Is Your Flinch Response Holding You Back?

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Does your flinch response still protect you?

Tony Blauer is a a world-class close-quarters combatives instructor who now spends his days training law enforcement, military and civilians in his personal defense system (Blauer Tactical Systems) based in San Diego. I had the pleasure and honor of not only training with him for over a decade, but in also being one his coaches and friends. While training with Tony, I also spent time learning some of the more traditional martial arts at other local schools. While many of the traditional systems focused on defined motions and reactions, Tony’s system (which he created and continues to evolve) is based on physiology, kinesiology and psychology. It’s not one tactic that is taught to every individual, but rather training each individual how to best use what he or she has been given in a natural way. It’s easy to train in a gym for what to do when someone comes at you with a knife, when you know you’re in a gym and you know that the person is going to come at you with a knife. It’s a whole different scenario when you get jumped in a parking lot. What Tony’s system quickly taught me is that the real world is very different from the gym. It’s both your emotional state and your ability to react and shift your fear mindset from that initial flinch, which will determine your ability to not just survive but to control a hostile environment successfully.

It’s not easy work training in close-quarters combatives.

You wind up spending the majority of your time not trying to do a flying roundhouse kick, but in reprogramming your body’s natural flinch response. In it’s simplest form, you’re trying to turn your natural flinch (a sudden scare or shock that makes your recoil) into a proactive motion (usually moving into the danger instead of away from it) that primes you to proactively control and hopefully end the confrontation. That specific training (which is as much psychological as it is physical) serves me well to this day when confronted with both challenges and opportunities in my business life.

It seems to have caught the attention of others as well.

Julien Smith is known to some as being one of the original Podcasters in the New Media world. His hip-hop music show, In Over Your Head, has become a cult classic and he still continues to Blog about all things media and mindfulness over at In Over Your Head (he’s also a regular co-host of the Media Hacks podcast). Others know him as the co-author (along with Chris Brogan) of the New York Times best-selling business book, Trust Agents – a book about using the Internet to build influence and improve your reputation and, ultimately, earn trust. While Brogan and Smith prep their second book (tentatively titled, The Impact Equation, due for release this coming summer on Portfolio), Smith found himself thinking about the flinch response and how it seems to hold us back from many of the things that we should be moving towards (instead of away from) in business and in life.

The Flinch. The Book.

"No matter their apparent confidence, every single person has anxiety to deal with, whether in social situations or physical ones," says Smith who is about to launch his next book (and first as a solo author), The Flinch, via Seth Godin‘s The Domino Project book publishing imprint in digital format only on December 7th. "I’ve personally worked with some of the world’s best coaches – from Sweden to Thailand and here in Canada as well – and continue to seek them out in order to understand the flinch better. The reality is that the work to understand your own reactions never ends, but that even a small amount of this work leads to a much deeper understanding of what we’re truly capable of doing. I wrote The Flinch because people who flinch are making decisions in a business environment, and those decisions are influenced by emotion, either consciously or not. Understanding the flinches behind our business decisions is essential. Businesses can’t predict the future effectively because it’s hard to examine the blind spots… or even understand them. The businesses that work through the flinch can see their blind spots and make better decisions because of it. I wanted a book to not only explain the notion of the flinch, but a place to provide exercises on how to overcome it."

For Smith, understanding your own flinch response is also a core component that he has identified as a metric for business success.

"The flinch – as many know it – is a startle-flinch response. It’s a reflex and it’s necessary to survive," he explains, "but we also flinch as a learned reaction to change or the unknown. It’s this second, learned response that I address in the book. Much of what we have been taught is dangerous is wrong or outdated. Understanding our natural protective reaction is a part of being able to adapt to an increasingly fast-changing world. Those that unlearn their flinch reactions tend to have better careers, businesses, and even family lives because they aren’t afraid of asking themselves hard questions."

Better decisions. Better reactions.

Malcolm Gladwell talked about better decisions in Blink. Julien Smith is now attempting for all of us to rethink how we flinch in direct response to things that startle us. All in all, we live in a very fast-paced business environment. The digitization of everything is making many of us recoil and flinch. The future may be less about technology and rapid change and much more about how we not only adapt to this brave new world, but also reprogram how we think, behave and push forward in a proactive (instead of reactive) motion.

Time to hit the gym.

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. I’m not totally sold.
    The problem of the rate of change issue is that meaning comes from context and our awareness of the total context is always limited.. so #1 there’s no way that learning not to flinch is going to cure you of that blind spot #2 The real problem is situational awareness basically…
    It’s like Apple right? What is smart about Apple comes from intuition as a pose to hyper focus on customer feed back and analytics….
    So there’s a way that we understand our context.. the way we relate to our ecosystem and what is going on with our eco system… that is really about a kind of data compression of.. cognition… We have.. by one means or another.. decided on how we could compress information..
    So for instance we have things like “best practices.” The best practices are often not best practices in any kind of “eternal sense” but in a “temporal sense” which means they are contingent on the contextual ecology inside of which they have pragmatic value.. but.. when we talk about the best practices we neglect this part.. our eye is not on this part of the ball.. and when the ecosystem shifts.. so “the best practices” efficacy shifts.
    What’s powerful about Apple.. and the intuitive approach is that it somehow goes beyond the accepted ideas of the known to a new vision… and then works on manifesting that..
    So if you’re in a situation where you know the context has changed…. then you know the flinch is like some deep instinct within you recognizing that the patterns via which you normally operate will not operate so effectively here.
    Now if you choose not to flinch, keep you’re eyes open.. yes.. maybe you will get some kind of an understand of how to operate in this landscape.
    But here’s the deal.. There’s what you can do in preparation.. and then there’s what you can improvise in real time… if someone understand the context and implications better then you do.. you better hope they’re not playing a zero sum game.. I mean flinch or not they have a big advantage… unless you develop some kinda new existential relationship to the market place or something and… well I haven’t written that book yet so….
    And that’s sorta the point of the intuitive approach

  2. Great article. I like how the principles of the flinch can be applied into different life elements such as from self defence to business. Indeed, many core and foundational aspects of one area of life can very much be applied to other areas, as has been seen here. Nice article.

  3. Interesting perspective but I take issue with the blanket statement “much of what we’ve been taught is dangerous is wrong or outdated.” Much of what we’ve been taught also keeps us safe, is right and timeless.

  4. Mitch, I downloaded my free Kindle copy of Flinch today. I pre-ordered it from Amazon yesterday after reading your post. Thank you for the early alert to your blog subscribers about Julien Smith’s book (it wasn’t publicized on The Domino Project site until today).
    I look forward to reading Julien’s book because it sounds like there are valuable lessons/thinking we can all benefit from and help us “get out of our own way.” Based on your post, I’m sure it will have a lot of valuable lessons like Steven Pressfield’s “Do The Work” (another great Domino Project publication).

  5. The whole point of the flinch is that you can never choose to not flinch. The flinch (at least in the pure physical realm), is automatic. The flinch is involuntary when a person is caught by surprise. When we walk around a corner and almost run into someone, we flinch. When someone asks us what time it is and then throws a massive swinging punch at our head, we flinch.
    That is the beauty of Tony Blauer’s system. It harnesses that flinch response. It does not pretend to be able to stop the flinch, it builds on that natural reaction and attempts to modify it slightly so that it puts us in a much better position to respond. This is purely in the self defence context.
    I guess the main thing to consider about a true flinch is that we cannot choose to not do it. For sure, we can choose to not overreact once we have flinched though. After we flinch, we can often times find ourselves reacting poorly from a poor position. Understand that the flinch will happen, and try to develop a way of adapting that flinch and do not spin out of control once we have flinched.

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