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When arguments escalate, we need to know how to make our words and actions less forceful and extreme. While many listeners will not find themselves in an argument that leads to a physical confrontation, self-defense expert Nick Drossos speaks with Tim on disciplines in self-defense that help to de-escalate heated conversations and hostile arguments. Tim and Nick discuss training in breathing and principles in the art of communication.


Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Project. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm one of the co-directors, along with Dr. Rick Langer. Those of you tuning in to hear The Art of Relationships, don't change that dial, this is actually a joint podcast. So, we're interviewing a friend of mine, Nick Drossos, who heads up a group called Defensive Tactics. He's one of Canada's top defense experts. I'm a level two instructor with his system, some of the best training I've ever had.

So, we wanted to bring him in, both podcasts, but let me just give you a little bit of the rationale from the Winsome Conviction side of things. Consider these statistics, since the 2016 presidential election, nearly a third of people report they have stopped talking to a friend or family member due to political disagreements. In a comprehensive survey of college students, an alarmingly large number of students believe it is acceptable to act, including resorting to violence, to shut down expression of opinions they consider offensive.

25% of women, 30% of men regard violence as a normal and even positive part of a marriage. This has caught the attention of people with it throughout the United States. So, the retailers of America now offer training to salespeople in verbal self-defense and physical self-defense. Flight attendance are receiving training in verbal deescalation and physical self-defense. Nick, one of the reasons we're bringing you on is, 20 years ago, Deborah Tannen coined this phrase, the argument culture. I wonder, Nick, what she would call it today. If we fast forwarded 20 years, I wonder if she would rename this something even more severe.

Nick Drossos: Well, I could tell you, looking at the self-defense industry, like we talked about it before. I've been in it for 20 years. 15 years ago, nobody was interested in self-defense. People didn't really care to learn. People, I would reach out if they wanted privates, or training their kids. Fast forward to today, I've seen more demands for seminars, more people wanting to learn self-defense, more people wanting to learn how to defend themselves, their kids. It feels like there's a growth of violence. I believe it's almost like you said, and I see it within, even in Montreal, where I'm from, where we have stabbings every week, shootings every week, which didn't happen, where there's teenage kids carrying knives because they're afraid, their friends are carrying, so they start carrying.

It's almost like it's compounded. The violence creates more violence. I feel like that cluster effect is actually happening. And it's almost like we're telling people it's okay, because if those statistics are high, they make... To be able to say, "It's okay to use violence to shut somebody down."

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh my goodness. Yeah.

Nick Drossos: That's unbelievable. Where do we draw the line? At 30, 40, 50? And the more it goes up, the more people feel like, "Okay, well, if you're going to use violence, I'm going to use violence." Then everybody starts using that. Those are scary statistics when you look at those.

Tim Muehlhoff: And let me give you a for instance of what this actually looks like. I have a good friend of mine, who put on an event at a university, and they were bringing in a conservative judge to talk about some issues. They were thrilled that the place was packed. They had anticipated a certain audience. Well, there was almost overflow. So, in the minute they introduced the judge, what they realized is the first five rows were all plants of people who disagreed with the judge. The minute the judge said his first word, five rows stood up and started shouting at him. Literally drowned him out. He could not speak. Well, now you can imagine the people that were there who wanted to hear him are now shouting at five rows of people who turn around and are shouting at them. My friend said, "I was fearful for my life." He said, "I am not exaggerating."

I mean, there was no way campus security, even if they came, could have contained a room of, let's say, I think he said there was roughly 500 people. So, that's a mob waiting to happen.

Nick Drossos: Yes. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Nick, at the Winsome Conviction Project, we are all about deescalation. Let's not get to the point where we're screaming at each other. And one of the things I appreciate about you is that you are very quick to say, "Listen, we're not getting to the point where we're hitting each other. Although that's part of self-defense is how do you strike? How do you protect? But there's so many things before that."

So, let's talk to the listeners who are like, "Listen, I'm not in an abusive marriage. I don't anticipate getting into a fist fight with a coworker. And I certainly not part of that mob violence at that university." But let's say a conversation's getting heated and you start to realize, "Man, we're really raising the volume here and even getting kind of ugly at each other." What should happen in that moment that you can do as an... You can't control the other person, but what could you do to reel it back in yourself?

Nick Drossos: Well, I think, I always say first you got to be in the present moment, right? Get out of your head. Don't start creating stories, assuming what might happen, what could happen. Don't feed into his fight. Control it through what you could do.

Tim Muehlhoff: And what could we do? I know you talked about breathing.

Nick Drossos: The first thing is start breathing, start trying to calm down your nervous system. Stay focused. Still be aware of... Because at any point, he still might decide to attack you. So, even though you're deescalating, you're controlling the situation, obviously, still be aware of everything, of his body language, just so you're prepared. From there, again, you want to use everything you can to defuse, deescalate, don't challenge him, don't threaten him, don't fight his fight. So, you have to flip the script on him and find a way. You're either going to fight his fight or you're going to make him fight your fight. So, breathing, staying in the present moment, trying to stay calm, don't raise your voice. It's not only what you say, but the tone of voice, and the way you say it is just as important to what you're going to say.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. In communication, we'd call that communication spirals. What a great phrase, because we'd get the other phrase that spiraled out of control. What we want to do is simply put speed bumps to keep it from gaining momentum. So, let's go back to the breathing thing real quick. Rorion Gracie of the great Gracie Jiu-Jitsu clan finally came out with his autobiography, where he is going to talk about his personal take on jiu-jitsu. Do you know what he called the book?

Nick Drossos: No.

Tim Muehlhoff: Breathe.

Nick Drossos: Breathe.

Tim Muehlhoff: He said The art of jiu-jitsu can be regulated to breathing, when you got a guy on top of you and you're trying to, hey, make sure to breathe. So, for the listeners, let's be really practical. If you were to YouTube mindfulness or breathing, you'd find 50 million. But here's one that's just super practical is you breathe in for three, you hold for three, and then you breathe out as if you're blowing out a candle on a birthday cake. So, it literally would sound like this. Breathe in for three, hold for three, and then breathe out for three. Now, when you feel like the conversation's getting heated, and your heart's doubling, it is really good just to literally, what Gracie would say, take a breath.

Nick Drossos: Take a breath, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: That can't be overstated, because we got to deescalate ourselves before we try to deescalate the other person.

Nick Drossos: That's why, yesterday, the scenarios we're doing were so good, because you have to do it under stress.

Tim Muehlhoff: Under stress, yeah.

Nick Drossos: So, when we do scenarios, and I'm verbally attacking you, I'm in your face, I'm threatening you, is you have to be able to, again, the situational awareness, because it has to be present. You have to deescalate and you have to remember just to breathe at the same time. Because you're under a high stress situation. Doing those multiple things have to be trained, where you're not thinking, "Oh, let me breathe, let me be aware." No, through training and proper training and doing it enough, that's why we do pressure training and testing and scenarios. So, you do it naturally where you're not thinking of them. Through training, you could think of them as you do them, but then it should just happen naturally.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. That's what I love about the breathing is you can do it in the car. When you're running just a little bit late and you're at a red light, you're like, "That is a non self-defense situation." But that's a perfect breathing up, if you're a student getting ready for a big test, man, use that breathing. Let me tell you a funny story, Nick. My wife suggested we go skydiving on our honeymoon. I said yes, because what am I supposed to say to my young bride? "No, honey, that frightens me."

So, I'm in this airplane and the jump master, the woman who's taken us out said this, I'll never forget it. She said, "Listen, you can choose not to go out of the airplane, but once you get on," what they call, "the preparation board, it is more dangerous to bring you in, you're going out. But you don't have to get on the board." Nick, it's a small Cessna. So, we are literally in two rows with people between our legs, so we can maximize the space. We got parachutes on. The woman in front of me is freaking out. I don't know her. I've kind of trained with her for a half day. I don't really know her. She's freaking out, like saying, "I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this."

The jump master walked over and said, "Look at me. Look at me. Breathe, breathe." I literally saw a woman who was almost hyperventilating be brought right back down through breathing, and she did jump.

Nick Drossos: Ah, that's awesome.

Tim Muehlhoff: Which was really cool. But think about that. She could bring her down by breathing. So, what we're saying is, when things are starting to get heated, by the way, it's even when you're having a family reunion and you know the certain family member's going to be there, and you're just like, "Oh," you hear that doorbell go.

Nick Drossos: And you're like.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, that'd be like.

Nick Drossos: All right, this is going to go good.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And positive thoughts.

Nick Drossos: Yeah, positive thoughts.

Tim Muehlhoff: Man, that is so basic. But shallow breaths, they say, make you more anxious. Okay, so first thing we do, we got to deescalate ourselves, or this thing's going to go sideways. You mentioned something, let's talk about, so they're raising their voice, they're getting snarky, they're taking a step towards you. How should we react? I love that phrase. What did you say? Don't fight their fight?

Nick Drossos: Yeah, don't fight their fight.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's really cool.

Nick Drossos: Look, I did 10 years of security. Every night somebody challenge them to fight, every night somebody was aggressive, you kick out everything from the drunk guy to the woman. I've had women try to attack me in the club. You know what I mean? Who are drunk, try to hit me with a bottle over the head. So, I've been put in so many situations and I can say, through my experience, 90% of them I was able to defuse it only because I was able to pattern interrupt anything that-

Tim Muehlhoff: Pattern interrupt, explain that.

Nick Drossos: That means whatever... If he's telling me, "You want to fight? What's your problem in a fight?" "No man, I really don't want to fight. I've been having a bad day today. I hate keeping you waiting, but I don't have a choice. But I mean, it's not you, man, just today I'm not feeling my best. So, just give me five minutes, let me see what I could do." It's like let it out.

Tim Muehlhoff: And you found that, what reaction did that have on you?

Nick Drossos: It always calmed down the situation.

Tim Muehlhoff: Wow.

Nick Drossos: Right? Because I'm breaking his thought process of where he's going to go. So, if he's thinking he's going to challenge me, fight, he has a buildup of where he is going to go, and I just redirect him. It's like somebody telling you, "Hey, you got a problem?" "Actually, yeah, man, my wife just left me." "What?" You just switched the conversation.

Tim Muehlhoff: So, just for the heck of it, Nick.

Nick Drossos: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: In that situation, how would you purposely escalate it? What would you say to escalate it to a guy who's challenging you around I want in the bar right now.

Nick Drossos: Okay. Give me the scenario.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Guy says, "Listen, I'm sick of waiting. My girlfriend and I have been waiting for a long time. I can see an empty table right there. Let us in the bar now."

Nick Drossos: "Man. Look, you know what, I feel really bad. I'm sorry. My girlfriend too should be annoyed, too. Give me a few more minutes. Let me see what I could do. Right? And you know what? When you go inside, I'll make sure, I'll give you a guys a round of drinks on the house."

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. That's perfect. Oh man, that is... And did you hear the tone of Nick's-

Nick Drossos: Very calm.

Tim Muehlhoff: ... voice, calmness. By the way, we mentioned, Nick is here, partly, we're recording this during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It's so cool that Biola University, like most universities in the entire country, observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month to draw attention to violence that's happening to both men and women. If you want to hear what it's like for it to happen to a man, please listen to the podcast we did with Nick right before this, of where he experienced that as a self-defense instructor. But, Nick, the thing I'm picking up on from a communication standpoint is just the tone and softness of your voice.

Nick Drossos: That's how I control it. This is how I speak to my son.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, you're a better man than me.

Nick Drossos: When I once... It's more powerful, when I tell my son, "You know, Noa, I'm not really happy about what you did. I mean, I'm a little bit upset, but I mean, we'll talk about it." And he's just... But I don't believe in the screaming, the yelling, because I scream and yell, what's your response?

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, we're absolutely going to mean it. That's the spiral.

Nick Drossos: [inaudible 00:14:22].

Tim Muehlhoff: Nick, the reason I laughed is I have three adult sons. When you have three adult sons, that means they went through the teen years. What did Mark Twain say about teenage boys? "When they're 12, stick them in a barrel, cut out a breathing hole, when they turn 16, plug up the hole." That's Mark Twain. So, I had good days, bad days, Nick, and I'm a comm professor. You walk up to the room, you ask them to clean the room. That's a totally legitimate expectation. I walk in, the place looks like a bomb went off, Nick. John Gottman would say, "The first 30 seconds is going to determine the outcome." On a good day, I would do what you're... One breathe, that'd be really good.

You open that door, you look and you go, "Okay, I need to close this door and take a breath. Okay, now I'm going to walk back in. I have a decision to make. How do I want this conversation to go?" I can say, "Dude, that's clean? That is not clean. You'll not disrespect me. Welcome to being grounded for two weeks." Boom, I escalated. Or take a deep breath and say, "Hey, so what's going on? I asked you to clean. What's happening in your life? How's school going? Because I know you wouldn't just disrespect me this way," or something like that.

Nick Drossos: That's a lot more powerful.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's a lot... You know what, even as I said that, Nick-

Nick Drossos: My son told me something. He said, "Dad, how come you've never grounded me?" Never grounded him.

Tim Muehlhoff: Really?

Nick Drossos: I said, "Noa, I grew up in a home where I was yelling, screaming, slamming doors, smashing stuff. This is how I grew up." I said, "I grew up in that. So, I come in the room, I yell at you, you get mad, you yell at me, you slam the door, I get mad. Look at this toxic energy we're creating in our home. I don't want that. I want you to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do." To me, example, I bought him a pair of jeans, this was last week. His jeans were on the floor. He threw them on the floor. I said, "Come here. I bought those jeans. I paid them for you, and you're going to throw them on the floor just like that?" I go, "It's very simple. I want you to pick up the jeans. I want you to fold them nicely. Next time I see them on the floor, guess what? You're going to have to buy your own jeans." And I walk away.

Tim Muehlhoff: Wow.

Nick Drossos: That's it. I don't scream. I don't yell. I remember one time we're at a friend's house and the kids slammed the door. He goes, "Dad, what would you do if I slam the door?" I go, "Very simple. I would take off the hinges, take off your door for a month." Just very calmly. He knows, but I don't, again, maybe because I was raised like that, and I don't want to reproduce it in my home.

Tim Muehlhoff: See, Nick, I think we kind of stumbled onto a principle here. Let's flesh this out a little bit. So, I walk up to that room, I open the door and I see that the place is a mess. My expectation was not met. I phrased it in such a way, and I saw your eyes when I said, "Hey, because I know you wouldn't disrespect me this way." Here's kind of a good principle communication scholars talk about, it's always good to pause and collect your thoughts. Then I would add one more. Share those thoughts with another person. Because once you share it with a person, you can't take it back.

Nick Drossos: Good.

Tim Muehlhoff: I'm sure the listeners can relate to this. There have been times I have crafted an email, Nick, it is ready to go. All I need to do is hit send. And I have asked my wife, who's very sharp, "Hey, can you just read this real quick?" And Noreen is like, "So, what are you hoping this does? Because I got to tell you-"

Nick Drossos: We've all done that. I've done that, too.

Tim Muehlhoff: "... it's too aggressive, Tim." I'm like, "Really?" And she's like, "Tim, yeah, don't be hitting send on that." That's a great principle.

Nick Drossos: But can I tell you something I figured out about that? Because I tried... Write one email and give it to five people.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, nice.

Nick Drossos: Okay?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Nick Drossos: Give it to five people and test out something. Because I kind of did it. Give it to him when he is in a bad mood, he's going to read it in a bad mood. Give it to somebody who's in a good mood, he's going to read it-

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, interesting.

Nick Drossos: ... in a form of a good news. Because how you feel is how, I believe, you're going to interpret what's written.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's really true.

Nick Drossos: If you're more of a suspicious person, I have my cousin's more of a very more... He believes in all these... If I give him something, "It's not true. There's something off here." If I give that same letter to somebody else that I trust, who's not suspicious, he's going to be like, "Okay." If I give it to somebody who's more aggressive, "This is an aggressive letter." It's very hard how the person will read it. I believe it's depends on-

Tim Muehlhoff: That's a [inaudible 00:19:04].

Nick Drossos: ... how they feel or how-

Tim Muehlhoff: It's very good.

Nick Drossos: ... they interpret their own thoughts through and how they see life. I kind of saw it because I tested it out.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's really good. What we're saying is what the Book of Proverbs says in the Old Testament, which is, "Life and death is in the power of the tongue." And once you say something, you can evoke death into the relationship.

Nick Drossos: I agree.

Tim Muehlhoff: My wife will be proud of this illustration because, Nick, I'm not a Mr. Fixit guy. I don't know if you are.

Nick Drossos: No, I'm a zero [inaudible 00:19:32].

Tim Muehlhoff: I love that. Love that.

Nick Drossos: I can't screw on a light bulb.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, I can't. I can't. But my friends who are Mr. Fixit told me one time, "Measure twice, cut once, because once you cut, you can't take back the cut."

Nick Drossos: Yeah, so true."

Tim Muehlhoff: So, I think that's a communication principle is, hey, measure your words twice, because once I say it, I can't take that back. I've seen relationships in my own life where now you're in damage control for days, months, weeks, years, because of something that was said.

Nick Drossos: And I believe there's certain things in a relationship you say you could never take back.

Tim Muehlhoff: You can never take back.

Nick Drossos: Never.

Tim Muehlhoff: So, be very careful.

Nick Drossos: I know, because I've been on both sides of the coin, where I've said things. Well, looking back, I said, "I can't believe I said that." And things, and that even if you're with that person you know that you said, "I hate you," or, "I regret being married to you, I should've never..." You can never take that back.

Tim Muehlhoff: Never take that back.

Nick Drossos: It's always back there in your mind. I say, the words you say, they have a huge impact in your life. Again, even if you try to forget them, they're always back there somewhere.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. There was one study done that said when a person verbalizes divorce, says it, that the chance of that couple actually getting divorce goes up by 30%.

Nick Drossos: I know. Because when I got divorced, I said, "You know what? If you're not happy, you know what, let's just get divorced." The moment I said that, I think subconsciously I had made the decision to get divorced. It's interesting, because I've done that with all the girls I've dated. I've broke up, got together, broke up, got divorced. The only person that that's never came on the table once in four years is who I'm with right now. I know that the moment we start using those verbal attacks to each other, the sarcasm, the putting down, I know that all that's going to spiral, eventually. Because subconsciously we both made the decision that we're not sure if we really want this.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. John Gottman, who's one of the top communication researchers in the world, he says, "The secret to a healthy..." Think about this, Nick. I think this is a mind-blowing quote by Gottman. "The secret to any relationship, marriage, is," what he calls, "the five-to-one ratio." So, for every one negative comment, it takes five positive interactions to overcome the one negative. Now, you might be listening going, "Oh my gosh, I think there's been seasons where I've been five negative to one positive." Well, think about what Gottman says. A positive can be anything from your spouse walks into the room, you smile, positive interaction, you send him a text, "Hey, thinking about you," positive interaction. "Hey, I'm going to get a bowl of ice cream. Would you like one?" Positive interaction.

So, they don't have to be these big dramatic things, but he says, "Listen, it's tested this." We talk about pressure testing in self-defense. He did the longest study of married couples in the United States in the history of marital research. 5,000 couples over a long period of time. He said, "Two to one does not work." Like, Nick, I think two to one or three to one is divine. He says, "No, no, no, five. It takes five to overcome one." So, for me to remember that in my work relationships, my parenting, marriage, with my students, you got to be careful, once that word comes out, there's work to be doing to overcome that.

Here's what I think is interesting, Nick, is people are thinking, "Oh man, I thought he was a self-defense expert. When do we get to the punching, kicking?" And Nick is great at that, and you can check out his website, we'll talk about that in a minute. But all of this is to avoid that, and put in the hard work, be as dedicated to avoid the fight as you would be to win it if you had to fight. That's what we really believe is let's not get there. Because once you throw that punch, that can't be taken back either.

Nick Drossos: Yeah, absolutely.

Tim Muehlhoff: Nick, tell us a little bit about Defensive Tactics and about your website and how our listeners can check out what you're doing.

Nick Drossos: Well, I've been teaching self-defense for close to 20 years. I grew up in a rough, more poor neighborhood, where being bullied, picked on, fighting, was part of your survival. It wasn't like it is today. You didn't go to your mom and say, "Mom, somebody hit me." It was like, "Well, it's your problem. It's up to you to defend yourself." And I was a very skinny, scrawny kid, so I had to learn how to fight. So, then I got into kung fu and then taekwondo, and then boxing, kickboxing, MMA, and then it became my life for me, it was everything for me, as well with my learning disabilities, I had to drop out of school, high school when I was young, and go to work and help my family.

I was lucky enough to find my way through martial arts, through self-defense, and worked hard enough to turn my passion into a full-time career, where now I'm... I'm living the dream. In a perfect world, I'm doing everything I've wanted to do to travel the world and teach seminars and empower people, talk about my experience. A lot of it, I did 10 years security. That's when I was like, "Okay. A lot of stuff I learned that I've never used will never work." That's how I started putting my system together, and then creating drills.

I would see fights and be like, "Oh, he got sucker-punched. See, let me create a drill like that." That's how I came up with drills by real, actual events. Now I'm happy and I have my website, I have online courses, I'm teaching seminars, I have instructor courses. I have great instructors like you, Tim.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, it's so fun, yeah.

Nick Drossos: I'm very picky because I want to build a serious brand. I want a good team. I want good instructors that share the same values as me. So, I'm very happy to be living this and honored to have you here and-

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, it's so great-

Nick Drossos: ... work with you.

Tim Muehlhoff: ... to have you at Biola. I mean, we need to... I mean, it's a sad reality. It does make me sad that we have to have Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But to turn a blind eye to it, and today in Deborah Tannen's argument culture, we cannot turn a blind eye that conversations are getting ugly and physical, fights are literally breaking out on airplanes. We just have to know, can I see the danger? And can I mitigate it as I see it starting to go negative? And that's what you're about. And that's what the Winsome Conviction Project's about.

Hey, thank you for listening to this joint podcast. We love the CMR, we love The Art of Relationships Podcast, and it's kind of fun to be able to do these together. We've now done a couple. If you want to check out more about the Winsome Conviction Project, just go to and you'll see all of our podcasts and materials, articles we've written and things like that. Hey, thank you so much, Nick. Thank you for being a part of it.

Nick Drossos: Tim, thank you so much for having me. And thank you to everybody for listening, and I love California.

Tim Muehlhoff: Love it. All right, thank you.