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I am currently studying and researching good self defence techniques, and the subject of eye contact has arisen.

I found on this Martial Arts forum here that one of the users claims that his Master advised the class to never break eye contact with someone you are fighting. However almost absolutely nobody else on this forum agrees with this Master's advice, and are almost in 100% unanimous agreement that this Master is obviously over eagre to put his Martial Arts techniques into play as the consensus appears to be that eye contact is not a good method for avoiding a fight. Martial Arts Planet

However the above is just a forum with anonymous users, and the opinions are not necessarily scientifically accurate, nor opinions necessarily shared by psychologists or trained martial artists, so my question is, what is the general rule in the Martial Arts world regarding eye contact? Is making eye contact good or bad for avoiding fights?

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    Notice that a fight in a martial arts setting is different from a street fight. One is a sport and there's no reason to de-escalete or run away (might be the best option, don't dismiss this), try to grab your phone, watch out for weapons, ... Dec 18, 2023 at 18:19
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    "never break eye contact with someone you are fighting" and "the consensus appears to be that eye contact is not a good method for avoiding a fight" are not contradictions, since they focus on two completely different scenarios.
    – Flater
    Dec 19, 2023 at 0:09
  • That depends a lot on whether you are facing your wife or your arch enemy! Dec 19, 2023 at 19:49
  • Not breaking eye contact during the fight is not the same as using eye contact to avoid a fight, and it’s contextually debatable whether it’s good advice anyway (in an actual fight you should be watching your opponent in their entirety, not just their eyes, and if you can’t do that should at least be visually tracking their weapon). Dec 20, 2023 at 12:05
  • Although this applies to while in a fight and not avoiding fights, in competition, you're usually taught not to look your opponent in the eyes actually. You're told to watch their chest instead since watching their eyes or limbs or anywhere other than the chest can put too much emphasis on watching your opponent's feints.
    – 2011cmpunk
    Dec 21, 2023 at 21:45

5 Answers 5

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Here's what I did to figure out how fights happen and how to predict who will win: I watched a ton of YouTube videos showing real, actual fights that happen in real life. Others have done a similar thing.

The main thing I walked away with after watching many dozens of street fight videos is this: The one who loses the fight is usually the one who signals he doesn't want to fight. You can usually predict what will happen within the first few seconds of the interaction.

What does it mean to signal that you don't want to fight?

Typically, street fights go down like this. The aggressor gets really upset about something some other guy did and quickly walks up to him and gets within punching range. The aggressor then stares straight at the other guy's face menacingly, pushes out his chest, hangs his arms down at his sides and clenches his fists while raising his voice in anger. The aggressor usually does micro aggressions which twitch his shoulder or forearms in a manner that indicates he's starting to punch, and he's watching the defender's reaction to it to gauge whether the defender will fight back. Sometimes if the aggressor gets closer, he begins shoving the defender's chest, pushing him back. This is pretty common. He's again trying to gauge whether the defender will fight back or not.

The defender then has two options. He can back down or stand up to the aggressor. If he backs down, he typically steps back, lowers and calms his voice, and says he doesn't want to fight or asks him what his problem is. His eyes usually stare at the guy, but occasionally you can see he's looking to the side to indicate that he doesn't want to be there and wants to leave. That's pretty typical of what someone looks like backing down and not wanting to fight.

Sometimes it's just that the defender stands there looking kind of weak and averts his eyes from the aggressor. His body just kind of turns to jello, very weak. He's making it very obvious with his body language that he won't fight back, and he's hoping this will be accepted by the aggressor and that the aggressor will take pity on him and leave him alone. He's putting himself at the mercy of the aggressor.

What it looks like for the defender to stand up to the aggressor is for the defender to posture up, stand his ground, and stare right into the eyes of the aggressor. He doesn't take his eyes away. He won't occasionally look to the side. He just keeps staring straight at the aggressor. He might even take a step towards the aggressor instead of stepping back. He often looks relaxed. This says to the aggressor that if he attempts to fight, the defender is ready for it and will fight back. Having a relaxed posture also indicates that he's got the skill to back it up.

Who wins the fight?

The one who wins is the one who punches first, typically. If the aggressor walks right up to the defender and basically talks trash to him, starts shoving him back repeatedly, all while not throwing any actual punches, and the defender is looking like he's ready to fight, then the defender might throw the first punch and win. This is because the defender realizes that the aggressor doesn't really want to fight. You see, if the aggressor hasn't actually thrown any punches after a while of just going off verbally on the defender and maybe even shoving him back repeatedly, then that is a signal to the defender that the aggressor isn't really going to attack. The defender realizes that he has an opportunity to throw the first punch and beat the aggressor, so he does.

On the other hand, if the aggressor goes up to the defender and realizes that the defender is weak and doesn't want to fight, the aggressor may throw the first punch fairly soon in the interaction. That's because the aggressor knows the other guy isn't going to fight back, and the aggressor wants to fight.

So from a self-defense perspective, it's important that you signal readiness to fight to your opponent. That means you don't look away from your opponent. You don't try to back away. You do need to posture up by pushing out your chest, pulling your shoulders up, tucking your chin, and getting into a stance that's ready to punch and ready to sprawl. Get your arms up and ready to guard your head from a strike. You can get your hands up without getting into a boxing punching position, too, so that your opponent doesn't take it as an immediate threat.

It's then up to you as a defender whether or not you're going to throw the first punch. Legally, that could be a problem for you. But just speaking for myself, if it's clear that the aggressor isn't ready to fight at that moment but may still attack me soon enough, I might use that opportunity to throw the first punch. That's because I know that if it connects, generally the odds of me winning and surviving go up a lot. Whereas, if I wait and let him attack me, my chances of survival go down a lot. It all depends on whether or not you think he's going to attack for real. It's not usually obvious, though.

As for what you're doing with your eyes: Think of it like this. If you're not looking at his eyes, you can't read what he's going to do. You're a sitting duck. You're just hoping he's seeing that you're not interested in fighting, calms down, gets bored, and walks away. Yeah, he's yelling at you and maybe shoving you, but you figure that's okay so long as he doesn't start punching you. But that's generally not something you can rely on. Instead, they often will take that opportunity to attack you, because you're indicating that you're weak and won't fight back.

So you need to stare at his eyes. That's very important from a self-defense perspective. It's going to signal that you're not weak, and you're ready to fight. It's also going to allow you to read him and give you a heads up before he makes a move. This is a proven concept in almost all martial arts.

Now, many martial arts will teach you that when someone comes up to you aggressively, you should immediately take a step back, get into a stance, put arms up, palms facing out, and stare at the guy while saying to him that you don't want to fight. This is for two purposes. First, it attempts to deescalate. Fights are bad. Even when you win, you might get hurt. You might even die. So it's best not to fight if it can be avoided. And so deescalation is a pretty good idea. Second, while saying you don't want to fight, you're actually in a position to be able to defend yourself.

Legally, this is the best approach. You're waiting for the aggressor to attack, but you're ready to defend if so. You're relying on your martial arts skill to be able to maintain the distance, read your opponent, and react fast enough to avoid his attack while also allowing you to counter-attack.

That is a popular martial arts theory. The theory isn't necessarily wrong, but it often fails.

It fails for two reasons. First, it overestimates your skill and ability to see an attack coming and be able to react to it quick enough and decisively enough. You think you have enough distance between you two to be able to see anything coming, but it's often not enough. You think you can block a very powerful punch coming, but you may only deflect some of its force before getting hit. Even a grazing hit to your jaw can leave you nearly knocked out and much weaker, unable to fight back. And even if you managed to defend against that strike, you don't know what to do next. Some people just freeze, because this is something they're just not trained to do. It's real life, not play sparring. They don't know what to do. The other guy, however, doesn't care. He just keeps coming. You just bought yourself a few extra seconds before lights out for you.

Second, what is often left out of martial arts training is that you shouldn't actually not want to fight. You're taught to deescalate and indicate to the other person that you don't want to fight. What is left out of martial arts training, in my experience, is that you should just look like you don't want to fight. Inside your head, however, you should have already thrown a switch that puts you in a fighting mindset, so you're ready to fight right then and there.

You actually have to want to fight, and you're just holding yourself back for the right opportunity or until he backs down. If you don't want to fight, you're going to lose. This is an aspect of martial arts training that is often not taught or explained, to the detriment of their students.

In conclusion, staring at your opponent is an important aspect of self-defense. It signals your readiness to fight and makes it less likely you'll be attacked. It also allows you to read what your opponent is going to do before it happens, which is vital for giving you enough time to react and defend yourself. Looking away indicates that you don't want to fight, and your opponent can use that as an invitation to attack, since they know you won't fight back. Who wins in real street fights can usually be predicted by looking at this and other elements of body language within the first few seconds of the interaction.

EDIT: I went back to read the forum in the question's link. They were talking about situations which didn't involve an immediate fight. You're maybe sitting at a bar and someone is staring at you from across the bar. Then it is acceptable to break eye contact. You're not in an encounter just yet. You don't want to provoke him. He's maybe looking for any reason to go over and pick a fight with you. So you just ignore it, look away, go back to what you're doing. If he then wants to come right up to you and start a fight, that's when what I wrote applies. Of course, there are a number of verbal deescalation methods to use before that even starts. But you have to do it before he postures up. You can get a hint of at the following link:

https://youtu.be/-4UEgtt4ZPM?si=1PR0shejEmyMtApK

Hope that helps.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Martial Arts Meta, or in Martial Arts Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – slugster
    Dec 20, 2023 at 3:36
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    Sorry to those participating, but it was best to move all comments as the existing comments were triggering more activity. Participation and chat is great, let's just do it in the chat room linked above.
    – slugster
    Dec 20, 2023 at 3:38
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The answer provided by Steve Weigand is an excellent and thorough answer and I believe it is the correct answer. I do not have enough points to add a comment to his answer, and there is one major aspect of your question that was left unclarified. I think it's extremely important that the OP understand this distinction, as it seems to be the center of his confliction. So I am providing this answer to hopefully help explain why you're perceiving a major conflict in the advice from your Master, with the advice of the forum.

In your question, you first state that your Master has advised you to never break eye contact with a person you are fighting.

Next, you refer to the dissenting advice of the linked martial arts forum. However, you appear to be comparing two different situations, and this is likely why the advice you received differs so much.

I don't know what question you posed to the martial arts forum, or how you posed it, but the advice does not actually conflict with the advice of your Master. In this case, wording is important.

You stated that your Master advised you never to break eye contact with someone you are fighting. This is true for as long as you are actively engaged in a fight.

However, the advise you are viewing as conflicting, is not actually. Keep in mind that I am taking your wording at face value. The advise from your Master is indicative of your behavior during a fight. The advise from the forum is indicative of your behavior either before you're engaged in a fight, or when you're trying to escape from or deescalate a fight. Your Master's advise is specifically regarding self defense and is likely based on a very basic assumption with self defense; you are beyond the point of de-escalation, and your opponent has engaged you. You are being taught to defend yourself when attacked and forced to fight, or if you've assessed the situation and fighting is the only option that you stand a chance of winning or surviving. Once an opponent has, in their mind, engaged you in a fight, you are in a fight. Some people think that pre-fight tactics for avoiding a fight are self defense. My opinion is that those tactics are important and it's always best to be able to avoid a fight, but I consider self defense to be combat and defending yourself from active threats.

It might be good to address your Master individually and ask him respectfully if he could explain to you what self defense is to him. Does he consider de-escalation or avoidance tactics to be part of self defense? Knowing this will help you fully understand what he will be teaching you, what he won't be teaching you, and what courses you should consider to compliment these skills he will teach you.

So just to recap, the advice, as you described it, is not conflicting. They address two different scenarios, and it's important to understand that distinction. A person's eyes tell an immense amount of information about the general mood, thought process, and behavior of the person at that moment. And it's important to understand whether a fight is avoidable or not, and when you've been engaged. Like Steve said, if you avoid eye contact when your opponent has already engaged you, you're going to get hit, get hurt, and your chances of survival are lessened.

Best of luck with your training.

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Hands kill people. Eye contact has nothing to do with that. If you're in a situation that is about to come to blows and you have tunnel vision on their eyes, you're going to have far less reaction time to avoid, counter, etc.

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    This answer may be a little exaggerated, but I think there is an element of truth. In my limited experience... I've found that (in any kind of standing fight) an eye focus at about or above the opponent's solar plexus gives good peripheral vision of arms and legs... Dec 20, 2023 at 3:18
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There is a video clip of Mike Tyson showing how to box and he doesn't look at opponents eyes because "his face can't hit me" (c) He seems to know about punching, before a fight stare each other down, during a fight look at frame/shoulders.

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I know no general rule for how to use eye contact to avoid fights. Eye contact is intimate, and the way one person responds to eye contact may not be the same as another. Maybe the other person finds you attractive, or maybe they take your eye contact as a challenge. You cannot expect to go through public urban spaces making eye contact with everyone you find a vague potential threat without garnering unwanted attention. You also cannot avoid eye contact with everyone and expect bullies seeking a mark to leave you alone.

Once someone has invaded your space, eye contact is warranted, but this seems late for taking action.

Once you have come to blows, eye contact is not a good idea. Fixating on the eyes makes it more difficult to use peripheral vision to see threats away from the face, whether low kicks, another attacker, or something else.

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  • I think you're overstating your opinions too strongly and hopefully you take this as constructive criticism. It would probably be good to make an edit to remove the "general rule" claim and change the wording from implying these are general rules to identifying them as personal opinions. As it's worded, it looks like misinformation.
    – technotic
    Jan 13 at 10:42
  • @technotic I don't understand your criticism. The answer says there is no general rule, then goes on to enumerate both situations where one would want to avoid eye contact and situations where one would want eye contact. I do not understand how you are interpretting this as potential misinformation.
    – mattm
    Jan 13 at 12:39
  • I guess it's the situational examples you used. Are they making eye contact because they find you attractive or want to fight? If there were to be a general rule, i'd have to say that making eye contact is usually neither. I think your answer mistakes eye contact for prolonged eye contact or stating a person down, which then fits your statements of attraction or challenge, and also for urban areas. Avoiding eye contact actually draws attention, as it's evasive. Or at least in the U.S. Generally, a person who avoids eye contact is seen as weak, and if during conversation, it implies deceit.
    – technotic
    Feb 3 at 13:14
  • When interacting with customers, eye contact is expected. It shows you have their attention. Same with conversation in general. Keeping prolonged eye contact with someone you're not currently interacting with, that would most likely trigger a response; evasive or aggressive. The misinformation I refer to is: that eye contact itself is threatening, and that eye contact during a fight is a bad idea. His master's advice is correct because eyes often reveal a person's next move. You can read theirs, or avoid revealing yours, by keeping eye contact. In martial arts, that's the general rule.
    – technotic
    Feb 3 at 13:35

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