This article was originally written for the Illinois Tactical Officer’s Association
We all know that person at work who can seemingly read every situation they find themselves in and turn it into something beneficial for them. It’s like watching action heroes like James Bond or Jason Bourne, people who can seemingly pick up on everything that is happening around them and then use that information to make better decisions than those with untrained eyes. We find ourselves in awe of those naturals who have learned how to dissect situations, find the patterns and seemingly predict the future.
Life might not be like the movies, but those same deliberate observation skills can be developed. While it certainly takes a lot of work to become skilled at recognizing pre-event indicators, for police officers looking to get and stay left of bang, here are three tips to make situational awareness second nature.
#1: Begin With The End In Mind
The way that these naturals so adeptly navigate complex and difficult situations is what often attracts our attention and carries an air of mystery. However, how they find the solution isn’t the first step, it is the last. Before you can determine how you are going to handle, for instance, an aggressive group of people, you need to know where you are and where you are going. It is a common misconception that just because people who are naturally aware seemingly get to the “how” so quickly, they must skip this first essential step. But that is simply not true. The same way that Google Maps needs to know where you are and where you are going before they can give you directions, naturals never bypass this part of the process. Naturals have just become very good and very efficient at defining their starting point, which is the baseline for the situation, as well as their desired outcome from the conversation.
While having a desired end-state for the conversation seems like common sense, it is one of the most skipped over steps that we see in police officers developing their situational awareness. This step is so important because in order to improve your ability to tie real time information into your decision-making, you need to know if your approach is working or not. Imagine you are walking up to a group of people who look like they are about to begin physically fighting. Let’s say that your goal is to prevent violence and de-escalate the situation, which provides you with a very clear outcome, to get people into the comfortable cluster. With a clearly defined goal, you now have a feedback loop that lets you know if your approach is working or not. Are people beginning to display these comfortable indicators or are they beginning to show an even higher display of dominance? You now have a quantifiable result that helps you improve your process for analyzing people and situations over time. If your learning is left to be defined by unclear outcomes, you will consistently be left wondering whether your game plan was the right approach for that situation or if it was some other factor that influenced the event.
#2: Simulate the Situation and Look For Confirmation
When it comes to finding ways to get to the outcome you have established before going into a situation, you should be creative and simulate different plans in your mind that might work or play out. Going back to the example of de-escalating a potential fight, think about all of the different ways that you have seen fights be averted in the past. Maybe it was by cracking a joke. Maybe it was identifying who the leader of the group was and focusing on them, which in turn caused the rest of the group to relax. Maybe it required putting some physical separation between the people in the group so that they could begin to think rationally without a threat right in their face. As you choose an approach and simulate the ways you envision the situation playing out, you will begin to answer two very important questions. As you take this action, what do you think is going to happen? And what do I need to see that would prove that to be true? Thinking about situations from this perspective lets you test out different plans and ensures that you are thinking about what indicators you would have to validate to determine that the chosen tactic is working or if you need to adjust and try again. It further provides the feedback loop of whether the cause and effect relationship you are trying to influence is actually working.
#3 You Have To Practice
While the goal for a police officer might be to make this level of informed situational awareness second nature to you, it isn’t going to come without commitment and dedication. It is going to require practice to not only master the observations that support your decisions, but also to make the observation processes themselves a habit. Since situational awareness is like exercising and many other perishable skills, it takes a lot longer to become truly capable than it does for you to lose much of the progress you made.
To make mental simulations a habit and to systematically expand your file folders, find a dedicated time in your everyday to always be going through the process. Use the briefing you receive at the start of every shift as an opportunity. Before the briefing, actually write out the process that you think you are going to observe. Write out what you think is going to be said. Write out how you expect people to react when they are told something they don’t want to hear. Write out the cues that would let you confirm that your predictions were right. If your predictions were right, make them more specific before the next shift, and further fine-tune your ability to understand what is happening and use it to your advantage. Once you have a good understanding of what you are looking for, apply the same process to something you will do on the job, like conducting a traffic stop. The more times you go through the process, the more natural it will become and you will find yourself picking up on more and more cues.
Many of the people who are naturals at maintaining their situational awareness and noticing the subtle cues that present themselves are people who had to learn this the hard way. Whether it was due to the neighborhood they grew up in or a steep learning curve when they first became a police officer, there is often a connection to survival that drives people to learn this skill. But one of the things that is most enjoyable about working with students going through the Tactical Analysis program is watching them learn the process to anticipate future events. As they realize that, even without the same life experience, they can develop themselves to simulate what pre-event indicators exist for a number of scenarios, and that will position them to get left of bang. To make situational awareness second nature you must hold yourself accountable for your own consistent learning, but it is absolutely possible.