To successfully survive a violent confrontation, you need to have a certain level of awareness, both before, during, and after the fight. This awareness is referred to as Situational Awareness (SA). It is one of the things that is often stressed as being essential for real-world self-defense. If there is a spate of attacks in a particular neighborhood, the police will often urge residents in that area to be more aware of their surroundings, etc.
The question is, what should they be aware of?
Violent criminals and predatory individuals rarely announce their arrival, so what is it that they should be looking out for? Until we define what being aware involves, and what we and others should be aware of, there is little point in telling us that we should just have more of it i.e. awareness.
In this article, I want to look at what situational awareness is and how we can develop and cultivate it.
To be situationally aware, you need to have an understanding of your physical environment, and the actions and behaviors of those in it, which signal their harmful intent towards you. A good part of situational awareness is understanding the actions and behaviors which indicate a person is preparing for violence.
A gazelle on the savannah in Africa can graze quite peacefully, just a few feet away from a sleeping lion. Although lions are natural predators of gazelles, whilst it sleeps it isn’t a threat or danger to the gazelle’s safety. You can be in a bar or pub, sitting next to the most violent person on the planet, in safety. If their actions and behaviors are not ones that indicate they are planning to become aggressive or violent. The gazelle, as soon as it sees the lion start to wake up, knows it is no longer safe to be in close proximity to it. It begins to put distance between the lion and themselves – but until this moment, it is calm and relaxed.
This is an important thing to note about awareness: it requires us to be in a relatively relaxed state. If we are constantly on the lookout for potential threats, it is likely that our attention won’t be drawn to a real danger in our environment.
One of the most important signals that someone may have harmful intent towards you, is when they synchronize their movement to yours. For somebody to physically attack you, they must first move close enough to do so. Part of our Situational Awareness is being able to identify when somebody ties their movement to ours. Most of us have the had feeling of being followed at one time or another – usually with no consequence.
The way that we picked up on this movement was through our auditory sense, i.e. we heard it. Importantly, we didn’t consciously hear it- our subconscious did. Our brain blocks out a lot of noises we actually hear, such as background noise, like air-conditioning, heating, traffic, etc. Most of this noise is distracting and not relevant to us – we don’t need to consciously process or interpret it. However, sometimes a noise, such as a person’s footsteps behind us, is worth bringing to our attention; especially if it matches the sound that a potential threat following us would make.
Because of the risk of danger, our body becomes adrenalized, ready for fight or flight. This change in our emotional state tells us we are in danger. At the same time, our fear system directs our attention to the footsteps behind us. More often than not, the person walking behind us doesn’t mean to cause us harm. However their movement replicates that of someone who does, and so they make us aware of their presence.
Being open to and recognizing movement that could signal danger is part of having good awareness. Predatory individuals have other ways of synchronizing their movement to ours, besides following us. They may choose to approach us from the front, rather than the rear. It would be obvious if someone was to directly approach us, and that we would easily identify such movement.
However if the person was moving towards us in a crowd, as the crowd we’re in moves towards them – such as in a transit station as people move through a corridor linking/joining two platforms – it may be harder for us to identify somebody who is approaching us, as their movement will be disguised by the people moving with them. We may believe that most predators and criminals choose sparsely populated areas to commit their crimes. However most human predators – like their animal counterparts – will go where the most potential prey are.
In a busy/dense crowd, a mugger will be able to put a knife to you without anyone seeing or noticing. If somebody does, it is unlikely that they would do anything to intervene, as this would compromise their own safety. One of the ironies of crowds, is that we feel safer when in them. This is because we rely on others in the crowd/group to spot danger for us. Unfortunately, others are also relying on us to do the same for them, resulting in everybody’s natural awareness going down.
Criminals and predators don’t just have to approach us from the front or back, they can also intercept us. They can tie their movement to ours so they reach a particular point at the same time that we do. Pickpockets are masters at this. Predators like “funnels”. Funnels slow people down, and restrict their movement.
A good example of a funnel is an escalator. If a group of people arrive at the top (or bottom) of an escalator together, they will be funneled onto it, having to wait as others before them get on. A pickpocket will time their arrival at an escalator, so that it coincides with that of their target/victim. They may well then get on behind the victim they have chosen, and pick their pocket as they are standing on the escalator. Or do so at the top or bottom, when the victim is focusing on getting on or off; rather than on making sure that their possessions are well protected.
If you are aware of the methods that criminals use, you can raise your awareness at points where you are most at risk, such as when on elevators – e.g. when you are getting on and off make sure you have your bag, purse or wallet secured.
Another type of movement synchronization you need to be aware of, as part of your overall situational awareness, is of people waiting for you. Sometimes, we aren’t aware of the information we give out about our movements that allow others to synchronize with them. If you park your car in a public garage or lot, be aware that there is a good chance that there will be criminals and predators on the lookout for potential victims (muggers looking for easy victims, car thieves looking for unsecured or easy to access vehicles, etc.).
Many people will forget exactly where they parked their car – bad environmental awareness – and use their remote key fob to locate their car; not realizing that they have just unlocked it for any predator to gain access, and told everybody in the environment where they are heading. A predator can get to your car ahead of you and wait. We should avoid publicizing our movements in this way. It is difficult for people to know where we are heading or returning, and when we’ll arrive.
In this section, we have looked at how understanding and recognizing movement can help improve our Situational Awareness, and identify individuals and groups who have harmful intent towards us.
In the next section, we will look at how understanding the physical attributes of our environment – such as funnels – can help improve and heighten our awareness. Simply knowing what we should be looking out for and “when” helps us gain a certain curiosity about what is going on around us. And when we are curious, we ask questions rather than just accept.