I’ve heard a few questions on podcasts recently about how one can increase their situational awareness skills. The phrase “situational awareness” gets thrown around, but little is ever said on how to develop this elusive skill.
Everyone already has some degree of situational awareness or else you wouldn’t be a live to read this, unless you have a very protective mother. It’s a skill and a mentality that takes a little bit of extra effort to develop.
When I was in the Marines we had a sergeant come to us who was a former sniper. Snipers must have excellent observation skills and the ability to take a good mental picture. There’s so much more to being a sniper than just being able to shoot straight and I always thought it was funny when civilians would suggest that they could’ve made it as a sniper because they think they’re good at shooting pumpkins of posts or whatever.
This sergeant introduced us to KIM games, as we were working up towards a deployment to Iraq. Not to sound over dramatic, but having a keen sense of situational awareness really was an issue of life or death there. The enemy blends in with the local populace and uses that to his advantage. Attention to detail and picking out things that weren’t right allowed you to spot IED’s, detect if someone was acting funny or full of shit and other clues about the task at hand. As infantrymen, we spent a lot of time patrolling through the town which was technically all “indian country” and there were no real secure areas outside of our little base. We had to constantly be aware of everything going on around us while doing our jobs.
He laid out a poncho and placed about twenty items on it. We had a minute to look at the poncho and then make a mental note of what was on it and how things were laid out. Then we went outside to do some exercises or other tasks to break our concentration for a little while. Then we came back in and tried to draw a picture of what was on the poncho. The first time had predictable results, but it improved as we became acquainted with how our minds work on these things and had the idea that details are important hammered into our heads.
This can be done at home if you have someone willing to lay out a bunch of items on the kitchen table or something before you go to work and then when you come home try to remember what you saw. It’s understandable if your spouse doesn’t want to play along with that one though. You can also do it with the way cars are parked on your block, license plate numbers, the clutter on a coworker’s desk, the arrangement of books on a shelf, anything at the grocery store (i.e. try remembering the order of the aisles or take note of what was in the produce section). The possibilities to do these kinds of exercises are endless. You will find yourself getting better and doing a better job of observing your surroundings.
I think many people take things as they see them and don’t pay much attention to these kinds of details. When you start acknowledging details to yourself, you’ll start analyzing them and it makes it easier to pick out things that aren’t right. Me, I think I’m hyper-vigilant. In some social situations I spend most of the night scanning the crowd to the point where it’s difficult to loosen up. I can usually pick out the people that are going to cause some sort of incident with a good degree of accuracy.
I think this is the ultimate preparedness/survival skill. Noticing things that aren’t right can give you a few extra moments to react to something or back up that gut feeling you’re not sure if you should act on. It makes your neighborhood safer if you have an idea of what everybody’s general routines are, what vehicles you typically see, what lights are on (for example, the people who lived across the street from my grandpa knew something was wrong if his kitchen light wasn’t on when they woke up).
It also helps improve your “bullshit detector” abilities when dealing with the people you interact with. If you think back to the old Encyclopedia Brown books (or any other detective novels if your background in that genre is more distinguished than mine), virtually all of the mysteries were solved by catching someone in a minor detail and then everything else begins to crumble down around them. When you observe things and make a mental note of it, you never know when it might come in handy or for what reasons.
Keep your head on a swivel.