An Interview with Marc MacYoungMacYoung

by Gila Hayes

Network members are, for the most part, enthusiastic students of self defense, but no one wants to have to apply their hard-earned skills against a real-life attacker. Thus preemptive action is on many members’ minds. Sadly, solid strategies to defuse a simmering fight with an angry neighbor or deter an aggressive victim interview are not taught as earnestly as shooting skills.

This article began when an affiliated instructor asked about articles on decisively deterring human predators without looking like a willing participant in a fight. In his latest book, In the Name of Self-Defense, Marc MacYoung wrote about getting off the road to violence in the pre-attack stage, emphasizing disengaging emotionally as well as physically. We review that important book at

MacYoung has long studied conflict, threat assessment, disengagement and why we so often fail to stop a budding conflict, so let’s switch to Q & A to learn from him in his own words.

eJournal: How can the armed citizen decisively deter violence without engaging in mutual combat or appearing to do so?

We preach avoidance, but let’s say there’s no opening to leave. Perhaps your neighbor and a big guy you’ve seen hanging out next door with him flank you menacingly in your driveway. We have immediacy of the threat combined with the ability to do violence. We worry that it is escalation to draw a gun defensively too soon, while at the same time, we need to disengage forcefully enough to stop them. How can we do that?

MacYoung: We are going to have to cover a lot of territory to get to why that is not a simple question. One of the problems is our tendency to think, “What if?” rather than “ If (fill in the blank), then (blank).” We ask ourselves, “What if?” and we don’t realize how easy that question is to ask, but how difficult it is to answer.

Now, we have to take a step further back and realize that we are dealing with variable and mutable problems that, depending on the circumstances at the time, will determine what is the appropriate answer. There’s the operator’s maxim of, “the situation dictates,” which is true, you won’t know the details of a situation–and by extension the appropriate answer–until you’re in it. But how do you assess these? The way I describe it is that you have to be able to do the math. When you are looking at a math problem, there are certain fixed issues: “When you see this, this means that.”

At the same time, there are also “predictable variables,” a term I am beginning to use, because you do not know what these variables are until you are in the situation, but you do know that these variables will always be changing. You learn to look for those predictable variables, and assess them so you can do the math and come up with the appropriate answer.

eJournal: So, we have got our predictable variable of the two big guys flanking us…

MacYoung: Right! That’s an example! Unless those two big guys flanking us happen to be EMTs trying to get us on to the stretcher.

eJournal: We should be able to differentiate between hostile neighbors and first responders. Let’s say that maybe we’ve exchanged harsh words with this neighbor earlier.

MacYoung: So take a situation and break it into three stages: the pre-incident, the physical incident, and then the aftermath. People want to focus on only one aspect, the incident itself and the physical skills you need. I consider this a serious failing in what is being taught whether empty handed, knife or firearms.

Now, when I look at a situation, I look at all three of those stages and see how they interface with one another. In “what if” questions, most people will paint a scenario and they won’t give you what has led to it. I ask, what was your behavior in this?

Recognizing that what you do before a situation becomes physical has a strong influence on what happens afterwards is a major shift in thinking. Don’t distinguish between the two of them; don’t say they are separate issues. What you do before a situation becomes physical not only has a strong influence on the aftermath, but it has a strong influence whether it even goes physical.

For example, before a situation goes physical, make a good faith effort to withdraw.

eJournal: Even if you are on your own property?

MacYoung: If at all possible, try to make the effort to withdraw. This gives you articulable facts that you tried and it didn’t work. Now, overwhelmingly, violence comes with instructions how to avoid it. When somebody gives you a good faith offer of, “Shut up or I am going kick your ass,” that is not the time to make a comment about that individual’s sexual habits, but egos kick in and we do that, then we’re surprised that it goes physical. Worse when the cops are investigating, such a response undermines your claim that it was self defense.

Walking away has an amazing track record for preventing violence¬–especially if someone has told you to leave. Oh, and for the record, when you make a good faith effort to withdraw from a situation, that does not mean walking away and over your shoulder calling out about him and his mom again. If you did, you just broke the deal. He offered you a chance to leave peacefully and you had to get that final shot in. That is why I say, “Make a good faith effort to withdraw.” There’s always the question, “Well, what if he’s lying?” Forget about that: that is one percent of all situations.

eJournal: The other argument against retreat you’ll hear is, “If he sees me running away, it will ignite his prey drive and he will chase me down.”

MacYoung: Oh, no, no, no! When people talk about that, usually, it isn’t them running that ignited it, it was that comment they made about his mom. That is not a good faith effort to withdraw; it is getting that last dig in. They say, “He’s going to chase me if I run.” Well, no, but he is going to chase you if you say something and then run. Odds are good he will let you go if you don’t get that last dig in.

eJournal: That’s a good example of fears based on inaccurate beliefs about violence. It is important to acknowledge at this point that you, Marc, are someone who has done this dance, as opposed to someone who is afraid of the dance and is speculating about it.

MacYoung: Correct. Well, if you want to bring that up, I tell people that I have a different scale of “bad” than most people and when somebody says something is “bad,” my first question is, “Did the person live?" If no, "How many parts was the body found in?” I have a really seriously different scale of bad than most people, not like the social justice warriors, the “I have rights” people who tend to respond, “You don’t understand the trauma this would cause.”

eJournal: No, our concerns are more serious than hurt feelings. If we’re considering bringing a gun out into a confrontation, the level of seriousness is life and death–whether or not it was before, so how we got there had better be justifiable.

MacYoung: Yes! Recognize how many off ramps there are before we get to that point!

eJournal: Don’t those off ramps appear during the pre-incident stage, the first of the three stages?

MacYoung: Yes! If I can withdraw, if I have the patience to deal with it later, I can resolve the situation without use of force.

eJournal: What do you mean by having the patience, Marc?

MacYoung: Remember the three brain model: human, monkey, lizard? (See The monkey wants to solve things NO-O-OW! It’s got that adrenaline urge – it’s got to be done now, now, now! The human brain allows us to stop and say, “OK, let’s step back, calm down, find another way to handle this.” When we are in the mode of “I want to solve this NOW,” we actually don’t see the options that we have, we only see the options that the monkey brain gives us.

Think in long-term strategy: Let’s say there is a video camera of the soon-to-be shooting–when I am talking to Detective Friendly in the presence of my lawyer, I want the video to back up my story. I want the video to show me extending my hands and saying, “I don’t want any problems; I’ll just leave,” and the video will show me backing away, so the video corroborates my story.

The good faith effort to withdraw has the added benefit that it often works! Guess what? I didn’t have to shoot anybody; I can go home! Yeah!

But if our hands are forced, and if we are left with no other options but to use lethal force, we’d better explain WHY. If I can articulate later, what I did to try to avoid it and how it didn’t work, I have just put a serious torpedo into the prosecutor’s attempt to say, “Well, you were participating in this. Why didn’t you walk away?”

I can say, “I DID.”

“Well, why did you stop?”

“It wasn’t working.”

The good faith effort to withdraw keeps my self-defense claim from being undermined when he asks, “Why did you make that comment about his mother that the witnesses all heard?” Never forget: What you do before has major consequences afterwards.

eJournal: Under adrenal stress, how can you stay in your rational mind to make those good choices, to control your mouth and avoid excessive force in defense to stop the threat?

MacYoung: It is the ability to do the math. One of the things that I teach is assessing somebody’s attack range. When you are talking about knife or empty hand, somebody’s attack range is the distance from their eyebrows to the floor, laid out on the ground. That distance is the distance that he can attack you without taking a step. Divide that in half and that’s pretty much an arm’s reach.

This is one of the things about adrenal stress: We hyper focus on the threat and the threat looks bigger. Do you know that I have never had a gun pulled on me, a knife pulled on me? I have always had cannons and swords pulled on me! Talk about spatial distortion!

When people get involved in shootings and they’re asked, “How close was the guy?” and they say about five feet, and the video shows he was fifteen feet away, “Boo! You’re lying. What else are you lying about?” Well, no, under adrenal stress, spatial distortion is common.

Measuring the distance is one way to break the grip of adrenaline. Quit looking at the threat and look at the distance between you. All it takes is an eye glance. Remember that really fascinating article you wrote about the Tueller Drill?

eJournal: Dennis Tueller gave us a really great interview on the topic back in May, 2008 (see

MacYoung: The Tueller Drill teaches you all kinds of wonderful things, but how many people have turned it into the 21-foot rule?

eJournal: Too many, and I well remember Tueller expressing how much he disapproves!

MacYoung: And I’m with him! Too many people want to turn it into an over-simplistic sound bite. It’s not. You have to learn how to do the math. You have to learn how to assess the predictable variables and once you have the skill to do that, it becomes the art of reading the situation.

People automatically assume they have the skill sets to do this stuff. Like driving, this is a multi-tiered situation. At the base of driving, there are skill sets of steering, braking and accelerating. The skill set of braking isn’t just applying the brake, it is knowing how to apply the brake at this speed to stop in this distance. It is a really, really involved, complicated process. We’ve driven enough that we have integrated the skill set into a different part of our brain. It is engrained so much that we don’t have to devote conscious thought to it.

Now, drawing your gun effectively, without shooting off important bits and bobs, should be a skill set. You should not have to think about it, it should be so engrained that it’s done and the only thing you should be thinking about at that time is, “Do I have to shoot?” You’re not wasting brain cells on drawing the gun.

Then you come to skills. This is assessing the given circumstances. How do you mix steering, accelerating and braking, given the circumstances you are in, whether you are coming around a corner or whether someone is merging into your lane. What is the appropriate response? What is the combo? Those are the skills.

Take that into a shooting situation. As I said, you are not even thinking about pulling the gun. Once you’re there, you’re going, “Do I have to shoot?” So all your brain cells are in “shoot or don’t shoot,” assessing the circumstances.

What is really important about this model is that we think this way all the time. As a situation changes, our reactions change. Let’s go back to driving: You’re processing how to get through the curve as you’re driving, but once you get out of that curve, you have to change your behaviors. You are constantly doing these calculations. So there, you’re pulling your gun, you’re getting ready, and all of a sudden the guy turns around and runs away. What’s the important thing to do right now?

eJournal: I believe most of us would get that part right and stand down.

MacYoung: Really? That is where the monkey brain still says, “Shoot him! Shoot him! He’s still a threat!” when indeed the threat has passed. See, the part that is actually doing the calculations is your lizard brain, not your monkey, but the monkey is going, “Shoot him! Shoot him! He’s still attacking,” and in the meantime, the lizard is saying, “Shut up, monkey.”

So you have the skill set, you have the skills. Really, the skills are based in the ability to do the math. Train your lizard brain to calculate, “If (blank), then (blank),” instead of asking, “What if?” By the way, to give proper credit, Jeff Meek is the one who thought up the “If (blank), then (blank)” model. (See

In the art of driving, you have those skill sets down so well that you almost become psychic. Looking at a situation, you know what predictable variables are changing, and what you need to look at so you can predict what is going to happen in the future.

eJournal: How do we learn to recognize predictable variables in conflict?

MacYoung: First of all, you have to have the first two things in play: getting those skills and those skill sets, then learning how to function and make decisions under adrenaline, understanding human beings and their behaviors. In pretty much everything I’ve ever written, I talk about the five stages of violent crime. (See When you know that stuff, you see the system, you have a baseline of reliable knowledge that you can use to assess and do the math.

There is a process here, like a good mechanic who can literally walk up to a car and just by the sound know what the problem is. Developing that amazing “woo woo” is not something that you get to over night. You have to methodically work, practice, get training, work with this stuff, have experience where people say, “Hear that? When you hear that sound, that means…” The good mechanic may be gifted, but without the ability to do the math, it is nothing.

eJournal: Applying this to self defense, how do we gain the experience without ending up in the hospital repeatedly?

MacYoung: Talk to people who have been there, done that and listen to the small details. Somebody who has actually been there will have a different set of priorities than somebody who has not. For example, I will commonly say, “Look, you need to make a good faith effort to withdraw.” That is a priority; it’s got many reasons and I am able to explain to you why it is important. Somebody who has not been there will only fixate on the physical incident or their feelings. When you listen to many people who have “been there” you will hear certain things that are stressed over and over again. [pauses] You know some very, very dangerous people. Tell me how polite they are.

eJournal: Exceedingly.

MacYoung: Why?

eJournal: Because they know how serious it is if conflict is not managed on a civilized basis.

MacYoung: Yes. The other thing they know is that politeness and proper etiquette or behavior will cause a lot of situations to settle down, and if you present a social script and if there is not a problem, people will follow that script. Somebody not following that script announces their intentions.

eJournal: We need better coaching to accurately recognize what subtle cues like going off script indicate. In addition to talks with you, I treasure memories of the honest been-there, done-that stories Jim Cirillo used to tell, because he spoke so frankly about his on-duty shootings, without bragging and he talked about fear and other affects.

MacYoung: In talking about those things, I’m sure he said things that had you saying, “I never thought about that.” Experienced people have encountered problems that inexperienced people have never imagined. For example: Shooting somebody is relatively easy, but how do you handle it if you decide not to shoot?

eJournal: That’s complicated…but that is how we hope to manage it.

MacYoung: It’s ALL complicated, but shooting is just one small, small sliver of that complication. Fine, you don’t shoot somebody, but the next thing you know, you’ve got the cops knocking on your door for brandishing. These are the kinds of real-life problems that you’ll face.

I don’t train people for “if this ever happens,” I train them for “when it happens,” because when it happens there are going to be certain reliable issues that you must address. This is not emotional. I teach, “If this happens you are going to have to deal with this.” We’ve handed it over to the lizard brain that is not going to get freaked out like the emotional monkey brain, because the emotional monkey is going to give you excessive force.

If you can control your lizard brain, once the threat goes away, you stop pulling the trigger. This is the difference between stopping shooting when the threat stops versus walking over and putting a couple more rounds in him while he’s lying on the ground.

eJournal: How does that calculating lizard brain work in the immediate aftermath, when we are dealing with witnesses who will give statements, including responding law enforcement, with whom we must interact?

MacYoung: A friend of mine once said, “Your thinking is done in practice.” Your thinking and problem solving says, “What about this variable? Does this answer solve the problem?” Having experience with adrenaline is like the difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in the ocean. We should get our swimming skill sets developed in the pool first. We don’t just jump into the riptide to learn to swim.

I recommend anybody who does shooting should go out and take scenario-based training empty handed because that gives adrenal stress inoculation. It teaches how to function under adrenal stress. It introduces the waves and currents and how to function in them. Then you integrate that into shooting. You watch the predictable variables to tell you which one that is going to be. When you do the math for these situations, it is not that there are ten thousand possibilities given the circumstances. There are some very predictable outcomes! [pauses, then asks suddenly] Do you know why I love deserted parking lots?

eJournal: I didn’t know that you did! Why?

MacYoung: Because they are deserted, nobody is there! It is when a parking lot isn’t deserted that I tend to go, “Uh, oh.” Let’s say I am in a dark parking lot in the middle of the night and I see a stranger. As long as he is doing his own thing, walking to or from a car, no problem. But it is not normal behavior for a stranger to walk up to me in a parking lot at night.

Now, if he tries to engage me, that doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing, but if he does try to engage me, how he does it is pretty important. If he stops 15 feet away and he says, “Excuse me, sir, do you know where…” he’s just hammered down a certain set of variables. The fact that he has stopped 15 feet away is important. That’s normal. You don’t approach strangers closely in lonely areas.

If this guy is pretending to ask me where the gas station is, but he keeps approaching, that is a predictable variable, and I’m thinking, “This isn’t right!” The next thing I’m watching for is for him to “show me his appendix scar,” because this is not normal, and he has now done some very predictable things that will lead to this particular conclusion: this is an attempted robbery. Know why I dislike the appendix draw? Because that is how criminals carry their guns. So if this guy has a gun on you and you do the same motions that he does to draw his own gun—hmmm…let’s do the math.

Where do I draw my gun in the process? That varies. See, I’m a firm believer in having the weapon in hand but out of sight before he gets close enough, but that is just me.

eJournal: You’re not going to be mute through this progression, either.

MacYoung: No, that’s the thing: I can talk to somebody with my firearm out of sight. I can be very polite, while saying, “That’s close enough, what can I do for you?” That is me taking control of the situation instead of leaving him in control of the situation.

eJournal: Now you have rewritten the equation.

MacYoung: In order to rewrite the equation, you have to understand the math.

eJournal: I thought your latest book, In the Name of Self-Defense went far to help us recognize predictable variables. I have been reading your books for years, and the last one to explain these equations with such clarity was Safe in the City, written 20 years ago. That comparison has me wondering, what aspect of your self-defense viewpoint has changed most radically since your first book came out 25 years ago?

MacYoung: I no longer put myself into situations where I need to act. I have done things that I have to live with. I can look at those things and live with myself because they were self defense, however, I now realize that I had put myself into a situation where self defense was necessary. I had to own my actions that put me into those situations.

How many of our actions are selfish, even when we don’t think before we do it? If someone cuts us off in traffic and we flip them off, that’s self-soothing. That makes us feel better for a moment. There was a lot of my behavior that I found to be rather self soothing. In hindsight it was insulting, hurt the person, and they reacted negatively. I created the situation that I was involved in. Sure he attacked me, but I really shouldn’t have said that. You can be self righteous about it, but there comes a time when you really do have to own it. It is far, far better if you can own it rather than having a prosecutor try to make you own it.

eJournal: I would hope that all of us reading this can share that realization about our contributions to the situations where we want to say, “He did that to me.”

MacYoung: When you have the ability to take a human life, you have to realize that. I can kill somebody with my bare hands in under ten seconds and that is not a boast, it is a burden, it is a responsibility, it is something that I have to live with and I cannot abuse. I have to hold myself to a higher standard so as not to hurt people who don’t deserve it.

For most people, the ability to take a life requires a tool. When you pick up that tool, you pick up that responsibility. I can’t ever put that tool down. People who carry firearms should for one month in all their dealings, consider themselves to be armed. Maybe you don’t carry at work, so how does that affect your interaction with other people?

eJournal: At the core, you’re measuring the quality of the person. Carrying a gun does not automatically change habits or behavior.

MacYoung: Correct. It is funny for me to be sitting here sounding like, “Those young whippersnappers these days…” When I was a kid, I was taught how to be polite; I was raised on how to act like a gentleman. Granted, I didn’t do it a lot, but I had that resource when I needed it, so I could refine those skills and get back into practice. Now, I see a lot of people out there who have not been trained. They don’t have any other skills other than being, shall we say, a street punk. They don’t know how to shift gears.

I would often find myself in a situation where a young guy had come up to me, he was being stupid, and he’d suddenly realize that if he continued on his current course of action, I would be playing show and tell with his vital organs. But he didn’t know how to withdraw from the situation. So I’d actually have to kind of coach him, like, “Here is how you exit this situation safely. Now, say this…good boy, good. Now back away slowly, yes, there you go, see it worked! Yeah!” I would manipulate and manage the situation so this young guy could have a face-saving exit.

eJournal: Doing that needs to be an addition to our people management skills.

MacYoung: Yes, because these kids don’t have it.

eJournal: That is sobering.

MacYoung: Yes, it is. You are dealing with people who have very little impulse control and a lot of times they need to know how to behave. If this guy doesn’t know how to get out of a situation, you are going to have to guide him through so you don’t have to shoot him.

eJournal: We have to learn how to manage that uncivilized human. To what resources can we turn to learn this?

MacYoung: You know, I’m working on that!

eJournal: What are you currently writing?

MacYoung: I just finished writing Violence for Defense. I have another book that’s in process, which is Outside Suburbia, which is basically how to deal with the rest of the world when you’ve been raised in the white, middle class world. It is not just how to deal with people from different economic and racial backgrounds, but also like going to college, getting a job, all the stuff that kids today are not being taught. Those two are already in process, and I’ve returned to Conflict Communications, from which I had to take a break, but now I’m back to it.

eJournal: Talking with you is a great gift and an opportunity to urge Network members to read your website, get your latest book and preorder the ones that aren’t out yet, because you explain subtleties that no one else is talking about. We are trying so hard to prepare members to think these things through in advance, but to do so realistically. It is easy to say, “Here is what I imagine,” when what is truly productive is instruction in the principles, as you have given here today. Thank you for the time you’ve taken and for sharing your experiences, thoughts and knowledge with Network members!

MacYoung: The principles are learning to do the math, just as you have to learn the principles of math in order to do math. Is this addition, multiplication, subtraction, division? No, wait, is it Base 8? Again, you won’t know what the exact circumstances are until you are in the situation, so you need to know to look for those predictable variables and what they mean.
Marc MacYoung is the featured speaker on the fourth video lecture in Network’s member education package. He is a prolific author, having written 15 books and five videos over the past 25 years. Read more at and follow his blog at

Click here to return to October 2015 Journal to read more.