The elevator situation

With this short unpretentious post, I would like to present a learning situation induced by a contextual bias that I have encountered several times in my lessons that I call “the elevator situation”.


When I teach self-defense, I always tell my students that a conflict situation is best avoided, especially if it is too dangerous and difficult to defend.

In general, all situations of physical conflict must be avoided. We live in society and as a citizen it is part of our rules of life in society. Especially since nature has endowed us with developed means of communication, whether through body language or verbal language, and it is always better to resolve a conflict through communication than through physical confrontation. See my post the fight-flight response and its alternatives.

“Never stand and fight if there is a possibility of ‘flight’.” Geoff Thompson [1]

“Most fight are avoidable.” Peyton Quinn

Generally, there is a consensus among self-defense experts on this way of looking at things and using the strategies available to get out of a dangerous situation unscathed. Take for example the continuum exposed by Rory Miller in his bestseller Méditation on Violence [2] : It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die. The very essence of self-defense is a thin list of things that might get you out alive when you are already screwed.

On the other hand, some situations are very dangerous and difficult to defend, even for a “self-defense expert”, because their context puts the defense at a great disadvantage. Few examples : faced with a knife attacker, faced with a group attackers to fight at the same time, a situation with people to protect… In these particular cases where physical defense is clearly not the best solution, where negotiation and de-escalation are not always possible too, I recommend fleeing, running if necessary.

However, when I approach this theme with my students, I sometimes have some who ask me this fateful question :

“But what do you do, if you find yourself in an elevator ?”

At that moment, I have to give another answer because this particular place changes the context of the threat. The elevator situation imposes a paradigm shift that requires the use of other strategies to resolve the imminent threat, leaving few options other than to fight. The last resort then becomes a first necessity. We take as an example here an elevator, but any other closed place, where escape is impossible, poses this contextual bias and imposes another response.

Fight in a elevator. Click on the picture to watch the video. Source : youtube


An assault situation occurs when you find yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. Such a situation can be prevented by trying to avoid some categories of places that represent high probabilities of violence. It’s the people who gather there that make the place unsafe, but it’s always the place that is identified first. Rory Miller distinguishes several categories of places where it is likely to encounter violence [3] :

  • Violence happens where people get their minds altered. Drugs and alcohol at the most basic level change the way people think and act.
  • Violence happens where young men gather in groups. Young people are often in search of status, for themselves or their peers, the use of violence is a way to gain this status. We talk about Monkey Dance or Group Monkey Dance (I already talked about the Monkey Dance in this post and the Group Monkey Dance in this one).
  • Violence happens where territories are in dispute. In places where multiple groups are trying to manage the space.
  • Predatory violence happens in lonely places.

However, situations of aggression do not respond to an exact science and bad encounters can sometimes take place in unexpected places.

“Violence always happens in a specific place, at a specific time and
between people.” Rory Miller

In an elevator, or any other narrow and closed place, escape is impossible. At least for a while, a few seconds, until the doors opened when the elevator finished its journey. Two things must therefore be clearly distinguished : is there aggression or threat of aggression ? If it’s a threat, there’s still a chance to temporize and wait for the doors to open for an opportunity to escape. If there is imminent aggression, it is necessary to act, whatever the danger of the attack. It was in this state of mind that I learned knife fighting in the Filipino Martial Arts. In case of extreme necessity. My Sifu always told us, that we must start from the principle that the chances of survival are slim, that it is an extreme situation to be avoided at all costs. No matter how effective the trained technique, it only increases, at best, our chances of survival.

In summary, the context of the elevator situation suggests that the worst is expected. This may be an interpretation of Murphy’s Law in the world of self-defense.

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” Murphy’s law

A confrontation in an elevator is characterized by this narrow place where any amplitude of movement is problematic. Close combat techniques are more suitable in this type of situation. Thank you Wing Chun ! Technically, it is necessary to favor short attacks and defenses, elbow strikes, knee strikes, low kicks, clinch seizures are also very likely in this context. Movements being very limited, only pivots are still possible. Strategically, like most self-defense situations, it is necessary to use techniques that cause damage or shock to the aggressor, to end the confrontation as quickly as possible. I refer you to my post on the dim mak for this domain. I am not in favor of control or submission techniques to “preserve” my attacker, until the elevator doors open. Everyone has his point of view.

“Wing Chun is a close quaters combat system.” David Paterson [4]

Finally concerning this “elevator situation”, as I said, it is an imaginary context in which my students led me to project myself to solve such or such learning situation. But this particular context symbolizes all the narrow, closed places where flight is impossible and where the only response to aggression is physical engagement. You can find other places of this type, such as a room where the door is locked, a subway… where all exits are, at least, temporarily closed.

Elbow techniques are particularly suitable for close quarters combat. Source: personal picture.

For anyone seriously interested in self-defense, without becoming paranoid, it is sometimes good to imagine difficult situations like these. This work of mental projection can be very rewarding, especially for people who have not experienced real situations of aggression. The lived experience is very formative, provided it is not too traumatic, but the mind will also be “prepared” with the help of imagined situations.


One last piece of advice : avoid the elevator and take the stairs ! It’s safer and it works the legs !


[1] Dead Or Alive: The Choice Is Yours: The Definitive Self-Protection Handbook, p21, THOMPSON Geoff, Summersdale Publishers, 2004

[2] Meditations on Violence, A Comparaison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence, p77, MILLER Rory, YMAA Publication Center, 2008

[3] Meditations on Violence, A Comparaison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence, p72-75, MILLER Rory, YMAA Publication Center, 2008

[4] The Art of Wing Chun 咏春之道 – Documentary Short (Director’s Cut), One Punch Production, 2017. source > youtube


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