My college years were spent in a tough, crime-ridden town. During freshman orientation week, a friend a was robbed by what he insisted was “a gang of nine-year-olds!” These young hoodlums somehow managed to take my friend’s bicycle, camera, and wallet. After I stopped laughing I couldn’t help ask how this “gang” managed to ambush him. “Well,” he said, “I was taking some cool photographs of the neighborhood….”
I immediately realized he wasn’t paying attention. Not having situational awareness explains how most people get mugged. When people don’t pay attention to their surroundings, they have no chance to see bad guys coming until it’s too late.
Though psychologists tell us keeping ourselves safe is a basic human instinct, I have found that surviving is something we have to learn how to do. Also, if you chose to carry a gun concealed, you certainly want avoid that worst-case scenario of having to use a gun to defend your life. Actually you have taken on added responsibility to pay attention.
Self-defense trainers speak often of having a defensive mindset; that your brain is your best defensive tool for keeping you out of trouble. Being aware of our surroundings helps us identify dangers and possibly to avoid those dangers. Similarly, being clueless, distracted, and unprepared is far more likely to attract predators. Awareness of what is around you is where your self-defense begins. This awareness of potential danger is something we have to train and cultivate, especially as our world becomes more complex.
But how exactly do we increase our situational awareness? How do we create that “defensive mindset?” I’ve found that concrete exercises help the most—when we have something to actually do, we find it easier to be more aware.
The following tips will help you take in your surroundings and actually register what you are seeing. Try to exercise these everyday.
1. Don’t Look Like Food
Don’t look easy. Keep your head up and your eyes looking at your surroundings. Research shows that eye contact alone can help eliminate you from a criminal’s wish list. Square your shoulders and try to lift your spine and add an inch to your height. Don’t look like the weak member of the herd.
2. Minimize Distractions
Don’t let texting, phone calls, window-shopping, or other activities shift your focus from what’s in your immediate area. Our visual processing seems to decrease when we’re listening to someone talking, or even to music. As a result, cell-phone users make great targets. And need I say anything about those who virtually eliminate one of their most important defensive sensors by filling their ears with ear buds?
3. Own Your “Priority Awareness Zone”
Imagine that you are the center of a 15-yard diameter circle. Look all around you—360 degrees—and evaluate each of the people within that radius. Start close and work out. See anything unusual? In that same zone, note anything that could be used for defense—something to hide behind and anything that can be used to defend or strike. Lastly, determine your best exit routes.
4. Think Like a Detective
Pick someone in your priority-awareness zone. Now, starting at the head and moving down to the feet, describe that person’s most distinctive features as if you had to report him or her to a police officer. This exercise helps you look more closely at people; when you do, you’ll naturally process more information about them.
5. If Something Feels Wrong, Pay Attention
Our intuition is amazingly accurate. Our gut feeling simply represents a different level of our brain monitoring and evaluating our surroundings. When something seems wrong, our brain tries to get our attention. Too often those “feelings” are discounted, discredited, and even banished as we strive to complete the tasks at hand. Criminals know this and count on it to provide them with an advantage.
If the ideal scenario is avoiding a problem, then good situational awareness is your first line of defense. Incorporating these exercises into a daily mental workout will get your mind used to paying more attention to your surroundings. With just a bit of practice, they will get easier, and soon they’ll be a natural part of your daily life. They’ll also help teach you places and situations to avoid.
In future articles I’ll discuss how to prepare for a bad guy on a street or other public place. But in all cases, situational awareness is where you should begin in order to stay safe.