A note on violence: When all you have is a hammer

Tony Security 4 Comments

This one could be a short musing on violence and its use as a problem solving tool in the security industry. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail’? Its something I’ve often related to the security industry and something which my younger self was often guilty of. Its not a complaint about the use of violence or physical skills but it is a cautionary message about over reliance on physical skills. I had a completely different idea for this weeks article but a conversation with an old friend this week put this thought into my head I was taken to thinking about my younger days as I started off in this industry. At that time I thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. I was probably a little over confident and definitely a lot more hot headed than I would now ever like to admit. I grew up with experience and harsh lessons but not without making a lot of mistakes and that is what I want to talk about here. My musing is on violence and the advantages and disadvantages of having a large skill set in that area in the security industry.

Force continuum

I’m sure many of you have heard of the force continuum. Its the varying levels and types of force we generally teach as part of reasonalbe force or conflct resolution training. Some aprts of that continuum refer to levels of force which involve physical violence up to an including death in some cases. Other areas refer to the softer skills such as presence and verbal skills. When discussing it in a classroom or a case review it’s usually done as a proportionality model. In reality it’s a complete set of skills that every security operative needs to develop. The problem arises when we have huge skill set in a single level we become complacent around developing the rest.

Skilled at violence

Many people enter the security industry with a wealth of skill when it comes to violence. I did and I have to admit that it both helped me and hindered me at times. Of course a physical skill set can be a great asset in this job provided it meets three criteria. Firstly it must be an appropriate physical skill set. Martial arts such as Iaido, Tae Kwon Do and even western boxing have very little application of skills in the modern security industry. I’m not knocking them as martial arts (I’ve trained extensively in two of them) but their application is limited.Secondly you have to be able to adapt the skills to work in the secirity industry. Thirdly you have to have practiced the skills to a proficient level. Training once a week in a controlled environment for a year may not make you proficient. Applying skills in training is one thing but applying them under stress in a dark, dirty environment on a pain inhibited person whose intent on hurting you is another thing altogether. Of course physical skills give you discipline, confidence, a solid base and conditioning all of which are positives but there are drawbacks

A hinderance

There is a draw back to having large skill sets in the physical area of conflict though. The old saying above comes back to mind again. When all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. When your best asset is your physical skills then you will have a bias towards a physical solution. That’s not you being a bad person, it’s your brain doing it’s job. I’m often reminded about a 2014 article from a police training officer. He spoke about a linkage between areas where police spent a large amount of time in academy training using firearms and a higher number of police involved shootings. The article summarised a lot of science already tells us. Under stress we default to what we know best. If I have spent 15 years training to punch, kick, choke or throw under stress guess what my default response will be? I found it at the start of my own career. I was constantly in physical confrontations because:

1. I knew I would most likely win

2. I wasn’t confident in my verbal skills

3. I had an ego

4. I always subconsciously had my physical skill set as a plan B in the back of my head.

I believe it certainly slowed down my development of verbal and body language skills. I always knew I could do without them and all of my skills in these areas were focusing on setting up a physical approach.

Multi level skill set

Having a CV that boasts black belts in multiple styles may look good but won’t get you through in this industry. Neither will being a tough old street fighter. We need to develop skills at all of the levels of the force continuum (except lethal, there’s a lot of paperwork involved in dead bodies). Having high levels of skill at one level can make you one dimensional and limited. For those with great verbal skills you may have to begin developing your physical skill set. For those with a great physical skill set you might have to make some conscious decisions to work on your body language and verbal skills. It isn’t easy but it’s necessary. There may come a time where the nail is too big for the hammer and if you don’t have other tools in the toolbox then you’re in trouble.

The hardest soft skills

For me the hardest skill to develop was the presence/body language area. Now I can’t really remember the last time I had to physically eject a person. Over time with experience and knowledge and work our skills levels do develop if we allow them. If we keep using the hammer though these skills aren’t given an opportunity to work. It’s hard to believe that after years of training in a dojo/gym the hardest skill to master is standing there and talking to somebody.

Tools in a toolbox

I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating. Your skill set is like a toolbox. The more tools you acquire the more jobs you can complete. This is especially appropriate when it comes to the use of physical skills. Of course you always want to have a hammer in your toolbox just in case but it can’t be your default choice for many of the tasks that need completing. As time goes on and you collect a variety of tools there are those which become outdated and need to be discarded, replaced or upgraded. Same thing with skills.


I love martial arts and love practicing and teaching physical skills. I’m also the first to admit that they have limitations in the modern security industry. I had limitations when I started in this industry and I still have limitations now. I had to deliberately place myself in uncomfortable situations to get better with the areas I struggled with. I did this is lots of ways. I got training, I volunteered in places where I needed to use my verbal skills and I consciously decided to use them in live situations. I did this until it became natural. It’s still not perfect but it’s better. Of course I still have the physical option but it’s not my default response any more. Give yourself as many options as you can to be the best security professional you can be.

Comments 4

  1. Big fan of these posts,keep up the
    good work.
    May I suggest an article on
    Human resource management as applicable to the employee in this industry.

    1. Tony O Brien Post
  2. An interesting post, I agree that foce and the use of it by security operatives should only be used as a last resort in a graduated response,where by all your other options have failed. It is an important skill set to have the physical attributes should you need them but the ability to defuse a potentially violent scenario through verbal skills,body language, and tactics diversionary or otherwise should always take precedent.

    1. Tony O Brien Post

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