The ability to go about your day absorbing information about your surroundings so you can make rapid, logical decisions is a great gift and is a skill that is ever increasingly disappearing due to life’s ever-growing distractions.
How often do you witness somebody completely removed from their surroundings as they walk aimlessly locked into their phone? Or an idiot driver who slams on their brakes upon witnessing a sudden appearance of traffic despite the adequate visibility available? We’ve all seen it and you know what? We’ve probably all done it at some point.
Strong situational awareness has often been well portrayed in film, TV and books. Some of my personal favourite portrayals of situational awareness include Jason Bourne’s bemusement upon realising he has mentally registered all the licence plates in the car park, observing the waitress is left-handed and concluding the guy at the counter weights 215lbs and knows how to handle himself. Another excellent display of situational awareness is the excellent training scene in the movie Spy Game starring Brad Pitt. Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) finds himself getting tutored inside a restaurant about observing his surroundings and analysing the people in detail. (Video below)
Today we will be discussing some field-proven tips to enforce situational awareness within your life – And for those of you who already comprehend the critical elements of this skill, perhaps our guide can supplement your current strategy.
Most people happen to observe their daily surroundings with a bias. For example, if you’re frequenting a certain area each day knowing fully well that nothing bad has ever happened to you during each visit; these experiences would influence your mindset into thinking “Hey, nothing bad is likely going to happen here in the future.” Even if subtle warning signs begin to establish themselves within the area it’s highly possible your normalcy bias will try and override your subconscious alerts. Thus it is important to be conscious of your normalcy bias (aware that it exists), forcibly attempting to overcome it when practising these mental drills – eventually leading to a natural state of awareness. A bit heavy I know, but it’s important to be aware of this factor that can potentially give us a false sense of security.
Your first step in performing effective situational awareness is establishing your baseline. What is the baseline you ask? Well, the baseline is the equilibrium state of what things look like, sound like and feel like at any given moment within the normal state. Each area has its own unique baseline. For example, simply think of where you live. You’re fully aware of the types of people that frequent your area, the clothes they typically wear, the eye contact that is deemed socially acceptable, the pace people move, all without little thought every single day. So when we’re out and about on our adventures, our brains continuously create mental notes forming the normality of the area – from the people, the type of vehicles, the noise levels and the activities – thus forming our baseline. So, we’re truly dependent upon knowing the baseline for the area you are currently in and recognising any variations to this pattern to achieve our situational awareness.
It’s important to note at this point that while performing these mental exercises your alert state shouldn’t be resembling a frightened child. We don’t want to be scaring the living crap out of people on our coffee dates. To help us with this, Jeff Cooper (Legendary gun-fighting expert) laid out a handy colour code system to help soldiers gauge their mindset for combat scenarios. Each colour represents a person’s potential state of awareness and focus:
It is generally accepted that the optimal state of awareness is Condition Yellow. Condition Yellow is described as the “relaxed alert.” There’s no specific threat situation going on, but you have your head up and you’re taking in your surroundings with all your senses. These alert states would typically differ for each person based on prior knowledge. For example, if you’re aware of recent multiple muggings that took place in this ghetto crap hole you’re currently walking through, you would certainly heighten up the alert state right? A change would also be warranted from any situations that manifest at any given moment requiring a sudden change in attention.
Even though your senses are slightly heightened in Condition Yellow, it’s also important to stay relaxed. Staying relaxed ensures that you are focused, allowing you to take in more information about what’s going on around you. Humans just aren’t typically effective at taking in information when nervous or stressed, our attention narrows, causing us to concentrate on just a few things at a time.
Now for some of the finer details into enforcing effective situational awareness.
Good positioning is an effective tool allowing you to observe as much of your surroundings as possible. The objective is simple here, aim to position yourself in the place that allows you to take in the most information while minimising obstructions or blind spots. For example, upon seating yourself in the restaurant you ideally would like to situate yourself back to the wall, eliminating potential goings on behind you that otherwise would prove troublesome to observe. Take note Mr. Soprano. (too soon?)
A good little exercise that can be employed by those who wish to develop strong situational awareness is the SA-game. Oh, it’s a marvellous game, worth introducing to stale social moments in the coffee shop. The game is simple, prior to entering an establishment call out the SA-game to a friend. This is the cue that the game is on and both people are to begin creating mental notes during our time within the environment. After leaving the establishment each person gets to fire off any number of questions. For example, How many men where in the room? Did the woman sitting next to us go to the toilet at any point? What colour was the car that was parked outside the window to our right? Simple but effective and offering a good chance to get one over your significant other for those glorious bragging rights! (Warning: May backfire)
So, you’re enjoying a coffee at a popular cafe remaining highly vigilant, absorbing the surroundings when suddenly an armed male enters the building (Oh fuck) You’re the first person to make note of the incoming threat. Congratulations mate, you may stand a chance. Now what? Situational awareness can become pretty useless if you’re incapable of performing the necessary actions upon detecting a threat.
It is therefore necessary to have mentally formulated an organic plan of action (SOP for our military folk *fist bump*) upon establishing your presence in any given area. This mental hypothetical I’m speaking of should enter your mind periodically, establishing miniature waypoints in your head that will be used as your go-to actions upon observing a threat. Stay with me here. So let’s say you’re enjoying that coffee and your friend is momentarily playing on their phone, instead of following your buddy into the mindless realms of social media for the next 2 minutes, create a hypothetical question within your head. “If somebody came charging into this shop with a gun in the next few minutes, how would I react?” While your buddy continues to giggle at cats now you must answer the question. Let’s begin:
Does the cafe display its fire evacuation plan blueprints on the wall? Yes? Good. Check that out, it seems if you go through the kitchen you’ll have a fire exit that takes you onto the street behind the building, great! Perhaps the blueprint was something I could have noticed when I was paying for the coffee at the counter? Thus allowing myself to situate closer to the kitchen door. See what we’re doing here? We’re formulating mental exercises that would allow us to be effective upon encountering a sudden threat. This takes practise, but suddenly these little mental steps become normal and you’ll eventually find your subconscious taking over the work with due time.
Employing the above principals into your life will find yourself substantially more connected to your environment in many positive ways. Employing this mindset not only allows you to react to threats with effectiveness but it has positive side effects which stem from your actions. The finer details begin to appear that you have never seen before. The picture on the wall in your favourite restaurant that you have never noticed, the unusual symbol on the building you have passed frequently for the past 2 years. Suddenly a new vibrant world appears, enjoy it you fuck. This world is so detailed and vibrant and we constantly walk aimlessly past structures, people and vehicles without a thought in the world. The time to stop that nonsense is now. Be sure to also employ effective planning when traveling to foreign environments to assist you with situational awareness when navigating new lands.
Practicing situational awareness also projects your alertness to those who observe you. Anyone looking for an easy target, perhaps for a mugging is looking for the weak – The dude who doesn’t seem aware or capable of reacting when it matters. The capable man must enforce such a mindset into their everyday lifestyle to become dependable and better at reacting to problem scenarios. Perhaps you’re not a security professional and you’re thinking that this mindset does not apply to you? Don’t be so sure in your assumptions. You are ultimately responsible for your own protection and perhaps that of your loved ones. Taking personal responsibility for your environment is a strong step towards becoming self-sufficient in life. Leaving your awareness to chance is lazy and allowing fate to dictate your situation is a fool’s game. Formulating effective Situational Awareness begins with a choice and that choice should start today.