How to Develop Situational Awareness

I’m tired of seeing “101” type articles on situational awareness that turn out to be mere definitions. Even worse are articles claiming to be about how to develop situational awareness but are full of academic descriptions rather than practical advice.

My goal for this article is to give you – the regular, safety-minded citizen – a no-nonsense, practicable resource for how to develop situational awareness. And as a bonus I’m going to try using non-tacticool language. To reach this goal, we have to lay some groundwork.

What Is Situational Awareness?

It just means you see what’s going on, understand what it all means, and can predict what is going to happen. All of us already do that, to greater or lesser levels of detail and success. But how do we improve upon this ability? First let’s break it down into parts.

In order to be “aware” of the “situation,” we have to 1) gather data, which come through our senses, 2) process and sort this data, and 3) analyze it in various ways to come to a level of understanding that allows conclusions, predictions, decisions and actions. Some of you probably recognize a couple O’s and a DA in that explanation. Bonus points.

So then, developing situational awareness is a matter of getting better at gathering information, processing, sorting and analyzing it, and drawing accurate conclusions from it by which we can predict outcomes and make good decisions. Easy-peasy. Cool. How?

Setting Context

For citizen defenders – the normal, safety-conscious people going about their daily lives – the context is just that. The way situational awareness manifests here could be called Protective Watchfulness.

I don’t want to be merely “aware” of the situation. I should watch, or watch for, something specifically related to my context. I think the more active “watchful” helps clarify what’s going on with this whole concept. You could just as easily use the term “wary,” which still implies an active process far more than “aware.”

“Protective” is the modifier that really clarifies our context. I’m not watching for fun or entertainment. I’m not watching for a romantic interest or scientific purpose. Our context is about personal protection, so the data I’m “watching” for as I go about my business is related to the safety and defense of myself and others.

So although I am aware of the clouds in the sky – and might even be aware they are called “cumulonimbus” and what that means for weather prediction – it has little to do with my personal protection here on this sidewalk. But that white van driving by for a third time might be something to watch a little more closely.

Data Collection

If we want to develop better situational awareness – or protective watchfulness in our case – we need to get better at gathering information. As noted previously, this is data collection through the senses, both automatically and at your conscious direction.

As with any skill, you get better by training the conscious execution of that skill. “Kim’s Game” is great way to train yourself to notice greater details, and also to recall those details. But at some point you will need to move into contextual exercises, like quizzing your friends, kids, or spouse about details important to our context. How many, and where were the exits in the store? What was the saleswoman wearing and what color was her hair? What was the make and model of that car that cut us off? Estimate the height and age of the guy we just walked past. List all the red items in the room.

If I’m being watchful for something specific, I’m noticing details. If I want to predict the weather, I try to notice as much detail as I can about the clouds, among other things: their shape, expanse, altitude, density, shading and movement. If I am being watchful for my personal protection, I need to notice details about my surroundings: not just basic details about people like “male or female, hair and skin color,” but aspects about them like, height, weight, eye color, body language, expressions, actions, way of speaking, mode and quality of dress, what they are carrying, etc…

So I might have my friend quiz me on some of those finer details after lunch at a restaurant. “What did you notice about our server?” “How many men were in the room?” “What was the chef holding when she walked out of the kitchen?” Of course that probably requires that my friend is either good at observing details, or spending the whole meal taking notes.

I can get really good at noticing and recalling details, but not all details are equally important all the time. Context is dynamic, and these details need to be analyzed in order to do me any good in the moment.

Analysis & Prediction

If I see a man looking “shifty” or “furtive,” I know to pay closer attention – but only because I know this is abnormal behavior for regular shoppers in a store. As the man approaches I am less concerned with the brand of shoe he’s wearing than with what’s in his hands. Likewise if he’s holding a gun I am less concerned for the color of his hair than I am for his expression. All of these details are important, but some are critical in the moment.

It’s the real-time analysis of information in context that helps us understand what it means for our immediate future. If I see a police officer talking to a man in a driveway and he suddenly starts running, I might fail to sufficiently process and analyze that information and drive directly into a gunfight.

We get better at analytical skills, again, by practicing it consciously. This can be done by using logic puzzles and strategy games, reasoning and thought exercises. There are endless apps for this kind of thing (Lumosity?), but there’s also things like Chess. Eventually, though you have to move this exercise into context. Instead of passively observing objects, terrain and people around you and classifying it all as “normal,” start picking out greater details and actually think about what conclusions you can draw from those details that didn’t seem to matter. In other words you’re going to over-analyze your world in order to practice contextual analysis.

Drive through a construction zone and observe various pieces of machinery and equipment. You might dismiss it all as normal Construction Season activity, or think a little harder about the various things you saw and what it likely means for that particular project. Now take it further and see if you can make any predictions about it, other than “it’s never going to end.” Now assume you also saw a Ferrari amongst the equipment at night. Seems abnormal, what could it mean?

At the grocery store, instead of noticing “dude puts stuff in cart,” you notice the specific items he’s collecting and think harder about what it means. Take those data points together with other things you noticed about this shopper and you might even begin to paint a clearer picture about who a person is without ever speaking to them. Creep a little longer and perhaps you can confirm predictions about what they will pick up next.

More Practical Tips on How to Develop Situational Awareness

We’ve talked about ways to improve observation, memory, analysis and prediction. But it’s not all about skill-building. Here’s some other things you can do to optimize these skills.

Eliminate distractions
Have you even seen a fellow motorist texting, eating, or applying makeup while driving? Observe anything about their level of driving competence? Right. Distractions are those unimportant things that increase our cognitive load, decreasing our ability to focus on observation and predictive analysis. Smartphones are a big one, of course. But even something as simple as anxiety about a project at work, or being conscious of that pain in your leg. Focusing too long on that attractive person walking, or the cool looking car. Work on your mental discipline so that you can focus on the highest priority task in the moment.

Don’t Cause Ripples
If you’re altering your behavior so you can observe your surroundings, guess what: YOU are now the anomaly, the abnormal, the Red Flag. Good situational awareness starts with self-awareness, so check yourself that you don’t disrupt the environment to such a degree that you attract attention or ruin your chances of observing anything useful. On that note…

Reduce Your “Obviouservation”
While you do want to keep your head up and scan your surroundings, you also don’t want to look like a paranoid freak. Executing tasks with peripheral vision can help you practice observing more. Have a friend watch you as you try to low-key scan, picking out your “tells.” Make a habit of using reflective surfaces like store windows, cars, car windows and your turned-off phone screen surface to see things around you. Find ways to look like you meant to check behind you, like accidentally dropping a book, or turning to compliment a passer-by.

Stay In (Cognitive) Shape
It might seem like a small thing, but the brain needs oxygen to function properly, and there are better and worse ways to breath. Do you breath from your chest or belly? Do you know how to take a calming breath, or use a quick breathing exercise to lower anxiety? Plenty of info out there. You also need to get enough sleep; mental fatigue can result in decreased cognitive function. Exercise, both physical and mental, forms the trifecta here.

Verbalize certain details you notice to help strengthen recall and prioritize details in the moment. Beyond that, verbalizing your analysis and predictions can help make it “real,” and cut down on normalcy bias and freeze response. Speaking, “I think that guy is about to come over here and mug me,” might get you into gear faster than just thinking it.

Making sure you have the best view isn’t just for buying a home or choosing a vacation spot. Always position yourself where you can see the largest or most critical part of your environment, whether you’re sitting, standing, or passing through. Practice this when it’s not important to make it a habit when it is. Entrances and exists, critical terrain or people are all things to keep in view if possible.

Improve The Other 4
We have 5 senses, but sight is what we rely on most. Get better at using the others by doing normal activities in the dark, like getting ready for work or eating. Sit in a safe place and close you eyes – take in only the data you can from your other 4 senses. Set up a situations where you have to identify food ingredients or other objects based on smell alone.

Buddy System
Four eyes are better than two. Try not to go it alone when awareness is critical. Back when Craigslist transactions were popular, I’d always tell everyone I knew never to meet anyone alone. Always bring friends.

Go Train
Find a place where you can safely train input and analysis of our context. Things like threat recognition, pre-attack indicators, shoot/no-shoot drills can all go a long way in improving your effectiveness.

Any skill-building takes time and repetition. And if you stop for a while, you start to lose it. But if you want to have and keep a high level of protective watchfulness, you have to prioritize training and practice.

Light your forge and get to work.