I remember an old and crusty veteran of military, government and law enforcement service giving me his take on the concept of street smarts, or, to use the phrase law enforcement adopted from the military aviation community, situational awareness.
“It’s like art, Marcus,” he growled. “I know it when I see it, but damned if I know how to teach it.”
One of my early realizations, back in the day, was that all the crusty survivors I knew in the military or law enforcement or high risk security operations had a common skill set — that indefinable something that added up to the ability to see trouble coming, and to take appropriate action that put them at an advantage rather than a disadvantage when the balloon went up.
I got my sense in the school of hard knocks. But when I had to deal with the issue of teaching young raw Federal Air Marshals that skill, I got stuck.
So I read all the books. I went to all the lectures. I listened to guys way smarter than me, who’d forgotten more about this stuff than I’d ever know — guys in university and government labs, NASA researchers and psychiatrists, heck, anybody who had something to say.
And ended up more confused than ever.
So I always had this theory that had proven sound in my training experience with martial arts, high risk protection work and close quarter combat — you can’t teach people an action skill by talking about it.
You have to do it.
So how do you do situational awareness?
I started by breaking what I had, and what I had observed in other folks into the smallest components. There’s some fancy terms for it in engineering, but basically you keep taking parts out till it doesn’t work anymore, then you put only enough back in till it runs.
Those are the critical bits.
So when I had what I thought were the critical bits, I went out and compared notes with a lot of other guys and gals. What they all had in common was that they were out where the rubber met the road: street and SWAT cops, combat veterans, astronauts, fighter pilots, professional fighters, race car drivers, all sorts of folks in dangerous jobs.
Most of them had not only seen the elephant, but French kissed him once or twice.
So before I share with you what I came up with as the critical bits that make up situational awareness, let me put in the obligatory disclaimer: This is not The Way. I don’t know The Way. This is just my experience as an occasional trainer (and current writer). I’ve managed with a little bit of success to train folks in this skill set, and then to have them turn around and train their folks in it, and survive critical incidents. There’s a lot of paths to the mountain, and I surely am no expert, and most certainly do not proclaim to know a whole lot about this subject.
I only know what I know!
So try it out. See for yourself. If it works, keep it. If not, bin it.
So back to what I came up with: my working definition of situational awareness is that it is the state of relaxed alertness that allows the operator the maximum amount of information about what is going on in his or her crucial zone of control. That zone of control might be what you see when you’re driving in your squad and listening to the radio and eyeballing the street, or it could be everything you see from the cockpit of a fighter over Baghdad at Mach 2. Here are the factors I’ve found to be essential to training, using, and maintaining a state of constant situational awareness.
1. Superior vision skills. I don’t mean excellent vision, I mean more efficient usage of the visual input the brain receives. Better visual processing. This can be trained through simple techniques to enhance habitual use of peripheral vision and to enhance superior scanning of the vision field. Visual pattern recognition of the nexus of cues (see item 2) leads to faster recognition of trouble, which gives you an advantage of time in the OODA loop (you remember the OODA loop, right?).
2. Superior behavioral cue acuity. That’s a fancy way of saying you need to recognize body language and environmental cues of impending violence and trouble faster. How do you do that? By a) seeing more efficiently and b) knowing what to look for. Training this leads to creating an efficient pattern recognition program in the brain that processes all the million of bits of data that come into our sensory perception every second — sight, sound, feeling, taste, hearing — and sends up a signal flare when needed that says “Hey, I know where this is going and it ain’t pretty.”
3. Superior state management. This doesn’t mean you’ll make a good politician. What this means is that you need to manage your state (time out for definition: a state is a combination of two things — your internal representation, or everything your brain is processing at any given moment, and your physiology, which is everything happening in your body at any given moment. States are things like happiness, fear, alertness….capisce?) efficiently no matter what’s going on. State management is “Keeping your head when all others around you are losing theirs.”
4. Superior use of time distortion. I think everyone who works in a high risk profession has experienced time either slowing down or speeding up while riding the adrenaline express. People who have been in — and survived — high stress situations process time differently than Joe Citizen. Ever had an hour that passed in seconds? Or a second that passed in hours? Time distortion.
So what we’ve got here is a uniform skill set broken down into manageable — and trainable components. Train each of these pieces, embed it in the appropriate context in your training flow, reinforce it as you go along and cement it forever in a stressful reality based scenario — and you’re giving your students the gift of the bedrock essential skill that makes up street smarts.
So let me now address these components with simple, easy to immediately implement exercises with examples drawn from the training successes me and mine have had. Then you can cut loose and experiment with your own personal training!
Use of the full natural range of your vision is the first building block in enhancing the physical components of situational awareness. The first step is to calibrate what your habitual range of vision is. Take a seat in a chair and have your partner stand behind you. Gaze straight ahead as you would normally do. Have your partner extend his arms out full length to the side, and then slowly bring them around behind you till you pick them up in your peripheral vision. Make sure you keep your gaze straight ahead. When you can see both his hands, say stop. Then look at the angle his arms make (see photo). That will give you the angle of your habitual range of vision.
Then have your partner dig his fingers into your shoulder and neck muscles, and loosen up those muscles. Then, he’ll rest his fingertips on your head and gently move your head back and forth until you cease resisting, and unlock the neck muscles. Sit straight, and align your spine straight over your pelvis, feet flat on the floor.
Then have him calibrate your range of vision.
If you do the relaxation piece, you’ll find that your range of peripheral vision will increase dramatically. Simple as that. So what does that tell you? That the habitual muscle tension you carry decreases your ability to see. So if perceptual narrowing occurs in an already narrowed vision field, what happens? What if perceptual narrowing occurred in a vision field that was fully expanded? Would you get the same degree of visual loss?
Try it out for yourself and see.
Behavioral cue acuity
That’s a ten-dollar phrase for reading body language. Everyone who has spent time successfully surviving violent encounters with dangerous humans has some ability to read the cues for impending violence — whether they saw it in advance or recollected it in the hospital!
While there are some useful video/DVD audio-visual presentations (like the work of Dr. Paul Ekman) that address pre-violence indicators, the cheapest, fastest, and most efficient way is to get experienced people (i.e. them that been and done that) to model (as in role play or act out) the cues in a mini-scenario format in front of the novice.
Show, don’t tell people about something they already know how to do…the human brain is wired from birth to interpret body language and subtle cues. So just put the right cues in front of your students. Role play a street interview escalating from non-compliance to violence — and who knows better how to write that script than your experienced people?
Show, don’t tell the way a face changes when somebody decides to get ugly and act on it.
I always hesitate to write about this stuff, because you can learn it in person in less time than it takes to write it down or read it. But this is an essential piece (like all the others) — and something you already describe as “keeping your head” or “keeping cool” or “not letting things get to you.”
The way I introduced this to people was to have them think of two opposite states (and remember, a state is internal representation + physiology, that is what you’re thinking and then what your body is doing) like, say, anger and happiness. Everybody’s been happy, right?
So with a partner, do this: have your partner close his eyes and really concentrate on being angry…on what makes him (or her) really mad. Watch closely for the physiological cues (which also helps your behavioral cue acuity…) as he changes. When you see that he really looks angry, tell him to stop. Get him back to neutral. Then have him concentrate on something that makes him really happy. Watch closely for the cues as he changes. When you see him fully happy, tell him to stop. Get him back to neutral.
Then ask him to describe what changed inside him as he went between those two states. He might use language that describes seeing something, hearing something, feeling something…what you’re looking for is what changed in his internal representation. Then tell him what you saw, compare notes.
Noticing what changes gives you the tool to notice your own changes — and stop them or modify them as you need to!
Not so hard, huh?
This is another aspect that’s much easier to teach in person than to describe in print, but here’s a fundamental exercise that will give you some insight into how your own internal clock works — and you can use your imagination as to how you could integrate this into some scenario training…
Close your eyes and visualize a clock face. Put a second hand on that clock face and watch it count off ten seconds. It’s important to visualize the second hand, not count off the seconds or go tick tick tick. When you’ve got your visualization right, then have your partner tell you go — and your partner needs a watch with a second hand (or digital read out). When you see your internal stopwatch hit ten seconds, sat stop. And have your partner tell you how many seconds he’s got on his external watch.
What you will find is that your internal clock may be off quite a bit from “external” time. What I’ve found is that people with lots of experience under stress process internal time differently…ten seconds of their internal time might be as little as two or three seconds of external time. If you have ten seconds to respond, while somebody only has two or three, does that give you an advantage in exploiting the OODA loop?
Might could be.
And if you don’t have that time advantage, you could train it…
So like I said, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know anybody that does. I’ve found that simple exercises like this not only enhance performance under stress, but build habitual skill levels that require little or no maintenance — because quite often this is stuff you’re already doing, and just need to pay a little attention to improve your performance.