"Knowing Conditions" - A Path to Practical Awareness - By Chris Leblanc

Situational awareness is the safety net of daily life, allowing us to predict, prevent and manage stressful or even dangerous situations. Whether a testy exchange with our spouse foretelling an argument, a looming traffic accident, or predicting circumstances in which our child may end up being hurt, many of us endeavor to do what Japanese swordsman-strategist Musashi referred to as “knowing conditions,” to better deal with or avoid altogether these situations and their outcomes.


Yet when it comes violent or potentially violent behavior directed against us we often don’t do so well, instead operating from a baseline of fear, hesitation, and indecision.


Some have turned to martial arts to learn self defense, assuming perhaps that awareness and knowing conditions is part and parcel of the practice. But most martial art training does not take a practical approach to situational awareness vis-à-vis the dynamics of actual violence. The general paradigm both consciously and unconsciously inculcates a dueling mentality in which trainees are aware of and essentially consent to a violent encounter and prepare for it by “centering,” or otherwise engage in some manner of preparatory activity with an equally aware partner-opponent. This by its very nature is divorced from situational awareness, threat assessment, and decision making under actual duress.


By honing the practical application of the latter skills, a more realistic understanding of confrontational dynamics is developed and a path toward making disciplines studied in the martial arts dojo useful for personal protection is made available.


Practical Awareness


Author Marcus Wynne, a former Special Operations soldier, air marshal, and protective operations trainer provides a good working definition of situational awareness as “the state of relaxed alertness that allows the operator the maximum amount of information about what is going on his crucial zone of control.” (1) Zones of control are situational and circumstantially dependent, and will be very different for the cop on the beat, the federal agent on a protection detail for a diplomat in Iraq, and the father with his family on a camping outing.


Further, this awareness more than simply seeing what is happening in the zone of control, but involves the ability to know what one is looking at; reading signs and assess the threat potential of situations and people.


To accomplish this one might begin by reframing their thinking about the motivations and commitment of likely assailants.  Human predators frequently bring to a confrontation a world view and estimation of their fellow human beings far different from that found in the population of the average dojo – where people largely train with others who are by and large “just like them.” Put in the starkest of terms, there are people out there for whom the life of another, even that of child, is less important to them than their own orgasm, or their next high. We must assume that anyone visiting physical threat upon us is doing so without compunction for doing harm or even taking life in the pursuit of their end goal – whatever that may be.


 To achieve those goals, many have learned the arts of deception, manipulation, and violence decidedly different from what is practiced in the martial arts. Add to this the “wild card” factor of drug and/or alcohol intoxication and the potential for even the non-predatory assailant to wreak havoc is always there. The predatory attacker is primarily interested in achieving the goal, not in testing themselves against a martial artist. They move quickly, using methods of shock and surprise intended to be psychologically and physically overwhelming.


This is by design, as such confrontational momentum confuses and short circuits the victim’s self preservation mechanisms. Often by the time victims begin to process what is going on, they have been robbed, punched or stabbed repeatedly, or are in an alley or the back of a van and being driven away to be abused for other ends and discarded.


The weak or unaware are naturally preferred targets here. Being distracted in public, as in driving (and waiting at a stop light), using a cell phone, using the cell phone when driving or walking, or with hearing blocked with an I-Pod simply identified one as a potential victim and does half a predator’s work – it means that extra few seconds to “get the drop” and shock and surprise before the target is even cognizant of what is going on.


To counteract this, make a habit of observing and truly seeing what is going on around you.


Vision and Vigilance:


True seeing involves more than looking around; it is actually assessing and understanding the significance of what is observed in the zone of control. In so doing, the decision making process in reacting to a potential threat starts earlier buying more time for pro-action or reaction than if one fails to comprehend the subtle meaning of what is seen, or doesn’t see it at all. This kind of seeing involves skilled vision.


Assessment and understanding are the hallmarks of skilled vision. Skilled vision does not mean 20-20 eyesight, rather the efficiency of scan patterns and the amount of information drawn from them. Studies have shown increased success at threat identification among soldiers that have honed their visual and other perceptual skills and learned to trust gut feelings about what they see.


Practice scanning the environment and people within it, as a whole first, then what is in their hands, their facial expressions, and any behavioral cues (an odd gait or tell-tale bulge) that may indicate further interest or action is warranted. Skilled vision repeatedly cycles through this pattern.


No one is completely aware all the time, especially in this digital age, but we must also develop the self-awareness that allows us to recognize when we have been visually and mentally checked out, then immediately check back in to baseline awareness by scanning the surroundings. Demonstrable vigilance in and of itself may prevent selection as a victim in the first place.


Initiative and Interval


A large part of situational awareness is in understanding the interplay of initiative and interval. Both must be assessed and managed quickly relative to confrontational dynamics.


The difficulty is managing these factors in normal daily life. We simply cannot function in typical urban environments by keeping people outside of our “critical distance” or zone of control, let alone be always on guard and taking fighting stances when someone enters that space; we would not be able to walk down a city street if we did. Normal life allows strangers get far closer to us than is safe - there is no way to manage that without proper awareness, assessment and decision making to include assessing initiative and interval.


Initiative is frequently the determining factor in violent confrontations. The “first with the most” generally wins in everything from traditional warrior battle arts to modern prison knife assaults; treatises from Sun Zi’s Art of War to John Boyd’s OODA Loop theory recognize this truism. Initiative can overcome mismatches in skill, size and strength, at times pre-empting those advantages altogether.


Conversely, operating from an initiative deficit places one in greater danger and under much more pressure to reverse a situation and re-take initiative. Taking initiative implies decisive action. Hesitation before or during the initial stages of a violent encounter could spell disaster against a motivated, committed assailant.


Interval is the changing space between combatants and potential combatants, to include the concept of “personal space”, position, time, weapon type and mode of carry, psychology and the interplay of all these factors in combination, not just relative distance between combatants.


Distance and position relative to an opponent may be the deciding factor in who has the initiative, and thus the greater tactical and psychological advantage (if capitalized upon) to end the confrontation in that moment. It may be the deciding factor in responsive countermeasures as well.


Interval is important in evaluating initiative as demonstrated in exercises such as the “21 Foot Rule,” particularly in weapons based encounters at close range, in which the winner of the “drag race to a weapon” often determines the outcome of the event.

Expect the Unexpected

Surprise is so powerful a force multiplier that it is axiomatic in teachings on conflict. This includes interpersonal assault. The ability to surprise a target and maintain initiative can literally mean the difference between life and death. This could pertain to a sense of shock or disbelief that something (an attack) is actually happening in the first place, or it can append to what happens within a confrontation such as surprise when an assailant just absorbed our “best shot” and kept coming. Either can be a critical turning point in a violent confrontation.

While it is a good thing that in our society most of us are not familiar with the experience of having someone actually try to kill us, especially at close quarters, it breeds a sense of complacency that must be mitigated through realistic training and ongoing mental preparation using exercises such as visualization, mental rehearsal, and the “what if?” game.  The latter conditions the mind to the possibility that “anything can happen at any time.” The idea is to be prepared for when it does, not paranoid that it will happen every day.

Studies have shown that even trained and experienced persons surprised by a sudden or unexpected turn in a combative encounter had a more difficult time during the event and in handling the “emotional aftermath” than those who made a habit of expecting the unexpected. Expecting the unexpected takes some practice, especially for people whose upbringing and social milieu have not been conducive to developing street smarts or dealing with predatory types.

Mind over Manners:

Uncertainty breeds hesitation. The lack of understanding of what is actually happening, what to do, what is the legal right to act, and how to articulate all these things together results in uncertainty.

While training regimens focusing on tactics and technique provide a sense of direction in handling the physical aspects of an encounter, the unknowns above present a wild card driving that order toward chaos and breakdown. All the technical expertise in the world will do no good if one is hesitant to act in the first place.

Addressing the unknown and making the decision to act starts with trusting intuition over manners. Manners can be very important in managing minor threats, but can actually be counter productive if the initial read on a serious situation is incorrect, or worse, a victim tries to talk herself into disbelieving her intuition because of good manners or a discomfort with personal biases.


 In general, always trust intuition if something “feels wrong,” and don’t rationalize that feeling away for the sake of manners, sympathy, or challenging wrongheaded racist/sexist/class based or whatever paradigm. That panhandler who is encroaching on your space may not be a “poor guy down on his luck;” and that blind date may seem like a “perfectly nice man” until he’s had a few beers, wants in your pants, and you tell him “no.” One simply must learn to ascertain the difference between a confirmed threat, a potential threat, and something that is not a threat and the first step is learning to trust instincts and intuition.

Research has identified activity in the brain in particular related to tense, uncertain circumstances; the orbitofrontal cortex, involved in decision making, and the insula, where it is believed the brain translates various sensations and stimuli from the environment into a “cohesive feeling,” including of danger. Our brains are wired for threat assessment and survival, and in some are even more highly attuned to these things than others. An Army study of IED Detection found those best at performing in threat detection simulations “tended to think of themselves as predators, not prey.” (2) Elite soldiers and police officers also share a similar trait.

 It is this set of mind that allows one to avoid being selected as a victim to begin with, to naturally engage a practical awareness that detects threats as they happen, and that will anticipate and carry through the worst of violent assaults. It can be cultivated through realistic confrontational simulation training and in making some of the practices described above habit, versus visiting them in the aftermath and thinking “I could have.., “I should have, “ “ I would have…” 


1. Wynne, Marcus; “Building Blocks of Situational Awareness,” SWAT Magazine November 2007.

2. Carey, Benedict, “In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable,” appearing in the New York Times July 27,2009.