Situational Awareness Training – 5 Practical Tips

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Situational awareness training is a useful mindset tool to help us detect when a dangerous situation may be about to occur. After all, if we don’t know something dangerous is happening, we cannot respond to it!

Situational awareness is useful for emergency preparedness and is essential for concealed carry.

Situational Awareness Training
Busy Mall full of people
Situational awareness can apply to all areas of our life, not just concealed carry.

We know that we need to be more aware of our surroundings, but how do we do it? What should you look for, and how do you practice it practically?

Keep reading to find out.

What is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness is understanding what is normal in your environment and identifying when a person, object, sound, or event is not normal and could threaten your safety.

It is paying attention to your surroundings instead of focusing on something else, like your phone. At the same time, it is not acting like a paranoid crazy person who stares at everyone and constantly looks behind them (we’ve all seen one of those).

You also want to be aware without bringing unnecessary attention to yourself. If you seem particularly hypervigilant, you can bet that someone else will consider you suspicious.

Why Should I Improve My Situational Awareness?

We should all work to improve our situational awareness to keep ourselves and our families safe. As I discussed in the Concealed Carry Responsibilities guide, situational awareness is important to avoid conflict. Never getting into a self-defense situation in the first place is the best defense.

Plus, it is also an important part of emergency preparedness. Identifying an unsafe situation early is key to increasing your chances of surviving it. Often seconds matter.

I know that there have been many situations when I could have been more aware, but I wasn’t. Being aware all the time can be tiring. It’s a muscle you need to train. However, the results can be the difference between getting out of dodge early and sticking around to see the show (that probably won’t be good.)

Situational Awareness Training

Having situational awareness seems logical, there is no real reason not to be. But saying and actually doing are two different things. How do you build and improve it?

When I look up situational awareness training, I find that many discuss Colonel Geoff Cooper’s color codes or Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. These were developed with combat in mind but can also be useful in everyday life. Cooper’s color codes step through the levels of awareness, and the OODA loop is a process of how to observe and react to a situation.

But they really don’t really tell me any practical methods of how I can improve my situational awareness in everyday life.

Below are some of the tips that I have found useful for me.

Establish What is Normal and Logical

First, I find that I must establish a baseline for what is normal in my environment. For places that I am familiar with, this can be easy. For example, if I walk into my kitchen when no one is cooking and feel the heat from the stove, I immediately think this is not normal. Why is the stove on?

If I am at home and I smell smoke, I recognize it is not normal, and I need to investigate.

Out in public, I like to think of logical and normal actions that people take. For example, at a restaurant, people usually have normal conversations as they casually come and go. I don’t normally see someone enter a nice, sit-down restaurant alone. If I do, it perks my interest.

Of course, there may be a completely logical reason for someone to be there alone. However, it isn’t “in the norm” and may require extra attention.

Certainly, if you take someone from a small town that has never been to a big city and you drop them into downtown Chicago, they will have no idea what is normal.

A crowd of people in downtown Chicago
What is normal here?

It takes a little more thought if I find myself in an environment I do not have experience with. I have to make an effort to figure out what normal is. Luckily, I can do this by focusing on a few things:

  • What is everyone else doing?
  • What are they wearing?
  • How are they acting?
  • Does a sound or action suddenly make everyone freeze or change direction?
  • Where are the exits?
  • Do I feel safe?
  • Do I feel like many people are staring at me?

It doesn’t take very long to establish a baseline for what is normal and logical, in a few minutes. But to do this, it requires my attention. Which brings us to our next tip.

Scan Your Surroundings

In order to define what is logical and normal and then observe something that is not normal, it requires attention. I can’t be fixated on my phone or be distracted by others. I also can’t be oblivious to my environment.

In the book Prepared, Mike Glover provides some good tips on how to scan your surroundings.

He explains how even though we see our surroundings, we don’t normally observe our surroundings. Instead, our brain takes bits and pieces of what we see, approximating everything else.

This is actually good in a sense. It would be a mental catastrophe if we had to remember everything we saw. There is no way most people’s brains can hold that much information.

That’s one reason small children get overwhelmed easily. They haven’t quite figured out this approximating thing, making it easier for them to get overstimulated. As adults, our brains have figured out a way around that.

But it is bad since we tend to gloss over what is out of the ordinary or ignore it altogether.

Glover says, “One of the best ways to learn how to look is to hunt.” By this, he means instead of just looking for the abnormality, you have to hunt for it.

To simplify it, I like to limit the area I am scanning. I take my environment and split it into logical areas. This limits the amount of area that I need to pay attention to.

I start with what is immediately in front of me. I then move that out to what is beyond my immediate field of vision.

A crowd of people in a restaurant
I can scan in zones from this chair, starting with the closest row and moving outwards.

Take a restaurant, for example. You probably expect me to say always sit at a table in the corner of the room and face the door. Have you ever been to a totally empty restaurant, and you got to pick this exact table and chair to sit at?

If so, it is probably not a very good place to eat! Let’s be practical, that advice is shortsighted and not helpful.

I do this instead:

  • As I walk to my table, I scan what people at each table are doing and quickly determine if they are acting normally.
  • I find the entrances and exits. Remember that the kitchen is an exit.
  • When the hostess indicates our table, I scan the surrounding tables.
  • I choose a seat where I can see the entrance and exit paths.
  • While at the table, I break my scan areas into zones. It could be areas in the parking lot out the window, people at tables in front of the restaurant, and the waiters/waitresses as they walk through other areas of the restaurant.
  • Once I find anyone who looks or acts out of the ordinary, I scan them and the area around them deeper, which leads us to our next tip.

Watch the Demeanor of Others

As you scan, pay particular attention to other people’s demeanor or body language. This is an important part of establishing a baseline of what is normal and not normal.

First, what is the logical and normal way people act in your environment?

Consider the restaurant example again. Typically, people are calm, relaxed, and enjoy conversation with others.

Usually, a person who is about to do something harmful to others (or just illegal, like not paying their bill) will be nervous. They will be sweating, breathing heavily, and fidgeting. If the normal baseline of the restaurant is calm and relaxed overall, the fact that an individual is alone and acting very nervous should become interesting to you.

Are they about to do something harmful or just waiting for their date to arrive? There is no way to know, but you should pause your overall scan and analyze the situation more deeply.

Man in a parking garage
Is this man acting normally?

A person’s demeanor that is outside of the normal is an early warning. Here are some things to look for:

  • Nervousness – Sweating, heavy breathing, fidgeting, talking to themselves.
  • Rapid Movement – Someone walking quickly in a determined manner.
  • Searching – Someone looking around a lot, more than normal. Often someone about to do something harmful checks for witnesses or law enforcement.
  • Staring – Someone looking at your hands, waist, or something you are carrying. They may be considering you a target.
  • No Eye contact – Someone doing one of the actions above but won’t make eye contact with you.
  • Head position – Someone with their head down but not looking down.
  • Clothing – Someone wearing a hoody or jacket when it is warm outside. A long coat could also be a warning sign if it is out of the ordinary for your area and culture.
  • Wiping the Face – Someone who noticeably itches their nose or has their hand around their mouth may be reacting to a rapid change in blood pressure because they are nervous.
  • Body position – Someone asking you a question but standing at an angle and looking around as they talk. Normal conversation is face-to-face with attention.
  • Touching – Someone approaches you that you do not know and touches your back or arm in a caring way.

Once you notice one or a combination of these, the next thing to scan is the person’s hands.

Check the Hands

An attacker or someone who is about to cause harm will almost always do it with their hands. When you see a warning sign that they are acting out of the ordinary, study their hands. The next move will come from their hands, either producing a weapon or grabbing for something or someone.

Are their hands in an abnormal position? Here are some things to look for:

  • Hands buried in jacket pockets when it isn’t cold.
  • Rubbing hands together like they are cold, but it isn’t cold.
  • Holding something in their hand but trying to hide it.
  • Making tight fists.
  • One hand is inside a bag or backpack but not moving.

If someone is approaching you, making eye contact is normal. However, those who are about to do something they’re nervous about often won’t look you in the eye. Instead, their eyes may be on the ground or on your hands or waist.

If you have noticed abnormal body language, check their hands before they get close. Always yell “stop” as a final indicator of their intent. If they don’t stop or accelerate towards you, they have confirmed their intent is not good.

Parking garage full of cars
When entering a new area, scan close and then expand to the distance.

Don’t Deny Your Senses

Once you have detected that danger could be imminent, there is one more major hurdle to cross.

Your own denial.

We all do it. We think that the tragedies we hear about won’t happen to us. We all want to be comfortable.

We tell ourselves, “Were those gunshots? No, probably just construction.” When there is no construction outside.

In the middle of the night, “What was that noise outside? Probably nothing.”

While walking down the street, “Why does that man walking towards us have a hoody on, it’s 80 degrees out. He is probably just in a hurry to get somewhere.”

It’s extremely common for bystanders and victims to ignore their senses and deny that bad situations are happening. In fact, in psychology, they call it the “bystander effect.

And let’s not forget about Kitty Genovese, who was murdered outside her apartment building while those inside could hear her yelling. While the exact number of “ear witnesses” is debated, we know that only one person came to her aid out of the dozens that were inside the building. Several people reported that they thought the murder was simply a “lovers quarrel.”

Don’t be a bystander (or victim) who ignores reality because it suddenly becomes too far-fetched. Once your instincts tell you something is out of the ordinary, outside the logical and normal baseline, don’t ignore it. Take the next step. Watch the hands. Tell them to stop.

How to Practice Your Situational Awareness

In the beginning, it feels like a lot to scan and watch everyone and everything, especially in a busy area.

I find it easier to take the mindset of not assuming anything.

I don’t assume everything is fine and pay no attention at all. I don’t let distractions like phones or TVs be my main focus.

When I transition into a new area, that initial scan of what is logical and normal is immediate. As I scan, I like to first scan the area immediately in front of me and then the people around me.

As new people or areas come into view, the process repeats.

The next time you are out in a public area, start paying more attention to people’s demeanor and body language. Think about what is normal. Don’t be a creep about it and stare, but practice paying attention.

A Stoic person would say that it is best to allow events to happen as they will (since we have no control over them anyway) and be prepared for them. I think the same mindset applies well here. I certainly hope nothing bad ever happens to me and my family, but I have to be open to the possibility of it. Practicing situational awareness over time is a learned skill.

Don’t deny that it can’t happen to you. Hope is not a strategy. To react, you first have to know that there is something to react to.

Go back to the Concealed Carry Guide.

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Jason has an engineering and problem solving background. He is an avid outdoorsman, survivalist, and competitive shooter. He enjoys researching the best and most practical solutions for the problem at hand, studying stoicism, and finding innovative ways to be prepared.