07 Nov How to Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne
There’s a scene at the beginning of The Bourne Identity where the film’s protagonist is sitting in a diner, trying to figure out who he is and why he has a bunch of passports and a gun stashed in a safety deposit box. Bourne also notices that he, well, notices things that other people don’t. Watch:
That superhuman ability to observe his surroundings and make detailed assessments about his environment? It’s not just a trait of top secret operatives; it’s a skill known as situational awareness, and you can possess it too.
As the names implies, situational awareness is simply knowing what’s going on around you. It sounds easy in principle, but in reality requires much practice. And while it is taught to soldiers, law enforcement officers, and yes, government-trained assassins, it’s an important skill for civilians to learn as well. In a dangerous situation, being aware of a threat even seconds before everyone else can keep you and your loved ones safe.
But it’s also a skill that can and should be developed for reasons outside of personal defense and safety. Situational awareness is really just another word for mindfulness, and developing mine has made me more cognizant of what’s going on around me and more present in my daily activities, which in turn has helped me make better decisions in all aspects of my life.
I’ve spent months researching and talking to experts in the tactical field about the nature of situational awareness, and below you’ll find one of the most complete primers out there on how to gain this important skill. While the focus is primarily on developing your situational awareness to prevent or survive a violent attack, the principles discussed can also help hone your powers of observation in all areas of your life.
How to Develop Situational Awareness
Many of the resources out there on situational awareness say it can be cultivated by generally keeping tabs on your surroundings — “checking your six” and “keeping your back to the wall.”
This definition isn’t wrong. That’s exactly what situational awareness is: knowing what’s going on by scanning your environment. But I always found this explanation lacking. What exactly am I looking for? How do I know if I’m paying attention to the right things? Are there behaviors or warning signs of an imminent threat that I should know about?
Today we’re going to start by discussing the general principles of increasing your observational abilities, and then dive deeper into situational awareness itself to answer these important questions.
Observe + Orient = Situational Awareness
The thing that helped me finally understand situational awareness was framing it within the OODA Loop. For those of you who haven’t read my in-depth article on this important cognitive tool, here’s the CliffsNotes version:
The OODA Loop is a learning system and decision-making process that was first laid out by Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd. The four steps of the OODA Loop are Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. In a head-to-head competition, like air-to-air combat, a violent confrontation in a parking lot, or even political contests, the person who can cycle through the OODA Loop the fastest wins.
Obviously, the Observe step in the loop is what most people associate situational awareness with.
But it’s the second step in the OODA Loop – Orient — that answered my questions about what developing situational awareness actually involves. Orientation tells us what we should look for when we’re observing, and then puts those observations into context so we know what to do with the information.
So Observe + Orient = Situational Awareness.
But how can we become better observers so that we can improve our situational awareness? And how should we orient ourselves so that we observe the right things and understand the context for what we’re seeing?
Observe: Stay in Condition Yellow
In his seminal book, Principles of Personal Defense, gun-fighting expert Jeff Cooper laid out a color code system to help warriors gauge their mindset for combat scenarios. Each color represents a person’s potential state of awareness and focus:
For optimal situational awareness, Cooper recommends that we always stay in Condition Yellow.
Condition Yellow is best described as “relaxed alert.” There’s no specific threat situation, but you have your head up and you’re taking in your surroundings with all your senses. Most people associate situational awareness with just visual stimulation, but you can also learn a lot about a particular scenario from the sounds (or lack thereof) and even smells in the environment.
Even though your senses are slightly heightened in Condition Yellow, it’s also important to stay relaxed. By adopting a calm demeanor, you won’t bring any unnecessary attention to yourself. If you look antsy and your head is swiveling frantically while you scan your surroundings, people are going to notice you. Additionally, staying relaxed ensures that you maintain an open focus, which allows you to take in more information about what’s going on around you. Research shows that when we get nervous or stressed, our attention narrows, causing us to concentrate on just a few things at a time. A narrow focus can therefore cause us to miss important details in our environment.
Look up from your smartphone, don’t zone out, open your eyes, ears, and nose, and calmly scan your environment to take in what’s going on.
Besides staying in Condition Yellow, here are a few more tips to improve your observational abilities:
Put yourself in a position for optimal observation. To achieve effective situational awareness, you need to be able to observe as much of your surroundings as possible. Positioning yourself in obstructed spots will inhibit the flow of information coming in. For example, something might be in your way that prevents you from seeing a bad guy enter a theater or restaurant. You also don’t have eyeballs in the back of your head, so you can’t see what’s going on behind you.
So whenever you enter an environment, put yourself in a position that will allow you to see as much as you can. My buddy Mike Seeklander at Shooting Performance recommends finding a place where you can view all or most of the exit points, and that allows you to put your back to the wall. This position readies you to make a quick getaway, and eliminates the possibility of failing to see a threat materialize behind you.
Granted, this isn’t possible in all situations. You don’t have much control as to which table a restaurant hostess seats you at on a busy night, and you’d likely get a lot of strange looks if you stood with your back in a corner while you’re waiting in line at Five Guys. So do your best within the given circumstances. In that busy restaurant, you might not have control of your table location, but you can choose which seat you take. Pick the chair that gives you the best view from your table. When you’re standing in line at a fast food restaurant, just nonchalantly look around and take in the scene.
Hone your observation skills by playing the A-Game. Mike plays a game with his kids called the “A-Game,” or Awareness Game, to help them (and himself) strengthen their observational skills. To play, when you go into a business, make note of a few things about your environment: the number of workers behind the counter, the clothing and gender of the person sitting next to you, how many entry/exits there are, etc. When you leave and get into the car to head home, ask your kids questions like “How many workers were behind the counter?” “Was the person sitting next to us a man or a woman?” “What color was his/her shirt?” “How many exits were there?”
It’s fun to play, but more importantly it’s training your kids (and you) to be more mindful of their surroundings.
Master memorization. Another fun activity that will help improve your situational awareness is to practice memorizing things. Bourne knew all the license plate numbers of the cars outside the diner. You can gain this skill by practicing with a deck of cards, or strings of numbers. Here’s a guide on how to gain the ability to memorize anything you want.
Orient: Baselines, Goals, and Action Plans
Being more observant isn’t enough to master situational awareness. You have to know what you’re looking for, and then put that information into context so it has meaning and becomes actionable. That’s where the Orient phase comes into play.
The Orient step provides three things to help us achieve situational awareness: 1) baselines and anomalies for our particular environment, 2) mental models of human behavior we should look for, and 3) plans of action depending on our observations.