Situational Awareness Exercises to Help Improve Your Observational Skills and Improve Your Safety
People who have great situational awareness do two things really well:
They are aware of many things in their immediate environment – not just the person or object they’re looking directly at.
They can quickly scan a room or area and decide which nearby people and objects are safe and which pose a potential threat.
Situational Awareness is about how well you are aware of what’s near you and what’s going on around you. It also entails being able to rationally and quickly tell which people or objects might pose a potential threat.
Improving your situational awareness skills will improve your safety. When you develop your skills, you can be your own security guard.
But you’re probably wondering:
“Aren’t some people just naturally good at it? Can I really improve my situational awareness (SA)?”
The answer to the second question is a resounding YES! You most definitely can improve your SA skills.
Here are several Situational Awareness Exercises to help you improve your safety. Practice them a little each day, and in a month or two, you’ll have much better SA skills.
Goal #1: Strengthen Your Peripheral Vision
Peripheral vision (being able to see things that are not directly in front of you) is a crucial skill in many aspects of your life (like driving!), but it tends to decrease as we get older.
When you’re talking with a friend or colleague, take the time to mentally note all the things you see to the left, to the right, and behind the person you’re talking to.
Then try to see just a bit farther without turning your head or moving your eyes away from the person you’re talking to.
Another technique that’s commonly used to strengthen peripheral vision is called the Straw and Toothpick Exercise:
Put something (anything will suffice) in front of you to focus on, like a book or a candle. While you’re looking directly at your object, determine how far left (or right) you can see, and put a cup with a straw in it there at the edge of your field of vision.
While looking at your main object, try to stick a toothpick into the hole in the straw. Don’t turn your head or move your eyes away from the main object though!
To keep track of improvement, measure the distance from your main object to the cup and record it. After practicing it for a few days, try moving the cup and straw further to the left (or right) by 1 or 2 cm. Try again.
Keep using this technique, and keep moving the cup further away occasionally. Record your results to track your improvement.
Goal #2: Actually Notice Things
People who have poor situational awareness skills tend to simply not notice things in their environment.
But here’s the kicker:
You can train yourself to be a super-observer!
You simply have to remind yourself to look and take notice.
Exercise: Scan Everything and Ask Yourself Questions
When you first walk into your workplace, or when you first arrive home and walk through the door, remind yourself to do a “whole-room scan”. You should practice it anywhere you go, though.
If you don’t think you can remember, tape a tiny note somewhere near the entrance to remind yourself. It can be simple, like a post-it note that says “scan”.
As soon as you walk in, look around at everything and mentally notice it. When we go to the same places all the time, we tend not to notice things anymore because we automatically assume that we already know what’s there and how things are. Make yourself notice anyway.
Some things to look for:
- For Safety Purposes
- Where are the exits?
- What barriers are there from where I am (or where I normally sit) to the exits? If the lights went out, and it was pitch black in here, could I navigate my way to the exit?
- Are there any suspicious people (looking strange, acting weird, seemingly nervous….)? Especially pay attention to people’s eyes and hands. Those are very telling. And listen to your “gut” feelings.
- What thing(s) nearby could I use as a weapon if the need arose? How would I use it as a weapon?
- Where’s a good hiding space (maybe if someone showed up and started shooting people at random)?
- Are there any suspicious objects nearby? (e.g., an unattended bag is a big red flag)
- For Practicing Your Observational Skills
- How many colors of shirts do I see? (How often do you notice what people are wearing?)
- How many people are here?
- Are there sprinklers here?
- How many people here look sad? Happy? Excited? Bored?
The best thing to do is sit and make a list of 20-30 questions of things you could look for, and then pick 5 to use each week. During week 1, practice asking yourself the first 5 questions every time you go somewhere. Week 2, use questions 6-10. And so on and so forth.
Exercise: What’s Missing?
This is a common children’s game, but it works well to help you improve your observational skills and notice things.
Grab a friend (or a child), and put a group of objects on a table. Start with 10-15 different objects. Look away, and have your friend remove one item. Look and see if you can tell what’s missing. If you’re good at it, add more objects – start with a group of 25 or 30! How well do you do now?
GOAL #3: Expand Your Audio Skills
If you rely only on your eyes, you have a big disadvantage. What if someone walked up to you and sprayed or threw something in your eyes, making you unable to see, albeit temporarily?
Do some exercises to strengthen your sense of hearing. A lot of people sit and stare at their smartphone and block everything else out.
If you have a child, you probably know this is a fact. When my child was watching cartoons, I could practically scream at him, and he simply didn’t hear me. He was too focused on the TV.
Exercise: Blindfold Yourself
If you have a free 30-minute block of time on the weekend, try going without your sight. You can start with 10 minutes, or you can be really brace and go for 30.
If you trust yourself to keep your eyes closed without peeking, just close your eyes. Otherwise, use a blindfold.
Listen to all the sounds around you. What do you hear? How loud is it? Can you hear soft, subtle sounds? What sounds near? What sounds seem far away? How many of these sounds are always there, but you tend to block them out?
Try navigating without sight. It’s a lot easier to do at home. Once you get good there, go to a park and try it there. Try to rely on the things you hear to help guide you. Make sure you’re not near anything that could pose a hazard, though!
Bonus Tip: Learn Some Easy Self-Defense Moves
After you’ve identified a threat in your environment, and if a situation arises where you need to defend yourself against that threat, you’ll need to actually be able to defend yourself.
I am 5’2” tall, so if I have to get into a physical altercation with a big guy, I have a big disadvantage. But there are easy-to-target body parts I can attack and disabling pressure points that I can go for.
Spend an evening watching some YouTube videos that teach you how to defend yourself, even if you’re a small person with little strength and no fighting skills.
Here’s one to get you started. He has a strong accent, but he tells you to “get in close”, “use speed”, “use surprise”, and “use everything you can”.
Dim Mak is a set of techniques derived from Chinese martial arts that uses pressure points to disable (and purportedly even kill) an opponent. If you want to learn Dim Mak Techniques, Paladin Press has 18 books, DVDs, and ebooks teaching you all you ever wanted to know about it.