Most people who have extensive training in the martial arts believe that they are fully capable of defending themselves and others if attacked. In the real world, even top UFC fighters and world boxing champions have gotten killed in street fights. Outside of the world of sport fighting, there are no rules and no referee. In the real world, there are no fair fights. Outside of the ring or the tournament floor, opponents have guns, knives, and accomplices. Physical self-defense skills are important, but if you actively practice situational awareness as you interact with your immediate environment, your need for physical self-defense tecniques will be highly unlikely. Although the term situational awareness has only recently become popularized, throughout time, some people just naturally have had this skill set. With people you know, situational awareness includes paying attention to any behavior that is anomalous to that person’s baseline behavior.
Brief explanation of situational awareness
Situational awareness is essentially the practice of being alert to whatever is going on in your immediate environmement. From a self-defense perspective, this refers to the practice of actively observing and interpreting the behavior of all the people in your immediate environment in order to anticipate danger. However, situational awareness is practiced in many areas of life. For example, in my second book, Doctor’s Partner, I describe how to be on the lookout for some of the most common errors made by doctors, nurses, and other personel. When receiving medical treatments, maintaining situational awareness can save you from medical mistakes of various types.
For the purpose of the Peaceful Warrior Woman course that I teach, it is about staying safe from human predators. This includes things like observing a person’s hands to see if he or she is holding a weapon and noticing if the person keeps patting a certain spot on the body where a weapon may be concealed.
Most people are terrible at practicing situational awareness, partly because they are so distracted most of the time and partly because they form conclusions about those around them based on irrelevant things, such as race, nationality, religion, clothing, facial hair, tattoos. Those things are based on propaganda that infuses society and blocks the ability to observe the type of subtle behavior that could actually serve as a warning of real potential danger. People profile each other in that way because they mistakenly believe it helps them know who is safe to be around, but it only creates fear and paranoia, while distracting their attention from what really matters—observable behavior. Xenophobia is orthogonal to situational awareness.
Situational Awareness should not be confused with paranoia. Paranoia is about living in fear. Situational awareness is a practice of having full appreciation for your surroundings from moment to moment. You will begin to notice things in your environment to which you were previously oblivious.
The two most important reasons to commit to the practice of situational awareness
At its best, situational awareness it is a dynamic mindfulness practice. The way I practice it, my focus of attention is always on my center of mass, which is a point in the center of the lower abdomen.
Once you learn to initiate all physical movement from your center of mass, you will be very aware of people and situations in your immediate environment.
The most common mindfulness practice involves noticing sensations of breathing, such as the expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen and lower back. A more advanced mindfulness practice is to objectively observe all your thoughts coming and going.
Regardless of the specific nature of mindfulness practice, one thing all mindfulness practices have in common is the active noticing of all the times when your focus of attention drifts off, followed by the conscious, immediate return of your attention to your chosen object of focus.
Situational awareness includes self-awareness
The practice of situational awareness is not just about observing the behavior of others, it is about self-observation. In the book Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker teaches how to pay attention to your own physiological changes such as heartrate, respiration, sweating, muscle tension, and other bodily changes as warning signs before we become consciously aware of someone’s suspicious behavior. For example, whenever I notice those changes in myself, they prompt me to then pay more attention to my environment.
Once you know what to look for and can tune in to your own subjective experience, you will be able to rely on intuitive hits
Practiced at a high level, you will sense potential danger before it happens, allowing you to not be where the threat is, and you will be able to protect others by warning them of the threats you see. Many times, you won’t even be aware of seeing or hearing anything suspicious, but you will get an intuitive hit that a certain person or group of people standing around are behaving in a way that could indicate a possible threat.
Human predators can be very cunning. A predator can appear harmless in order to get close to you. Then, in a brief moment when you are distracted, he will attack.
Social Versus Asocial Violence
In a situation where there is a threat of social violence (fights based on ego), just walking away can often prevent the violence from occurring. In asocial violence (the ambush), turning and walking away will get you killed. In social violence, you are face-to-face with the threat; if you can’t walk away, you can usually avoid an attack by assertively and respectfully setting clear boundaries. In asocial violence, unless you are practicing situational awareness at a high level, you won’t see or hear the attack coming and the first thing you notice is that you have been grabbed, stabbed or shot. This is why it is so important to be situationally aware of both your surroundings as well as of your feelings and premonitions.
Who gets targeted?
A fun game to play is to go to a crowded mall or anywhere with a lot of people. Hang out and watch people as they walk by. Decide for yourself who you would attack if you were thinking like a criminal. Criminals attack people who are distracted and not aware of their surroundings. Obviously, they are more likely to target someone who looks physically disabled or frail. However, that person will not get targeted when practicing a high degree of situational awareness.
There are a lot of men who do things to their appearance like shaving their heads and developing a big physique in order to avoid getting targeted. And they walk around with their chests puffed out. What they sometimes discover is that there is a type of criminal who enjoys targeting guys who think they are tough. This usually happens in bars and sporting events, but it could happen anywhere. What typically happens is that when the man with the tough-guy persona is confronted, as expected by the criminal, the tough-guy is quick to want to get physical. Just when he thinks the criminal can’t hurt him, two accomplices appear out of nowhere or he suddenly realizes he’s been stabbed or shot.
Personally, I’m what’s referred to as a gray man, meaning I blend in and don’t get noticed. In terms of staying safe, regardless of gender, whatever you do to get noticed will get the attention of predators.
When with others in a public place, never reveal in a loud voice where you are going…
especially if it is a place where you could be attacked, such as parking garage, ATM, or any sparsely populated area. You never know when a potential predator could be watching and listening. Remember, predators commonly blend in with everyone else; you can only recognize them by their behavior.
Psychopaths, sociopaths, psychotic
- Psychopaths aka (antisocial personality disorder) will victimize you and feel no remorse. They are often very charming, while being arrogant and very manipulative. There are psychopaths in high positions of almost every profession. You cannot recognize a psychopath by physical appearances. Although serial killers are all psychopaths, most psychopaths never commit physical violence. Many of us have been charmed by a psychopath at some point without actually falling victim to his or her manipulative behavior. Regardless of gender, we’ve all been charmed by psychopaths. It’s important to recognize various red flags. Countless women fell in love with Ted Bundy and several other charming, handsome psychopaths.
- Sociopaths will victimize you, but unlike the psychopath, their behavior is learned. Similar to a psychopath, sociopaths are not easy to identify until you get to know them.
- Someone who is psychotic will usually only commit violence as a result of paranoid delusions. Unlike psychopaths and sociopaths, psychotic people do not go around looking for victims. They are generally not a danger to be around unless they are paranoid.
Also be aware of the following:
- Whenever you are in a public place, make a game of looking to see what is out of place or anomalous from baseline.
- Whenever you are in a public place, make a game of looking to see what is potentially dangerous about someone’s behavior around you.
- It is very common to meet someone who appears to be very nice, even charming, who later turns out to be abusive and possibly even dangerous. Some of the most notorious mass murderers were known by neighbors and friends as being very nice people. Have you ever gotten involved with someone like that or do you know anyone close to you who has?
- If a man or woman approaches you either for help or who tries to get to know you, you must be suspicious. If you are feeling uncomfortable with that person, honor that feeling and keep your distance physically and make it clear in a loud voice so that others can hear that you are not interested. Human predators want to avoid witnesses; that’s when women get abducted—the predator always wants to avoid witnesses.
- If you ever see someone walking toward you who suddenly looks left and right, you are about to be attacked; if it’s too late to get away, you will need to prepare to fight to defend yourself.
- Are you aware of when someone in your immediate environment is on cocaine, crystal meth, PCP, or some other street drug? Whenever you notice anyone who is acting in a way that makes you fearful, get away immediately because if they are on certain street drugs they will act in unpredictable ways and when they attack someone, they use extreme violence.
- Guys Hanging Out: Many rapes and muggings occur when a victim ignores an obvious potential threat. For example, you are walking through a garage, through a park, or down a deserted alley or street and you spot one or more men hanging out, just looking around. You wonder if they are up to no good, but you ignore your intuition and tell yourself that you’re just being paranoid as you continue to walk to your intended destination. Always err on the side of caution. It is better to go an alternate way or if that’s not possible, don’t go anywhere near them, even if it means you won’t be able to return to your car. Always maintain calm awareness and take action in accord with your intuition.
- Random Acts of Violence: Random acts of violence can usually be avoided. Violent predators always watch people and choose the easiest targets.
- Awareness of your surroundings is always your best defense against being attacked. Always be aware of anyone or anything that looks out of place. Always be aware of everyone around you. For men, when standing at a urinal in a men’s room, maintain peripheral vision of everyone entering. The same would be true for anyone using an ATM. When waiting for an elevator or anything, always stand with your back to a wall if at all possible. When in an empty elevator, if someone suspicious enters, get out, even if you are not yet at your destination floor. Whenever you are anywhere outside your house or other protected area, be aware of people in front and in back of you. If you are about to get into an elevator with someone in it who looks suspicious to you, wait for the next elevator.
- Whenever you are out at night, have a bright flashlight and loud alarm on your keyring or handbag and if someone starts to approach you who looks the least bit suspicious, especially if you are all alone, pull the alarm. Whenever possible, have someone with you.
- Always park under bright lights and avoid parking in an isolated area, whether in a garage or on the street.
- Elevator or stairway: Use whichever one is more likely to be used by others. Avoid any dark or isolated area, whether in a garage or on the street. A predator can be lurking in a stairwell or an elevator. In both cases, don’t use that route if you hear or see anything suspicious. For example, if you enter a stairwell on the 3rd or 4th level of a garage and you hear something suspicious either above or below that floor, use a different stairwell or elevator. In fact, you could even walk down alongside the cars. The safest route is usually the one with the most people.
- When driving, if anyone ever walks in front of your car for any reason other than to cross the street, drive around that person without stopping. If anyone ever drives in front of your car and stops for any reason other than that their vehicle is blocked, drive around that car without stopping, even if it means driving over the curb and onto the sidewalk; in recent years, there have been incidents of random shootings of drivers who stopped.
- If anyone ever threatens you and tries to get you to get into a car or a room or any place where you could be trapped, you must get away, and if that’s not possible, fight for your life until you are able to get away. You have a better chance to survive in an open area where there may be witnesses. Once a perpetrator has trapped you, your survival odds go way down.
- When driving, if you think you are being followed, drive to the nearest police station or anywhere with lots of people. If you are absolutely certain someone is following you, also call 911. Do not drive home—you don’t want that person knowing where you live. If anyone ever confronts you and you cannot easily get away, call 911; but if someone blocks your way, you won’t have time to call 911, which is why you must keep going.
- Learn the wide variety of signs or signals that something is amiss. Learn to identify subtle signs that the stranger approaching you could pose a threat. The way people walk, gesticulate and speak will give you clues. Sometimes you won’t consciously be able to identify the specifics of why you are suspicious of an individual, but always honor your fear.
- Scan the space around you for potential threats: Unless you are home or somewhere where everyone in the room is someone you know well, scan the room. Scanning is a way to unobtrusively and covertly study people. The way the person walks, stands, gesticulates, along with the facial expressions all give you great insight into that person’s nature and intentions.
- Scan the space around you for escape exits—doors, windows hallways, from which you may escape. Scan the room to find reflective surfaces in order to have more warning if a suspicious person suddenly enters. If there is shooting, keep in mind that bullets go through walls—unless that wall is concrete, stone or some other very solid surface.
- Other behaviors to watch for as you scan a room with your eyes and ears:
- Someone who keeps looking over his or her shoulder.
- Someone who appears unusually fidgety.
- Someone who looks uncomfortable.
- Someone who seems very distracted.
- Someone who keeps patting or in some way touching the same place on the body. For example, someone carrying a concealed weapon will very commonly touch the pocket or place on their torso where they have the concealed weapon (aka concealed carry).
- Someone whose behavior contradicts their words. For example, it could be someone whose words are conciliatory but whose body language and emblems (hand gestures) give off a sense of anger, superiority, or dominance.
- Someone who is engaged in some task and seems to be noticeably unfocused. For example, let’s say you are in your local coffee shop and as usual you see a lot of people working on their laptops as they enjoy their coffee. But then you notice one person who keeps looking up and scanning the room. This person seems very uncomfortable and distracted. That person’s strange behavior does not mean he or she is dangerous, but it would be enough for me to keep an eye on him and if he gets up, leaving his laptop and backpack behind I might say something to him in a loud voice about it not being safe leaving his valuables behind. If he reacts suspiciously, everyone would then be looking at him and we could all evacuate the building. I have often been in a coffee shop when someone sitting near me asks me to watch his or her laptop before heading to the bathroom. I always watch to make sure the person really goes to the bathroom and doesn’t exit the bldg.
- Vigilance: Anytime you are simply a little bit suspicious about someone’s behavior, never take your eyes off that person (peripherally); your instincts are telling you that this person may possibly a potential threat.
There are many specific threat indicators that you can use to do predator profiling. In predator profiling it is important to appreciate that most of what we all communicate is nonverbal. Someone’s words may seem perfectly benign, but that person’s meta-communication will often tell a very different story. Predator profiling and situational awareness includes the following:
- Heuristics are mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision while under stress. For example, one heuristic could be your decision to always get someone to accompany you when returning to your car late at night.
- Atmospherics refers to a subjective experience of the mood in an environment. For example, you walk into a room of people and there is tension in the air. Your sense of tension in the room will be based on biometrics, proxemics, haptics, etc.
- Biometrics are observable physiological and behavioral changes in someone. A few examples include pupil dilation, blanching, and flushing. Blanching of facial color commonly indicates extreme fear and this is true even with the darkest of skin color. Facial and neck flushing could indicate anger or shame. Facial expression and the person’s meta-communication are needed to definitively discern the exact emotion the person is experiencing and his or her intention.
- Proxemics has to do with the physical distance between people who are in verbal or nonverbal communication. Cultural differences aside, this can indicate how comfortable the people feel with each other or the nature of their relationship. Even when you can’t hear their words, you will know a lot by their proxemics.
- Haptics: This is the nonverbal communication based of how people are in physical contact. For example, different messages are communicated in touching someone’s head, face, back, shoulder, upper arm, forearm, or hand. Again, it is important to consider the meta-communication.
- Kinesics refers to nonverbal communication based on hand or arm gestures. Cultural differences aside, this is a way to get a sense of the emotional state of the person you are observing. For example, if you see someone pounding on the table or finger-pointing at people, you know to stay away from that person.
- Vocalics has to do with changes in the pitch, volume, or other aspects of a person’s voice. When someone’s voice increases in pitch or volume, they are commonly feeling fearful or anxious, but it could mean they are simply excited and happy. When the voice lowers, it can indicate feeling calm, but it could also have other meanings. This is why in doing predator profiling, we need to observe the totality of the person’s behavior.
- Chronemics: For our purposes, this relates to rate of speech, but there are many nuanced meanings. For example, if someone is speaking really fast or haltingly, it can indicate anxiety or enthusiasm. The person’s meta-communication will provide further information.
When you suspect danger, here are the most essential things to look for
- Presence of weapons (gun, knife, or other lethal weapon)
- Individuals running
- Sounds that could be gunshots
- Breaking of glass
- Any anomalous behavior (not the norm for that environment or situation)
- Has anyone directed their attention toward you? Pay attention to their eyes as well as their feet. The direction of the suspect’s feet can indicate intention. If somone keeps glancing at you and then glancing away, you’ve been targeted; what you do will determine whether you get attacked.
- Hiding of the hands (which could be holding a concealed weapon)
- Anyone who looks out of place in a particular environment
- Clear the hands (Are both hands visible and empty?)
- Individuals whose hands are hidden (could be holding a weapon)
- Bulging around waist, shoulder, or ankle (could be a weapon)
- Patting or checking any area of body (commonly a weapon)
- Inappropriate clothing for the weather or setting (could be hiding a large weapon)
- Pacifying behavior (indicates anxiety)
- Sudden change in speed of someone’s movement
- Unexplained masking (sunglasses at night, hoodie in warm weather)
- Does someone seem anxious, hyper-alert, looking around in an intentional way?
- Is someone sweating on a cool day or wearing a heavy coat in warm weather?
- Is there anything about a person or situation in the space around you that causes you to feel concern or even fear?
Just because a potential predator’s hands are empty, don’t assume there is no weapon
Attackers hands may be empty, but you can be sure that as soon as you put up a fight, most attackers will pull out a knife or gun. This is why if you are ever actually attacked and have no escape, you must physically incapacitate the attacker immediately, before he or she gets a chance to draw the weapon. Ideally you want to preemptively disable the attacker as soon as it appears that an attack is imminent and that you can’t escape.
There are always warning signs
Always honor your intuition, even in the absence of evidence. Never take your peripheral vision off anyone you are not sure about, but don’t stare. Once, when standing in line at a Starbucks, someone walked in who got my attention. My suspicion increased when I then saw the barista suddenly break out in a sweat, which indicated to me that the barista had previously had some type of bad encounter with that guy. There are countless early warning signs like these that go completely unnoticed by most people, which is why victims of crime often say the person attacked without warning. The reality is that there are always warning signs once you know how to look for them. Honoring your intuition, you will instinctively stay away from or be prepared to deal with potentially dangerous people and situations. That day in Starbucks, the person I was watching didn’t cause any trouble, but because I was peripherally watching him constantly, I was ready to act if necessary. However, the next time you are in the same space with someone who you are not comfortable being around, the best choice is always to leave before anything happens.
In terms of interpersonal relationships, how can you really know if certain people are safe to get close to?
“He/she will change.” People enter into dangerous relationships quite commonly. They mistakenly believe that the person will change once they are married or otherwise decide to stay together. The reality is that the undesirable behaviors of someone do not change when in a committed relationship. The reverse is usually true because they are no longer on good behavior. Learn to recognize red flags that can signal you to stay away from someone. Examples: Someone who regularly disparages others; regularly blames others for his or her own failures, gets angry with others on a daily basis, commonly talks about violence, is a loner, believes in conspiracy theories, owns weapons, writes people off on a regular basis, views people as all good or all bad, totally lacking in empathy, disinterested in the needs of others, is distrustful of others, files formal complaints regularly, intolerant of diversity, always suspicious of others, substance abuse disorder, has had run-ins with police, unstable work history, and contentious relationships. When you are first getting to know someone, explore the following:
- You must get to know the patterns of behavior they exhibit in interpersonal interactions.
- What is their world view?
- The person’s self-perceptions.
- The person’s perceptions of how others view them.
In addition to The Freeze, the other thing that can interfere with our ability to fight back occurs when a trusted family member or trusted authority figure becomes an abuser of the young, small, or weak. Consciously, no one would knowingly allow anyone to sexually or otherwise abuse them. But when the relationship is complicated, it can become very difficult for the victim to even recognize what is actually taking place. For various reasons, often people who have already been abused in childhood by a trusted person can end up reenacting the victim role and end up being blind to the fact that someone else is now abusing them. Then, once they later realize it, they are often filled with feelings of shame and guilt for allowing it to happen again. It’s important to help that person accept that it was not and never could be their fault.
- Before running, try to determine the shooter’s location; otherwise, you could end up running toward him. If you are indoors, you will not be able to tell by the sound of the gunfire.
- But if bullets are flying and you hide behind a partition wall, you need to know that such a wall won’t stop bullets. If you know where the shooter is, hide behind something that will stop bullets, such as a big planter, stone or concrete pillar, the wheels or engine block of a car, or something else that can stop bullets. Car windows and doors do not stop bullets.
- If you actually see the shooter and think he could see you, run away in a zigzag pattern if there is space to do that.
In the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, multiple bombs were planted, making it impossible to know which direction to escape to. However, knowing that bombs are placed where there are the most people packed together, run toward sparsity—whether indoors or outdoors.
As soon as you have some evidence that someone may possibly be stalking you, completely change your daily routines and keep varying the order each day. Stalkers look for a predictable time and place where they can trap you. Be unpredictable in every way you can imagine. For example, change how you look each day. Never, under any circumstances, should you ever post anything related to your schedule plan on social media.
Essential Nature of the Element of Surprise
If you have not been attacked, but you are quite sure an attack is imminent, and there is no way to get away, you need to preemptively attack the attacker, capitalizing on the element of surprise, catching him off-balance. Whatever you do, never get into any type of fighting stance because you will lose the element of surprise. Never allow anyone you are not sure about get close enough to touch you.
Talking to Predators and Suspected Possible Predators
It is always best to avoid conversation with anyone acting aggressively toward you (male or female), but if you cannot get away and the person asks you a question, the best answer is the simplest, shortest, and most neutral. If you can’t get away and he or she directs rage at you, try to de-escalate the situation with your calming words, keeping it very simple; do so while standing in a relaxed, alert stance from which you would be able to attack if necessary, with your open hands up for protection, palms forward. Ideally, witnesses will hear you trying to talk down the potential attacker; this is important, in order to avoid being charged as the aggressor after you deliver the first strike. Never make fists, as they would be seen as aggressive on your part, both by the potential attacker as well as by any witnesses.
Unlike the psychopath, aggressive types are easy to spot and avoid. There are many, very charming and charismatic psychopaths that can be much harder to identify until you get to know them. Beware of overly friendly types and avoid direct eye contact and conversation with them.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Mistakes leading to confrontation attacks
- A stranger accuses you of something. A common error is to then defend yourself, explaining why the accusation doesn’t line up with the evidence. This commonly leads to verbal escalation by one or both parties. Never engage in conversation with such people. Just get away.
- A stranger is yelling or otherwise seems very agitated and you go over to try to calm the person down. Helpful bystanders have been attacked by such people when they try to calm them down. Stay away and if you think the person may be a danger to self or others, call 911 as you observe from a safe distance.
- Someone runs a stop sign or traffic light, screeches as they just barely miss crashing into you. Another common mistake is to yell at the driver who almost hit your car. Even though the other driver was clearly at fault, if you act aggressively toward him or her, you could find yourself looking down the barrel of a gun. Many people in the U.S. have been shot doing that.
- You have your directional on, indicating that you are moving into a particular parking space. As you are driving into the space, someone darts into the space before you. You give them a piece of your mind. Many people in the U.S. have been shot doing that.
- You are in the supermarket and a very careless stranger slams their shopping cart into yours. When you don’t hear any apology, you confront the person. Although that person is not likely to do anything in the store, she or he may confront you with a gun in the parking lot. There are a lot of crazy and violent people out there who appear to be perfectly safe to be around until they are challenged. In the U.S. you should always assume everyone has a gun.
- When approaching a red light as you are driving, always leave enough space in front of you so that you can pull away if a potential car-jacker were to approach your car. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming it’s just a panhandler. Never let anyone approach your vehicle. But don’t leave so much space in front that another car can move into that space b/c then you are trapped.
- When pumping gas, never stand between your car and the pump in such a way that someone could approach you and trap you between him or herself, the pump, and your vehicle.
- Anyone wearing ear buds is likely to be seen as a soft target. Walking around in public, whether in a crowded area or out on a hiking trail, don’t make yourself a victim. Use your eyes and ears to take in your surroundings—not occasionally—but always.
- Even if you are alert, a woman alone on an isolated hiking trail is more likely to get targeted than if she is with someone else.
Mistakes leading to surprise attacks
- Walking down the street texting.
- Walking around with earbuds or headphones.
- Not paying attention to the people in the space around you.
- Failing to recognize possible red flags related to your environment or people around you.
- Failing to constantly scan your environment.
- A number of people have been shoved or attacked from behind by engaging in those mindless behaviors just listed. People have been shoved off the landing and onto the tracks while waiting for a commuter train or shoved down a flight of stairs.
- Failure to read someone’s aggressive or agitated body language.
- Failure to read someone’s verbal or other subtle behavior that should trigger safety concerns for you.
- Failure to recognize your intuitive feeling of fear when you can’t identify any logical explanation for that fear.
- Failure to recognize something that just seems “off” about someone in your immediate environment.
- Revealing private information to a stranger: Never reveal where you live—not even the part of town you live in—to anyone you don’t know. Some predators look for opportunities to strike up a conversation with someone who they’ve targeted.
- Going to secluded places: Whether a corner of a parking garage or a hiking trail, never venture into an area where someone could attack you and have no witnesses or anyone to go to your rescue. Although this will limit where and when you can go places, it will keep you safe. The choice is yours.
- Being too friendly: Some predators, like Ted Bundy, are very good looking and very charming. Never assume a stranger is safe just because he has those qualities. The safest approach is to just make very brief eye-contact, just enough so that he knows you are aware of him but not enough for him to possibly think you are being friendly.
- Being fooled by women. A common tactic of sex traffickers is to have a woman approach potential victims. The victims felt safe following the woman to her vehicle or giving her their contact information, something they would not do with a man. Don’t trust any strangers regardless of gender or age.
The sucker puncher
This is where the attacker doesn’t make any threatening remarks to you and simply walks up and punches you for no reason. This is a situation where it is difficult to avoid that first strike unless you maintain a high level of situational awareness. However, if you are very aware, you can learn to detect that something is off about the person approaching you. Whenever someone approaching me looks at all suspicious and I don’t have the space to side-step, I don’t take my eyes off him and am ready to go into action if a punch comes. If you do that, you will reduce the odds of ever being sucker-punched.
There is no such thing as: “The attack just came out of the blue.”
Many people have been attacked in these situations and they describe the attack as “just came out of the blue with absolutely no warning.” This is no different from the many people who have been attacked by a dog when they tried to pet a dog that was already growling, had its ears up, or was silently looking intensely at them, often in a puffed-up posture. Obviously, even with good situational awareness it is possible you could still be attacked, but it is very unlikely.
Turn and greet the potential threat
If you are approached from behind, turn and scan the person to determine if you are safe. If you are not sure, just turning around to face the person can deter a potential attacker because muggers use the element of surprise. If you have any sense or fear that someone behind you could be a threat, keep that person in your peripheral vision at all times.
Surprise a potential threat
Anything that confuses a potential attacker and throws him off his game plan can and has deterred potential attacks. Obviously, if you are confronted by anyone demanding your money, jewelry, or any other object you are carrying or wearing, quickly hand it over; but in doing so, never take your eyes off the assailant. Although most robbers will leave the scene as soon as you hand over what they demand you give up, you can never be sure and occasionally robbery victims have been attacked even after handing over their wallet or purse.
Run or walk toward safety rather than away from danger
For example, if you are walking to your car in a parking garage and someone asks you for a ride or otherwise appears suspicious, you need to get away. Don’t go to your car; go in the direction where you are most likely to be near other people.
Attacked from behind
The problem here is that you may not have any warning. If you don’t hear anyone approaching you from behind, there is a good chance you won’t be able to defend yourself before being knocked unconscious, stabbed, or shot. You may simply wake up on the pavement or in the hospital after getting knocked out, or you may well be killed. When out at night in an urban area you must develop eyes in the back of your head. You must assess who is approaching you from the front as well as the rear. You can see everyone approaching you from the front long before they get close, so you have lots of time to asses them. If a potential attacker approaches from the front, you have some warning, which will improve your odds of evasion. However, someone can suddenly jump out from a doorway and grab you from behind, or someone may see you from afar and start following behind you until you are in a dark or isolated area, gradually getting close enough to grab you from behind. Unless you are extremely alert, constantly scanning the space around you, you could easily find yourself ambushed from behind. Your best defense is to stay so aware that you are able to make sure the attack never happens.
Protect your space
Whenever a stranger enters your personal space:
- Back up in order to maintain your safe space.
- If that’s not possible, scan the person up and down and make sure the person sees you doing it; this sends a message that you are aware and prepared.
- Look for an object you can pick up to defend yourself if the worst happens and you actually need to defend yourself. It could be a chair, hot coffee, or any object that can be used to prevent the attacker from getting to you. If you live in an area where you are able to get a concealed carry permit, this is where you will want to have your hand on your weapon.
- Be aware of anyone who seems charming.
- Especially when you are at an ATM, you must not let anyone enter your space. This is a time when you want to be very territorial.
- Anytime you feel a hand on you, always move away from that person while turning to identify him or her. In an urban area where most of the people around you are strangers, you should always assume that it is the hand of a predator.
- Pair up.
- One person pretends to be busy at an ATM and other person tries to sneak up close.
- ATM person is to see how soon you detect the threat
How to Make Eye Contact
As you scan the people around you, you will often make eye-contact.
- Never stare or hold your gaze too long.
- When you break the eye-contact, do so sideways; breaking your gaze downward sends a message that you feel inferior or submissive; breaking your gaze upward sends a message that you are snubbing them.
- Always appear neutral—anything else, such as a wink, smile, nod can send a message, the nature of which relates to specific culture and beliefs. For example, people sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously flirt with someone they find particularly attractive—this involves holding the gaze longer than what is considered normal and licking their lips. Facial micro-expressions provide a lot of information about what someone is feeling—albeit unconsciously.
The Knockout Game
This deadly game is played out every day somewhere in the U.S. The way it works is that two or more older teens or young adults approach an unsuspecting person and one of them suddenly rushes at the victim with an uppercut to his jaw or hook to the back of his head, successfully knocking him unconscious.
Directions of Attack
Ego-based fights—aka monkey-dance fights—almost always begin and are fought face-to-face. That is not self-defense. Anytime a guy chooses to fight someone when he could have safely walked away, he cannot claim self-defense. Self-defense is not like that. In self-defense, your attacker will want to ambush you, sometimes from the front, but more often from the rear. If it is simply a robber who wants money, he or she will usually approach from the front and you will usually (not always) be unharmed by simply complying with the robber’s demands.
But if your attacker wants to kill you, you won’t see it coming. If he wants to kidnap and or rape you, you are likely to be ambushed from behind. If you are able to see the attack coming, you have a better chance of surviving and getting away. If you can’t get away, you will be in a fight for your life, but at least your chances for survival are much better if you are able to see the attack coming.
More on Eye-Contact and Body-Language
Another extremely important part of situational awareness is to pay close attention to the type of eye contact that person has with others. For example, I once had an HVAC guy come to the house to give me an estimate on replacing the furnace and air conditioning system. As soon as he entered the house and we engaged in conversation I noticed that he was looking at me with big eyes and staring intensely into my eyes. I sort of got the sense that he was looking at me the way a big cat looks at an animal that could be its next meal. I got his estimate but had already decided, based on the disturbing way he made eye contact that I would not want him working in my house. Another thing I had noticed about him was that all his bodily movement seemed intentional. Normally, people are not even aware of how they move. It looked to me like he was planning every step and every bodily movement. His gesticulations were almost menacing. I doubt he was aware of it and most people would not have given it a second thought, but these are the kinds of things to look for in practicing situational awareness.
Situational awareness can be practiced as a fun game. For example, whenever I am out for an exercise hike or walk where there are other people, I play a game of seeing how much I can notice about people coming towards me. Examples of what I notice: Are both hands visible and are they both empty? I study their body-language, which is a form of unconscious behavior.
- Another aspect of situational awareness includes noticing if anything in your immediate environment seems at all out of place. For example, one morning I was out hiking where there are normally a lot of noisy birds. One particular morning I noticed the lack of birds. I didn’t know why, but it was a red flag that something had scared the birds away. The next morning the birds were back. I never found the cause of their disappearance that one morning, but the point is that situational awareness includes noticing not only what is there, but what is missing or anomalous to baseline.
- Anytime you go somewhere, make a game of noticing the environment. For example, notice where the exits are in every building. In a threat situation in a restaurant, the best exit is through the kitchen. Notice steps or step-offs in case you need to backup.
- Common places for attacks are parking lots—especially while entering or exiting your car, public restrooms, any isolated locations like hiking trails. When entering and exiting your car you need to never take your attention off your surroundings. Restrooms that can only be accessed through a long hallway or an approach that is away from other people require you to be on high alert. Sparsely populated hiking trails should never be hiked by a woman without the accompaniment of a friend unless she has concealed carry and trains regularly with her weapon in a dynamic environment.
How to park your car in a parking garage: There have been incidents of a car blocking the driver in when she or he returns to the car and then the driver exits his vehicle and attacks. For this reason, the best way to park is to back into the space.
- Clothing: Don’t dress in ways that attract attention. Don’t wear high heels; they’re bad for the health of your spine and they make you a target because predators know that you won’t be able to run or to defend yourself. Women have told me they would use the shoe as a weapon and I then demonstrate why that wouldn’t work.
- Utilize reflections in car windows, building windows, side of car in order to keep an eye on who is behind you. Shadows from the sun or streetlights can also be used to inform you of who is around.
- If you ever feel someone’s hand on you, you cannot afford to take the time to turn and figure out who it is. You must assume you are being attacked and you must quickly move away or if not possible then you must attack.
- Avoid someone who causes you to feel fear.
- If you are confronted by someone who is intent on harming you and you cannot get away, don’t engage in conversation unless the person forces the conversation. Avoid making prolonged eye-contact with the person. If the person approaches you and tells you to look at them, then in that case you should look at them but how you look can make the difference in what happens next. The best thing is to be respectful and friendly. Don’t cower in fear because that will make you a target, as would glaring at them, which would be seen as a challenge, which would also make you a target.
- If you are unable to avoid being physically attacked, you must fight for your life. In order to get away, you must disable the person, not just cause pain.
The following behaviors should be seen as warnings to keep your distance and don’t get involved on any level with such people:
- Impulsive behavior that shows little regard for others
- Rage: We all get angry and hopefully express our anger in healthy ways; but stay away from people in whom the anger seems out of control.
- Narcissism: self-centered, arrogant, grandiose, sense of entitlement, and lack of empathy
- Holds grudges
- Objectifies others
- Blames individuals and groups for his or her own shortcomings. They blame others for all their own failures.
- Behaves abusively toward others and commonly intimidates people
Even if you become an expert in situational awareness, there are three reasons to also train in physical self-defense:
- Even those of us who are very practiced in situational awareness occasionally allow ourselves to get distracted by a conversation we’re in or something else that is capturing our attention. Sometimes we may lose our awareness because of a lack of sleep, simply not feeling well, or being preoccupied with a family or work situation. At those times, none of us are immune from being ambushed.
- Another reason to train in the physical self-defense techniques is because mastery of the techniques provides a path to self-empowerment, self-efficacy, and the joy of conscious embodiment. This confidence-building is important if you ever have to fight for your life. In other words, in order to rise to the occasion to fight for your life, you must believe you can do it successfully.
- In the class I teach, practice of the techniques trains you to put your mind in and live from your center. This does two things:
- You will learn to move from your center of mass and to eventually connect your center of mass with your empty-hand weapons.
- You will learn to continually re-center your mind. In that way, this is a moving mindfulness practice in that the practice is about returning to your moment-to-moment state of mind and body. We use that skill to always be on the lookout for the wandering mind. You will go from thinking about, to intense focus on the activity of the moment.