How to break up a fight without getting hurt.

About halfway through the parking lot, I heard them. She was shrieking like a banshee… F this, F that, F you. He was slurring in response– obviously drunk– GD b***. Like nobody was around. 


It was one of those sticky, post-thunderstorm summer days where every last inch of clothing clings like a wet towel. All I really wanted was to get in the jeep and turn the AC on.

But here I was, walking straight toward the local Walmart gladiator-fest. And then it happened. 

He grabbed her hair and slammed her against the car. 

As I debated stepping in, a cop car swept up beside them and flipped on his blue lights. A woman standing nearby turned and walked back to her car, apparently pleased she got the police there before the situation got worse.

The dangers of breaking up a fight.

Should you step in to break up a fight? I wish there was a clear answer. The truth is, maybe… maybe not. 

There’s a list of questions to consider. Is this a stranger in a spot you know nothing about? Are they in immediate danger? Or is this someone you know– spouse, child– who is being threatened?

And is it a real threat, or something you’d be best served by simply walking away from?

Lots can go wrong if you step in. For instance, one or both could turn on you. I’ve heard stories from several folks, police included, of stepping into a domestic dispute only to have the man AND woman suddenly team up against the uninvited do-gooder.

Couple Yelling

Photo by Vic. CC BY 2.0

You’ll definitely want good de-escalation techniques just in case you become the new target.

Does one of them have a weapon you don’t see? Are their friends standing by to target anyone who steps in? 

Who do you grab? If you try controlling the aggressor, the person on the losing end may see his chance to get even. And you’re in the middle.

If you cover the one on the losing end, well…

Truth is, one moment you could be playing hero, and the next you need a hero yourself.

Do these things before jumping in the middle of a fight.

If breaking up the fight isn’t the safest move, what should you do?

Well, when your gut says someone needs help, call 911. True, it’s gonna take a few minutes for help to arrive. But two guys brawling in the parking lot isn’t an immediate threat needing immediate attention.

The best way to break up a fight is call 911 and let the police handle it.

What should you do in the meantime? The easy answer is leave, but if you stick around until the cops get there…

• Know your exits. If things go bad- one of them pulls out a weapon, or it turns into a group melee- get out immediately. 

• Physically separate yourself. Put a table, chairs, a car– something– between you and them. Make yourself hard to get to. They may not drag you in on purpose, but a physical barrier prevents them from stumbling into you.

• Use your voice. A good friend who bounced at a night club once relayed a tactic he used to break up a group fight. He became the aggressors’ friend. How?

He started yelling “S**t guys, somebody just called the cops. Hurry! Get out of here before you get busted!”

• Use the group- as a last resort. If things are getting a little ugly before the cops arrive, you may separate them by sheer numbers. But you must know you have enough support, and be 100% sure there aren’t any weapons. 

Defending someone when they’re in immediate danger.

I want you to stop here a second and really think about something.

If you do choose to defend a victim of an imminent threat, you just placed yourself in immediate danger as well. Lock that in the back of your mind and keep it there, please.

What constitutes an immediate threat? It could be a significant difference in force. For instance, an adult hitting a child. Or like the opening story, a domestic argument that turns into the man violently attacking the woman.

Even worse– and the ultimate danger to yourself as well– a fist fight escalating because one of them pulls a weapon (now is a great time to find an improvised weapon of your own). Certainly none of us want to stand by and see another person killed. But who are you helping by getting yourself killed in the process?

Gun & Knife

Photo by Jun Wang. CC BY-SA 2.0 (

While we’re playing scenarios in our heads, what about these? Someone grabs your child or spouse as a hostage and starts making demands? OK, maybe you give it to them. 

But what if your child or spouse is what they want?

A final word on breaking up fights.

As I said in the beginning, there isn’t an easy, cut-and-dry answer. And if you hang around the self defense world long enough you’ll:

1. hear 20 questions asked about defending another person, and 

2. hear something like 20 different answers.

Remember, you’re ultimately responsible for your own safety. Creating a new victim– you– doesn’t do anyone any good. That means most times, the safest route is stay out of it and call the police.

And please, if you choose to intervene and defend someone else, have training and know what you’re doing.

What about you? Have you ever broken up a fight? Know someone who has? What happened? Tell us about it in the comments.

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