Always stay in a state of relaxed alertness. Have your head up and you’re taking in your surroundings with all your senses. Don’t be paranoid, just alert.
Staying relaxed ensures that you maintain an open focus, which allows you to take in more information about what’s going on around you. Research shows that when we get nervous or stressed, our attention narrows, causing us to concentrate on just a few things at a time. A narrow focus can therefore cause us to miss important details in our environment.
The four steps you have to repeat from over and over again are:
- Establish baseline
- Pick out anomalies
To achieve high awareness of the environment, you need to be able to observe as much of your surroundings as possible. Our inability to pay attention to everything all at once makes it impossible to obtain complete situational awareness. The human mind can only handle so much information at a given time. Thus in the domain of personal safety, where things unfold quickly and seconds are often the difference between life and death, how we direct our attention is paramount.
So whenever you enter an environment, put yourself in a position that will allow you to see as much as you can. Find a place where you can view all or most of the exit points and that allows you to put your back to the wall. This position readies you to make a quick getaway, and eliminates the possibility of failing to see a threat materialize behind you.
Granted, this isn’t possible in all situations. You don’t have much control as to which table a restaurant hostess seats you at on a busy night, and you’d likely get a lot of strange looks if you stood with your back in a corner while you’re waiting in line at McDonalds. So do your best within the given circumstances. In that busy restaurant, you might not have control of your table location, but you can choose which seat you take. Pick the chair that gives you the best view from your table. When you’re standing in line at a fast food restaurant, just nonchalantly look around and take in the scene.
Establish a Baseline Wherever You Go
Every environment and person has a baseline. A baseline is what’s “normal” in a given situation, and it will differ from person to person and environment to environment. For example, the baseline at a small coffee shop will usually entail people reading a book or working on their computer or speaking in hushed tones with their friends. The baseline at a rock concert would be loud music and people looking at the stage while either jumping up and down to the music or swaying their bodies to the beat.
Pick out anomalies
We establish baselines so that we can spot anomalies. Anomalies are things that either do not happen and should, or that do happen and shouldn’t.
Study body language.
Whenever you are in a new situation, always imagine new anomalies and decide how you would handle them effectively.
So let’s say you visit your favorite coffee shop and a bad guy with a gun decides to drop in as well. If you are aware of the situation you would be the first one to notice him. But what are you going to do about it? Seconds matter here. You don’t have time to formulate a well-thought-out plan. What’s more, the stress of the event will muddle your thinking and decision-making.
The best course of action in this scenario depends on a few things. And knowing what those few things are requires you to be situationally aware. If the robber came in from the front door and you’re near the rear exit, your best action would be to book it out the back door right away. On the other hand, if he entered through the back exit near you, your best action would be to immediately close the gap between him and you and incapacitate him.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Situational awareness is a mindset that you have to purposefully cultivate. You want to get to the point that it’s just something you do without having to think about it. To get to that point, you have to practice it regularly.