“What would you do in this situation?

This seemingly simple question coming from a student is one of the most challenging and difficult questions for an instructor to answer. Especially when considering the consequences of failing to recognize a threat left of bang, it is understandable why someone would want to know what cues and what behaviors would reveal a potential threat for every single scenario they might face. There is, of course, the drive to answer the question in the best way possible too. It’s the people who truly want to learn how to protect themselves, protect their family or be better at their job that ask this question. They are looking for a way to get the process started. But for any instructor who has ever been asked what they would do in a particular situation, you are probably well aware of the challenge it poses because it often forces the instructor to choose from two equally unattractive options when deciding how to respond.

Option #1: The Decisive Answer

The first option for the instructor when asked, “What would you do?” is to simply answer the question and explain what you would do in the specific situation being discussed. Your first response to this option might be, “How is answering the question a bad thing?” On its own, providing clear and decisive answers that students can take with them from the classroom to the job is a great thing and, whenever possible, should be the standard.

The problem, however, with answering the question and stating what you would do, and in turn telling someone what they should do, is that it can be incredibly dangerous for them, the student. There are inherent limitations to one-size-fits-all strategies. Teaching or telling someone “what to do” or “what to think” can make it harder for them to understand why you made that decision, since your answer is based on the information that you have available to you. If they don’t know what factors influenced your choice, you might be doing more harm than good as the student might attempt to apply your solution to an event that has provided different information and that demands a different decision.

When an instructor is concerned that they might be setting their student up for failure by providing such a definitive answer, you might see them take a pass on option #1, and instead take the route provided by option #2.

Option #2: “It depends on the situation.”

As a student, there is nothing more frustrating than asking a teacher a question, only to hear that the answer includes the phrase “it’s situationally dependent.” As a student is first learning a new skill and trying to understand how they can apply what they are being taught to their everyday life or their profession, having the instructor provide a few examples about how they use the skills goes a long way to making the lessons more meaningful. So when an instructor seemingly dodges the question by saying that the decision they would make depends on the situation, it limits the student’s ability to apply the concepts you are teaching once they leave the classroom.

From my entry level training as a Marine Infantry Officer to going to graduate school to learn what it would take to grow a business, every time a teacher answered a question with the sentiment that “because it is situationally dependent, you will know it when you see it,” they were creating obstacles that made it harder for me to internalize the lessons being taught and use them to improve the decisions I would make in the field.

I understand why instructors take this route of not providing a specific or decisive answer, since their decision would be based on the situation, it isn’t something they can answer. It can keep a class on track by not spending a lot of time going down the path of answering an endless stream of hypothetical questions. It helps the instructor by not forcing them to commit to a decision without having access to all of the facts, preventing the series of what-if questions that will inevitably follow. More importantly, it shows the student that without a clear understanding of the situation, providing a “what to think” or “what to do” solution would be incredibly negligent. But at the same time, not answering the question doesn’t teach the student the importance of learning “how to think” or “why to do,” so that they can make their own decision without the assistance of the instructor.

The Underlying Problem

In the past, when I would hear an instructor reply to a request to tell a student what to do or what they would do in a situation with, “It depends on the situation,” I always asked myself, why doesn’t the instructor just define the situation? Why is it so hard to pass someone’s experience on to the next generation of protectors, guardians and warriors? This was something that I was constantly asking myself because I commonly hear the demands for Marines, Soldiers, Police Officers and Security Professionals to improve their judgment and decision-making. We know that the decisions they make are a result of the information that these professionals have available to them, but if their teachers, mentors and leaders can’t explain to them what information they should be looking for, holding them accountable for their actions without teaching them how to make decisions borders on the immoral.

The problem, I realized later, wasn’t that instructors were intentionally trying to not say what they would do, but that there wasn’t a common language to define the situation and an established process for collecting that information. Without the ability to explain specifically what information they were using to make their decision, the answer that it would be “dependent on the situation,” was simply their attempt to ensure that they didn’t teach something that did harm to a student. If you have ever felt this frustration towards an instructor, know that the problem doesn’t rest on the shoulders of the instructor, but often with the way that situational awareness has traditionally been taught.

Option #3: The Solution

The first time I sat through the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter course, I was blown away because, for the first time, I saw a solution to the problem of not being able to define a situation. By defining behavior in the way that Jason Riley and I wrote about in Left of Bang: How The Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life, and the way it has evolved into the Tactical Analysis program, operators and instructors have access to a terminology to describe a situation and an observation process that systematizes the search for cues and allows for situational awareness to be enhanced to a level of informed awareness.

Option #3 is where you teach a person the deliberate and intentional process to search the area in order to understand and define their environment using a set of standardized terms. This empowers the person to determine what specific behaviors they should be looking for in the specific areas they are visiting while following a step-by-step checklist to sequence their thought process. Option #3 combines the other two options discussed above because it provides a decisive and clear answer to the question “what would you do here?” yet also acknowledges the fact that the decisions will be dependent on the situation. At a broad level, the three steps that go into recognizing threats proactively are:

Step #1: Establish and define what is normal for the place you are visiting. This is the baseline and the point of reference that you need have defined in order to move forward.

Step #2: Identify and clarify what specific indicators are going to reveal a person who has a violent intent as they move through the attack cycle. There are the anomalies that you want to identify to protect yourself from while still left of bang.

Step #3: Pre-plan your responses for each and every type of pre-event indicator that you anticipate encountering. These are the decisions that you will make once it is clear there is a threat in your area.

While the three steps in the process are designed to be simple, they also aren’t necessarily easy either. As you reflect on your ability to execute those steps, we often find people asking themselves a few questions when it comes to enhancing their situational awareness.

  1. How do I define what is normal?
  2. What are the universal and uncontrollable elements of nonverbal behavior that I should be using to establish the baseline instead of controllable factors like the clothing a person is wearing?
  3. What will make someone an anomaly that I need to pay attention to and why are factors like a person’s race, religion and gender inaccurate indicators of a person I need to pay attention to?
  4. Is this process going to make me paranoid on my trip and worried about everyone?

Since The CP Journal’s primary goal is to help protectors prepare to stay safe in their life or in their job, we first have to make the phrase “it is situationally dependent” obsolete and provide the actionable steps needed for a protector to accomplish the goal of reading the situation. In the process, we will help ensure that you are empowered to take control of your security while traveling overseas or here at home by knowing “how to think and why to do” instead of being limited by learning “what to think and what to do.”

To make the process for defining the situation and planning your decisions even more clear, here is how we recommend you build your habit of going through the observational process in an area.

First: Conduct a hasty search to answer those three questions:

  • What’s going on here?
    • Identify if the noise level, cleanliness and orderliness of the area to determine if that supports positive or negative atmospherics.
    • Confirm your initial assessment of the collective mood by observing (primarily) comfort if you assessed the area as having positive atmospherics or discomfort if you assessed the area as having negative atmospherics.
  • What’s going to make someone stand out?
    • Once the collective mood assessment is confirmed, look for high intensity displays of anomalous behavior for that particular mood.  Meaning, you are searching for high intensity dominance or discomfort for an area with positive atmospherics, or high intensity dominance or comfort in an area with negative atmospherics.
  • What are you going to do about it?
    • The decisions are based on your profession and field, but we recommend either a “kill-capture-contact” decision tree for those who have the authority to take that action and the situation warrants it. For those who don’t, we recommend a “control-call-contact” decision tree to deal with any anomalies identified.
    • You would pre-plan your decision to each type of anomalous behavior you anticipate.
    • If no anomalies identified, move forward with deliberate search.  If anomaly identified, make a decision before moving into deliberate search.

Second: Conduct a deliberate search to answer those three questions at a deeper level.

  • What’s going on here?
    • Build a map of the area.  Identify if the area (as a whole) is a habitual area or an anchor point and identify any permanent and temporary anchor points within the area.
    • Identify all of the personas that you expect to see in the area and identify the need they are fulfilling by coming to the area.
    • For each persona, identify the steps and actions required for them to accomplish their goal/fulfill their need.
    • For each step of each process identified, establish a cluster of individual behaviors as the baseline.
  • What would make someone stand out?
    • Search for any anomalies in the area that either break from the identified patterns or whose behavior does not fit the baseline for that particular step.
  • What are you going to do about it?
    • For each type of anomaly identified, plan through what actions you would take using the same decision trees as discussed above.
    • If no anomalies are present, continue to monitor the area or carry on with your purpose for being there. If an anomaly presents itself, make a decision and take action.

While many of the details that go into each of these steps are behaviors and concepts that we teach in our course and beyond the scope of a single article, the point is that we are able to capture the benefits of an “if-then” type checklist without limiting the creativity of a protector on the ground. As each decision is still based on the conditions of the specific situation they are in, it allows for the adaptability that comes with learning “how to think” and “why to do” as opposed the constraints of being taught in a “what to do” or “what to think” structure.

Over the past month, we have added flow charts to our company library that show the steps of the hasty search and deliberate search in a more visual manner. These have been designed to help protectors, guardians and warriors work through the process in the field and make the process of observing and the steps to attain situational awareness more clear. By using the four pillars of observable behavior, and using a structured manner to define what is normal, what would make someone stand out and what decisions you would make we can take steps to make the phrase “it is situationally dependent” a thing of the past and improve the way we develop our next generation of protectors to get and stay left of bang.