Improve your situational awareness

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How to improve situational awareness (Hint: Be like Jason Bourne)

a man climbing rope after showing how to improve situational awareness

When you find yourself in a crowded place, are you relaxed or alert?

Do you know where the exits are? Do you see any potential threats?

It's easy to get distracted and forget what's going on around you. You might be checking your phone or chatting with friends. If something dangerous were to happen, would you know about it?

Situational awareness is a skill not many people master - but it could end up saving your life. And even when you're not in a threatening scenario, it can mean the difference between spotting a life-changing opportunity, or letting it fly by unnoticed.

So here's what you need to know - we'll look at a situational awareness definition, where you need it, and how you can improve your awareness skills.

Table of contents
What is situational awareness?
Why do you need situational awareness?
Your attention directs your awareness
How to develop situational awareness
How to be aware of your surroundings

What is situational awareness?

Situational awareness is your ability to be aware of what's around you so you can be safe, relaxed and focused.

It's a skill that involves looking, listening, and analyzing your physical and social surroundings. It primarily concerns your safety from harm, but it's also about making sure your environment allows you to thrive.

It involves predicting problems before they arise, and being ready for all the possible happenings within the space you're in. As well as this,

Situational awareness can means the difference between life and death; opportunities taken or missed; having a fun time, or having a bad time.

If you've ever been affected by a fire, you'll probably look for a fire escape when entering a crowded venue. If you've ever had your belongings stolen, you won't want to let them out of your sight when you're in a public place. These are examples of a heightened sense of situational awareness.

But it's not just the physical environment around you that you need to be aware of. It's the social dynamics, too, and if you're in business, the economic opportunities as well. Keeping your eyes open, both literally and figuratively, means you're better equipped not just to stay safe, but to be successful too.

Why do you need situational awareness?

There are three main areas in which you need situational awareness. Firstly, to make sure you're safe and protected.

1) You need situational awareness for physical safety.

This is the first thing most people think of when they're considering situational awareness - how do I keep myself and my group safe?

The first step is to know where you are, what dangers might be present, and what your options for safety are - whether that's through conflict, defense, or escape.

Think of Jason Bourne, protagonist of the Bourne film series. He's a man on the run, perpetually hunted by people who want to kill him. Entering a diner with his accomplice, Bourne spots exits, potential enemies, license plate numbers of all 6 cars outside, the fact their server is left-handed, the weight of the guy at the counter, the nearest gun, and guesses how far he can run at the current altitude.

Thankfully, you probably won't be under duress as much as Mr Bourne, but you can still learn from the way he approaches the scene - there's much more you can deduce than you might first think.

2) You need situational awareness for social comfort.

Imagine walking into a party. It usually takes a few minutes to settle into the 'vibe' of the place; the energy and social dynamics that people are feeling with one another. All kinds of factors play into this - the demographics of attendees, how late in the day it is, what drinks are being consumed, how everyone knows each other, and so on.

If you fail to read the scene, you're in danger of making a faux pas, or being unwelcome and ostracized from the differing cliques of the group. A little emotional intelligence and social awareness can go a long way in charming your way into people's affections - and having a great time.

3) You need situational awareness for business opportunities.

The life of an entrepreneur or salesperson involves identifying opportunities to make connections, innovate products, close deals, and persuade listeners. Those things don't happen without a good sense of open-minded situational awareness.

Being a self-starter involves taking opportunities as you see them - but to see them, you first need to be aware of what's out there, and who you can help.

Your attention directs your awareness

What you choose to pay attention to has a huge influence on what you're automatically aware of.

Many people make an effort to stay aware of their surroundings in public spaces, but they might not be as observant in other areas of life that require attention, like at work or home. There are so many distractions in daily life that we can often go through our day without giving it much thought, and end up at home barely remembering what happened at work.

Your sense of awareness is heavily weighted towards what you've thought about recently. If you've been watching a lot of documentaries about street crime recently, you'll probably walk the streets of your neighborhood with a heightened sense of awareness of the dangers. You might be more inclined to avoid certain areas, or cross the street if you're approaching a shady-looking person. You could also take your headphones off or walk a little faster.

The situation may not be different to a regular day walking through that neighborhood, but because you've primed your mind to keep these dangers up-top, at the forefront of your attention, you're more likely to let them influence your thoughts and actions.

This is known as frequency bias, and sometimes the 'Baader-Meinhof phenomenon': when you're more aware of something, it seems to appear more. So if you're considering buying a certain model of car, you'll start to see it on the streets more - it doesn't mean there are more of them around, it just seems that way.

This applies in other areas of life, too. If you're looking for creative business ideas, it might be challenging to think up brand new innovations on the fly, if you're approaching it afresh. But if you spend a few minutes each day listening to audiobooks or podcasts about business ideas, you'll get into the mindset of business creativity.

Sure, you might not hear anything directly relevant to your industry, but being exposed to other people solving similar challenges means your subconscious mind will join the dots to your own concerns. Using disparate influences to think up something new is the essence of creativity - and it begins with awareness.

How to develop situational awareness

Wondering how to improve your situational awareness?

Firstly, you have to consider what to be aware of - and then be methodical about it.

A major aspect of having good situational awareness is being able to know the differences between safety and danger. It's a balancing act - you have to be mindful enough that you can keep an eye out for hazards, but not so anxious or worried about everything that your guard drops. The key is being proactive, rather than reactive; knowing when it's time to take precautions and stepping in before a situation becomes dangerous. This ability comes with repeated practice over time.

On a more practical level, there's one particular technique that's often taught in situational awareness training. It's easy to memorize, and goes a long way in improving your situational awareness: the SLAM technique.

Use the SLAM technique

This technique for situational awareness is common in industries that require physical labor or lots of people moving around in close proximity - like construction, engineering, or food service. It involves four simple steps to make yourself more aware:

Stop - Cease what you're doing to bring your full attention to your surroundings.

Look - Observe your environment in more depth than just a casual glance; take in everything that's visible.

Assess - Think about what hazards might pose a threat to you, how you'd react if something bad happens, and whether you have access to resources that'd help.

Manage - Take action to solve problems before they occur; tell someone about the issue, fix it yourself, or locate yourself somewhere else.

Even if you don't feel particularly vulnerable, a quick 'SLAM' assessment can be the difference between safety and injury, loss, or disappointment. It's a simple but powerful tool to have in your arsenal.

Bring variety to your routine

If you're doing the same thing every day, you're probably going to zone out at some point (think of the times you've been on a long boring drive, seemingly on 'autopilot' - you lose yourself for a while and can't remember how you got to your current location).

The remedy for this is to change things up, and interrupt your routine with new and stimulating activities. It could be as small as eating lunch in a different location, or you could try working somewhere new. Music, fresh air, a scented candle, or tea instead of coffee - each will brighten up your senses and boost your overall awareness.

How to be aware of your surroundings

Being aware of your surroundings involves a combination of all the above.

But there's one part that links it all together. The key to optimal awareness? Relax.

When you're nervous and your heart rate is elevated, your attention narrows to concentrate on the specific threat at hand. But this can be a real disadvantage in a dynamic situation, where there's multiple points of interest to consider.

The solution is to take some deep breaths, bring yourself into the present moment, and calmly go through your options. Avoiding stress and overreaction is crucial for staying aware of what's going on.

You need psychological safety to focus well. As part of that, you have to sign over some trust into your surroundings. You trust the people around you to not harm you, or tell you if there's a problem. You also trust the building you're inside, and the fact that it's secure from intruders and not about to collapse or go up in flames. Having taken in the right information, you'll be able to trust your gut and act accordingly.

There's a difference between stress and awareness: stress is when you're on edge all the time, whereas awareness allows you to enjoy the world while still keeping a watchful eye open.

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