roomful of trophies or a blackbelt collection doesn't mean anything when the rubber meets the road. It is easier to instill confidence than competence and many MA and self-defense instructors are selling confidence only. By perspective leading to confidence... my wife hits harder than most 'tough guys'. I've been hit and body slammed and choked out and clubbed and cut, all in training. It's not for everyone, but it will be a damn peculiar day when somebody tries to hurt me in a way that a trainer hasn't done more and harder.

3) Most obscure but most important, MA training taught me to just let my body handle it. If I know a fight is going down, I plan the first two or at most three moves, but the instant contact is made, I don't think at all. My body has done this enough and knows how to handle it. I just don't think (which isn't technically true, sometimes I'm composing the report mentally, but I don't try to let my slow conscious brain micromanage something it isn't good at.


Stu: A couple of thoughts spring immediately to mind as a result of your last reply. Given that the phrase 'Post Traumatic Stress' might seem something of a cliché to anyone who hasn't actually experienced a full-on adrenal dump into their system, how does someone learn to deal personally with the after effects of a traumatic incident? And: Being 'In The Moment' is a life changing practice, not only for the martial artist, or spiritual practitioner. Are there specific practical techniques you could describe to help someone who is struggling to get a grip on the concept?


Rory: PTSD is a real disorder and there are specialists out there, but I will say one thing as a layman. It's okay to be okay. One of the things that really pisses me off is when a survivor comes back (whether from Iraq or an officer-involved shooting) and some asshat with a degree in psychology and no understanding whatsoever tells the soldier that he or she is supposed to be messed up. The kids I met over there were some of the most disciplined, respectful and effective soldiers I've seen-- far better than I was at that age-- and they were dealing with operations honorably and with the emotional side very well. Very well. And then some over-educated jerk tries to tell them they are messed up no matter what they feel.

If you go through any intense event, you will feel stuff. It is normal. It is natural. Never let anyone tell you that what you feel is wrong or that you are broken. Things have changed. You have changed, but unless you get psyched into crippling yourself, almost all change is growth.

In advance? There are limits to dealing with any big event in advance. If you're a father, you know that the birth of your first child changed everything, and no matter how much you hear it or how many classes you take, you can't really 'get it' until it happens. There are other big changes. Puberty. Falling in love. These are at least as big as surviving violence and most of us came through just fine. There are two differences, though.

The first is partly because fewer people have directly experienced violence than childbirth or falling in love and partly because so much of our self-definition is based on imagining how we deal with conflict: violence has a kind of "mythic weight". We are told that there are special insights, in surviving violence. There are insights and some you may not get other places, but they are less special than many other things. Some people believe that the key to being a man is in facing fear, when it really is getting up every morning and putting in a hard day's work to care for those you love.

The other difference, and it is big, is that under stress everyone is a little afraid of doing something they will be ashamed of. Using too much force. Freezing. Not being able to stop. Getting addicted to violence. The answer to that one,which comes more from life than training, is that if you have a good solid ethical core, one you believe in down to the bone, your body will respect it under extreme stress. (To a point-- long term abuse has more profound effects).

Being in the moment or living in the now or whatever you want to call it.... grrr. Why do people pretend it is soooo hard to do something a turtle does naturally? If you need a practice here it is: Most of your mind is actually in the now at all times. The voice that is chattering and wondering and worrying is actually a very small part of your mind. It's like the images on your computer screen-- it's on the surface, but not even close to all the computer is doing. Instead of trying to spend less time in the monkey mind, try to spend more in the deeper parts. And, like almost everything else you will ever want to learn the practice is basically:

1) Shut up

2) Pay attention

But that's way too simple for the real seekers.  Sigh.


Stu: It seems that some of us get horribly entangled in our own survival mechanisms – with the reactions that gave us some kind of a chance against the leopard that walked into our cave at night not having enough to do any more, and being applied to social dangers rather than real-life threats. Life is a simple or as complex as you want to make it.

In Meditations On Violence, I found your phrase:

"Why is a caterpillar wrapped in silk while it changes into a butterfly? So the other caterpillars can't hear the screams. Change hurts”

very eye catching, will you tell us more about your views on supporting change, and, for anyone considering buying it, give us a sense of what the new book 'Facing Violence' will add to your already impressive body of work?


Rory: People, like all organisms, seek homeostasis. That balance point that we define as normal. Any change is threatening, the more profound the change, the more threatening. At least for our minds, I'm not sure this has any reality. If we aren't the same person before and after our first cup of coffee in the morning; if our personality changes when our blood sugar drops or we get sleep deprived, then what is this 'self' that we are defending?

A lot of training is more ego defense than physical defense.  That may require some explanation. In training, we practice the motions of physical defense but no one in class is actually trying to kill us. But with each rep and exercise and belt and trophy, we are convincing ourselves that we are ready. Ready for what? We keep that vague. Most never actually work up a threat profile for themselves, list the kind of violence they might attract, or study the kinds of violence that happen. We pretend that being vague is the same as being comprehensive. That if we aren't practicing for anything in particular we are somehow, magically, training for everything. This magical thinking bolsters our ego, and leaves us believing that even though we never stand up to a boss or get involved when we see some kids spraying graffiti or just bow and say "Osss" when sensei says something that we think doesn't make sense, that despite the thousand little acts of cowardice that people do every day, that if we train a lot we will somehow become tigers when it is real... and all of these other little concessions were already real. Then we believe, through training, that if we are ever in a life-or-death situation, not only will we prevail, but we won't be changed. And this is where we get to the caterpillar. Despite the fact that society is almost entirely devoted to controlling acts of violence, that extreme violence is rare and tends to only happen when all societal expectations have been broken... how odd is it to believe not only that we will know what to do, but that all of our presuppositions will hold and it will just confirm our favorite biases?

In the e-book "Drills: Training for Sudden Violence" there are some exercises for playing with your own mind that might help. It's available as a kindle download at Amazon and in a number of formats at SmashWords, here:


"Facing Violence" -- I wanted to title it "Seven" or maybe "The Book of Seven Rings" just to see who would get upset. The main idea is that there are seven things you MUST cover if you want to train self-defense:

1) Ethics and legalities of force law. Your ethics will limit what you can do in a fight, and ignorance of the legalities can send you to prison. The phrase, "I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six" is something ignorant people try to hide behind. They don't know how to teach the legalities of force so they pretend it is an either/or choice. It's just like saying, "I'd rather hit my self with a hammer than stab myself with a screw driver." You should train to do neither.

2) Violence Dynamics: This has already come up a lot in the interview, but you need to know what you are training against. FV gives a pretty good breakdown of types of violence.

3) Avoidance, Escape and Evasion and De-Escalation: You also must learn, and practice, how NOT to fight.

4) Operant Conditioning: How to train a handful of techniques to artificial reflex for ambushes and sucker punches.

5) The freeze: Different types of freezes, how to mitigate them.

6) The fight itself. Most self-defense books ever written go right here, I just expanded on some elements they tend to miss.

7) The aftermath: potential medical, legal and psychological consequences of violence.

That about covers the book. The thing is that you can do really well in one area, say actually take the bad guy out without harm to yourself, and still wind up in trouble. Lawsuits, for instance.  ANd the suicide rate among survivors is much higher than the general population. It doesn't matter how well you can fight if the bad guy gets surprise and you freeze. You can't really avoid things if you don't know what to look for. You get the idea.


Stu: I really do get the idea. I'm sorry this is coming to a close for now, I could keep asking you questions indefinitely - but I'm going away from this with some fresh thoughts and ideas, and I'm grateful for the time and energy you have brought to this conversation. Thanks Rory.


Rory: I guess that ends it, Stu. It's been fun.



Facing Violence (ISBN-13: 978-1594392139 and ISBN-10: 1594392137 published by YMAA Publication Center) is available now, and Rory can be found at: