How to Develop Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the ability to recognize and evaluate a situation quickly, accurately and without bias. In order to be successful in any field, it’s important that you learn how to develop this skill set. This article will teach two skillsets with practical exercises meant for those starting off their career as well as experienced professionals

Situational awareness is a skill that can be developed. There are many ways to do this, but one of the best methods is through situational training. The “situational awareness training pdf” is a good resource for developing your skills.

Vintage detective wearing trench Coat and Fedora.

The Bourne Identity opens with a scene in which the protagonist sits at a café, trying to figure out who he is and why he has a lot of passports and a pistol kept in a safety deposit box. Bourne is also aware that he observes things that others do not. Watch:


That superhuman capacity to look about him and make precise evaluations of his surroundings? Situational awareness isn’t simply a feature of top-secret operators; it’s a talent that everyone can master.

Situational awareness is simply knowing what is going on around you, as the name indicates. In theory, it seems simple, but it takes a lot of effort to master. While it is taught to military, police officials, and yes, government-trained assassins, it is also a valuable talent for citizens to acquire. Being aware of a threat even seconds before everyone else may keep you and your loved ones safe in a perilous circumstance.

However, it’s a talent that can and should be acquired for reasons other than self-defense and safety. Situational awareness is just another name for mindfulness, and honing mine has helped me become more aware of what’s going on around me and more present in my everyday activities, allowing me to make better judgments in all areas of my life.

I’ve spent months studying and speaking with tactical experts on the nature of situational awareness, and you’ll find one of the most comprehensive primers on how to acquire this critical talent below. While the emphasis is on improving your situational awareness in order to avoid or escape a violent assault, the techniques covered may also be used to improve your observation skills in other aspects of your life.

How Can I Improve My Situational Awareness?

Many literature on situational awareness suggest that it may be developed by simply keeping an eye on your surrounds — “checking your six” and “keeping your back to the wall,” for example.

This definition is not incorrect. Situational awareness is just that: understanding what’s going on by scanning your surroundings. But I’ve always thought this explanation was inadequate. I’m not sure what I’m searching for. How can I tell whether I’m focusing on the appropriate things? Are there any behaviors or warning signals that indicate an impending danger that I should be aware of?

To address these crucial issues, we’ll start by reviewing the broad concepts of improving your observational skills, and then we’ll go further into situational awareness itself.

Situational Awareness = Observe + Orient

Framing situational awareness inside the OODA Loop was the key to finally understanding it. Here’s the cliffsNotes version for those who haven’t read my in-depth post on this critical cognitive tool:

John Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist, initially proposed the OODA Loop as a learning method and decision-making process. Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act are the four stages of the OODA Loop. The individual who can cycle through the OODA Loop the quickest wins in a head-to-head battle, such as air-to-air warfare, a violent altercation in a parking lot, or even political elections.


Obviously, most people equate situational awareness with the Observe stage in the loop.

However, it was the second stage in the OODA Loop – Orient – that provided the answers to my concerns about what gaining situational awareness entails. Orientation gives us what to look for while we’re observing and then puts those observations into perspective so we can figure out what to do with the data.

So Situational Awareness = Observe + Orient.

But how might we increase our situational awareness by being better observers? And how should we position ourselves to make sure we’re seeing the proper things and comprehending the context of what we’re seeing?

Keep in mind: Stay in Yellow Condition. 

Jeff Cooper, a gunfighting specialist, worked forth a color code system in his landmark book Principles of Personal Defense to assist fighters measure their attitude for combat situations. Each hue indicates a possible level of consciousness and attentiveness for a person:

Jeff Cooper Situational awareness Color code.

Cooper proposes that we remain in Condition Yellow at all times for optimal situational awareness.

“Relaxed alert” is the best way to characterize Condition Yellow. There’s no immediate danger, but you’re keeping your head up and using all of your senses to take in your surroundings. Most people link situational awareness with visual stimuli, but noises (or lack thereof) and even scents in the surroundings may teach you a lot about a situation.

Even if your senses are somewhat heightened in Condition Yellow, it’s critical to maintain a comfortable attitude. You will not draw undue attention to yourself if you maintain a calm manner. People will notice you if you seem agitated and rotate your head rapidly while scanning your surroundings. Furthermore, being calm enables you to retain an open focus, allowing you to absorb more information about what’s going on around you. When we are apprehensive or tense, research reveals that our attention narrows, leading us to focus on just a few things at a time. As a result of our restricted concentration, we may overlook vital nuances in our surroundings.

Vintage illustration Man drinking Water from Pond Tiger reflection.

Situational awareness isn’t simply for when you’re up against a human foe…

Look up from your phone, don’t zone out, open your eyes, ears, and nose, and scan your surroundings quietly to take it all in.

In addition to remaining in Condition Yellow, here are a few additional pointers to help you enhance your observational skills:

Put oneself in the best possible position for observation. You must be able to notice as much of your surroundings as possible in order to develop excellent situational awareness. Positioning oneself in congested areas will stifle the flow of information. For example, something may be blocking your view of a terrible individual entering a theater or restaurant. You also lack eyes at the back of your head, preventing you from seeing what’s going on behind you.

As a result, whenever you enter a new location, position yourself so that you can see as much as possible. Finding a location where you can see all or most of the exit locations while having your back to the wall is recommended by my friend Mike Seeklander of Shooting Performance. This stance prepares you to flee quickly and avoids the potential of missing a danger approaching from behind.


Vintage Man sitting in restaurant at dinner Table.

Granted, this isn’t feasible in every circumstance. On a busy night, you don’t have much choice over which table a restaurant hostess sits you at, and if you stood in a corner while waiting in line at Five Guys, you’d probably receive a lot of curious stares. So, within the constraints, do your best. You may not have control over your table placement at that crowded restaurant, but you do have power over the seat you pick. Choose the chair with the finest view from your table. When you’re in line at a fast food establishment, take a casual glance around and soak it all in.

Play the A-Game to improve your observation abilities. Mike plays the “A-Game,” or Awareness Game, with his kids to assist them (and himself) improve their observational abilities. To play, take notice of a few factors about your surroundings when you enter a business: the number of employees behind the counter, the attire and gender of the person seated next to you, the number of entry/exits, and so forth. Ask your kids questions like “How many staff were behind the counter?” as you leave and get into the vehicle to go home. “Was it a guy or a lady in the seat next to us?” “Can you tell me what color his/her clothing was?” “Did you count how many exits there were?”

It’s entertaining to play, but it also teaches your children (and you) to be more aware of their surroundings.

Master the art of memory. Practice remembering things is another enjoyable hobby that can help you enhance your situational awareness. Bourne was well-versed in the license plate numbers of the vehicles parked outside the restaurant. This talent may be learned by practicing with a deck of cards or a series of numbers. This is a step-by-step method to learning how to remember whatever you desire.

Orientation: Goals, Objectives, and Action Plans

To master situational awareness, being more attentive isn’t enough. You must first know what you’re searching for, then put that knowledge into perspective so that it makes sense and can be used. This is when the Orient phase enters the picture.

The Orient stage gives three items to aid situational awareness: 1) baselines and anomalies specific to our surroundings, 2) mental models of human behavior to look for, and 3) action plans based on our observations.

Wherever you go, establish a baseline.

Jason Bourne Bourne identity.

Every individual and environment has a starting point. A baseline is what is considered “normal” in a certain scenario, and it varies from person to person and environment to environment. In a tiny coffee shop, for example, the norm is for individuals to be reading a book, working on their computer, or conversing in quiet tones with their pals. Loud music with people staring at the stage while either bouncing up and down or swaying their bodies to the rhythm would be the norm at a rock event.

We build baselines in order to detect irregularities. “Anomalies are things that either don’t happen and should, or that do happen and shouldn’t,” says Patrick Van Horne, a situational awareness specialist, teacher of the Marine Combat Profiling system, and author of Left of Bang. Anomalies are what concentrate our attention when we take in our surroundings and what we need to pay attention to in order to acquire situational awareness.


As a result, the first step in orienting oneself is to set baselines so that we can focus on anomalies. How are we going to accomplish it on the fly? Van Horne recommends that you ask yourself these questions whenever you’re in a new environment:

  • Questions to Begin: What exactly is going on here? What’s the atmosphere like here? What might I anticipate in terms of “typical” activities here? How do the majority of the people here act the majority of the time?
  • What would make someone or something to stand out as an anomaly?

Observe for Behavioral clusters

Vintage Man walking across Bridge in trench Coat.

Because of our incapacity to pay attention to everything at once, we are unable to achieve comprehensive situational awareness. At any one moment, the human mind can only process so much information. As a result, in the realm of personal safety, where events unfold swiftly and seconds may mean the difference between life and death, how we focus our attention is critical.

As a result, we must concentrate on a few things at a time that will provide us the greatest bang for our money in terms of attention. And we do it, according to Van Horne, by relying on heuristics. Heuristics are fast and dirty problem-solving and decision-making mental shortcuts that our brains employ to sort things out when we only have a limited amount of information and time. Heuristic decisions aren’t always ideal, but they’re typically good enough in the context of your own safety.

Van Horne sets out six areas of human behavior that Marine Combat Profilers utilize on the battlefield to evaluate whether someone is a friend or adversary in his book Left of Bang. For this post, I interviewed Van Horne to get a sense of what people should look for in daily settings. He informed me that the most significant category of indications is kinesics, a branch of psychology that deals with people’s conscious and subconscious body language.

Three clusters of body language in the realm of kinesics are of special importance for situational awareness. There are three types of behavior: dominance/submissive, comfortable/uncomfortable, and interested/uninterested.

Dominance vs. submissiveness. Most individuals attempt to get along with other people, therefore they appear accommodating and subservient most of the time. According to Van Horne, dominating conduct “is a manifestation of the limbic system’s fight response,” and it typically takes the form of “gestures and postures that make a person seem bigger in order to intimidate’smaller’ others into submission.” The term “smaller vs. larger” refers not just to physical size, but also to relative power situations.

Because most individuals get along only to get along, dominating conduct is unusual, and the person who exhibits it merits extra attention. It’s important to remember that just because someone seems aggressive, bossy, or overpowering doesn’t imply they’re a danger. You’d expect a supervisor to be dominant and workers to be obedient to their boss, but witnessing severe domineering conduct from a client towards an employee isn’t as usual. That’s worth keeping an eye on.


Behaviour that is either pleasant or uncomfortably comfortable. In most settings, most individuals will seem to be pretty at ease. Consider a bus or subway ride: individuals look to be very comfortable as they gaze out the window or read a book. If someone seems uneasy, it’s a red flag that has to be addressed, but it doesn’t necessarily imply they’re a danger. They may be upset because they are late for work or have just received unpleasant news about a relative. It’s simply something to keep an eye on, again.

“Checking their six,” according to Van Horne, is a regular exhibit of uneasy behavior you’ll observe from someone up to naught good. This is when a person scans their surroundings or glances over their shoulder to see what’s behind them. People who are at ease do not do this since they do not see a danger. So if you see a man glancing over his shoulder a lot when he should be standing there aloof, it’s a red flag that needs to be addressed.

“Checking your six,” of course, is something that situationally aware good people do as well. It shouldn’t be obvious to others if you’re doing it correctly, but it takes experience, and some man with his head on a swivel could still be green. But be wary until you can confirm it with further observation.

On the other hand, someone behaving relaxed while everyone else is tense would be an exception. One of the ways law enforcement was able to identify the Boston Marathon bombers was by noticing that the guys seemed very calm on surveillance film while everyone else was rushing about in a panic. They seemed calm because they anticipated the explosion and hence were not astonished by it, but everyone else was taken off guard.

Behavior that is either interested or disinterested. The majority of individuals are unconcerned with their surroundings. They’re preoccupied with their own ideas or whatever they’re doing. Individuals who express interest in a person or thing that the majority of people would not be interested in are an outlier that should be investigated further.

These three body language clusters serve as baselines for any circumstance we encounter, allowing us to focus our limited attention on things that are possibly more essential and/or harmful. You can very much overlook a person if their conduct across these clusters matches the baseline for that situation. If their conduct deviates from the norm, they’re an outlier, and you should keep a closer eye on them.

Other Indicators of Behavioral Threat

Aside from the three kinesic clusters listed above, Marine Combat Profilers are instructed to watch for a handful of additional tendencies that might apply to civilian situations:

Hands that are nimble. Military and law enforcement officials usually inspect the hands of whomever they’re dealing with first. This is due to two factors. First, Van Horne argues, “examining a person’s hands guarantees that the individual is not carrying a weapon or prepared to attack.” Second, concealed malicious intents are often telegraphed by hands. People who are hiding anything they don’t want found, such as a pistol, knife, or stolen item, “will commonly touch or pat that location on the body where the object is kept, as if to confirm the object has not been lost or is still hidden from view,” according to the study.


“Natural Acting.” When you’re not entirely focused on what you’re meant to be doing, it’s tough to “act natural.” People who are “acting natural” may look preoccupied and exaggerate or minimize their actions. When insurgents in Afghanistan try to pass themselves off as farmers, they’re really trying to gather intelligence on US military patrols. Marine Combat Profilers are taught to search for “farmers” who seem to be putting in too much effort.

Make a plan of action based on your observations.

When you go to your favorite coffee shop, a bad man with a pistol also shows there. You, on the other hand, are the first to recognize him as a danger since you’ve followed the guidelines above. Great. But what are your plans for dealing with it? Seconds are crucial in this situation. You don’t have enough time to come up with a well-thought-out strategy. Furthermore, the event’s tension will cloud your judgment and decision-making.

Van Horne recommends asking oneself a third question every time you enter an area, in addition to the baseline and anomaly inquiries. “What would I do if I observed an abnormality?” To put it another way, establish a strategy.

So, let’s return to the coffee shop scenario. Let’s imagine the occurrence for which you’d want to devise a strategy is “man comes in with a gun.” In this situation, the appropriate course of action is determined by a few factors. Knowing what those few things are requires situational awareness. If the thief entered by the front entrance and you’re near the back exit, your best course of action is to book it out the back door as soon as possible. If, on the other hand, he came by the rear exit near you, your best course of action, according to the Department of Homeland Security, would be to bridge the distance between you and him and incapacitate him.

Set some benchmarks. Look for oddities. Make a strategy.

That is the essence of situational awareness.

As a Preventive Strategy, Situational Awareness

Animals are opportunistic animals. They’ll only assault another creature if it seems to be susceptible. Because younger, sicker, or older gazelles are easier to capture, lions will pursue them. Humans are no different. Criminals are more likely to target someone who seems vulnerable, whether the victim is physically weaker or just easier to catch off guard.

Situational awareness goes a long way toward preventing you from seeming to be an easy target. Look attentive while you’re out and about. Take your phone away from your face. Have your keys available while heading back to your vehicle late at night, and keep a watchful eye on your surroundings. The less vulnerable you seem, the less likely someone will try to take advantage of you.

Here’s another recommendation from the Sage Dynamics folks on how to avoid seeming like a victim: Keep a tactical flashlight with you at all times and use it at night. A light not only enables you to see better in the dark, but it may also serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals. Because law enforcement officers are often the only ones flashing flashlights along alleyways and under vehicles, if you shine your light as you go to your destination or return to your car, the bad guys will most likely mistake you for a policeman and leave you alone. If the worst happens and you’re jumped, you may use the tactical flashlight to defend yourself by blinding your assailant with the powerful beam or striking him with the beveled edge that’s typically integrated into the handle. 


Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

Matt Damon Jason Bourne.

Situational awareness is an attitude that must be intentionally developed. You want to get to the point where it’s a habit that you don’t have to think about. It takes a lot of practice to reach to that stage. Remind yourself to check for entry/exit points anytime you enter a new building starting today. While at work, the gym, or on a date, start studying individuals, creating baselines, and generating probable anomalies. Then start formulating action plans for what you would do if you saw a potential danger in that environment. Don’t be paranoid; just be cautious. If you practice it every day, situational awareness will become second nature to you, rather than something you have to think about. Jason Bourne real, not false farmer natural.

Keep your head on a swivel, check your six, and keep your back to the wall till next time.

Oh, and keep your manliness!

Oh, and keep your manliness!

Additional Situational Awareness Resources and Reading

Patrick Van Horne’s Situation Awareness Podcast: Patrick Van Horne spoke with us on how situational awareness skills might be used outside of the battlefield.

Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley’s Left of Bang Patrick has spent his career working on the Marine Combat Profiling system, which he helped develop, studying and teaching situational awareness to Marines. This book, in combination with pieces on his website,, and a personal discussion with him, went a great way toward answering my questions. Patrick’s business website may be found here. He offers a ton of free stuff that is quite good for improving your situational awareness. He also provides online classes if you’re searching for something more regimented.

Dr. Mica Endsley’s paper “Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness.” The Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force is Dr. Mica Endsley. While Dr. Endsley’s work is somewhat technical, she does an excellent job of discussing the subtleties and complexity of situational awareness, which helped me understand a few things. I strongly advise you to have a look at it.

Gary Klein’s book Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making

Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear



Watch This Video-

Everyday situational awareness is a skill that will help you in any situation. This article will teach you how to develop your own situational awareness. Reference: everyday situational awareness.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 3 steps for situational awareness?

A: These are the 3 steps to situational awareness. They can be completed in any order and do not have to be done all at once, but if you want to practice these skills, it might help for you to complete them one by one.
1.) Observe your surroundings
2.) Identify potential threats or opportunities
3.) Respond appropriately

What is the first step to situational awareness?

A: The first step to situational awareness is having a strong foundation of information.

Related Tags

  • how to develop situational awareness in the workplace
  • situational awareness safety tips
  • situational awareness training online
  • 4 levels of situational awareness
  • situational awareness military