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  • Writer's pictureDonna Miles

BEYOND SAFETY: How Turning on Your Situational Awareness Can Make You a Better Person

Beyond Safety: How Turning on Your Situational Awareness Can Make You a Better Person and Improve Your Life

The scene depicted in this photo struck me immediately. I couldn’t believe so many people would leave their shopping carts in a path clearly marked so individuals with walkers and wheelchairs could safely navigate from their vehicles parked in the handicap area, into the store, without putting themselves at risk in the active parking lot. While my initial thought was, “What a bunch of jerks!” the more I thought about it, the more I recognized it was yet another glaring example of what happens when people turn off their Situational Awareness (SA). While some of the carts were likely left there by those individuals in need of a handicap spot, many others were, no doubt, left there by physically capable people oblivious to the fact that area was NOT a cart return space, and that it served a specific and NECESSARY purpose – to provide safety for individuals to transition from their handicap parking spaces into the store. As I reflected further on the scene, I was tempted to title this article, “How Situational Awareness Can Help You Not Be a Jerk.” Instead, I decided I’d try a more positive title and use this opportunity to explain some of the benefits of turning on your SA – benefits that extend beyond improved personal safety and that might make you less of a jerk at the same time.

Before we get into those additional benefits though, let’s talk about where the term situational awareness (SA) originated. According to ChatGPT (wink-wink), “The term Situational Awareness originated in the field of aviation and was first used by military fighter pilots in the 1940s. It refers to the ability to perceive, comprehend, and anticipate the current and future state of the environment.” ChatGPT goes on to say, “SA has since become a critical concept in various fields including military, law enforcement, healthcare, and cybersecurity. It is essential for making informed decisions, identifying potential threats and risks, and taking appropriate actions to prevent or mitigate them. In essence, SA helps individuals and organizations to stay ahead of the curve and respond proactively to changes in the environment.” (End ChatGPT). Okay, from this, we understand that SA is an ability, to perceive, comprehend, and anticipate the current and future state of a moment, and it is essential for making informed decisions, identifying potential threats and risks, and taking appropriate actions to prevent or mitigate them.

So, how does one develop or acquire this essential ability? Is it important for everyone to develop SA, or is SA an ability that is only essential for those working in high-threat professions or living in “dangerous” areas? For that matter, is the “essential skill” of Situational Awareness ONLY beneficial for keeping us safe from potential threats?

SA is not only relevant to personal safety for everyone, but it also contributes to better quality of life and personal character development. Notice the above explanation of SA said nothing about it being an ability necessary only for high threat or dangerous environments. Whether you are assessing your level of risk in a questionable setting, determining a best route home to beat traffic, taking a walk in the forest or along a beach, beginning a new work project, attending a TEDx talk, or seeking to be a better, more considerate person, you need to deliberately turn on your SA to successfully accomplish your goals. To be a truly functional skill, SA cannot be an off-until-you-think-you-might-encounter-danger “strategy,” but rather, it must become a cultivated, always-turned-on POWER source.

Imagine SA as a dimmable light bulb inside your head that you can dim or brighten as needed. When you're awake, this bulb should always be powered on at levels ranging from a glow (calm awareness) to a laser spotlight (high alert) depending on where you are and what is taking place around you. A critical aspect to remember when it comes to SA is that the lower you dim your light, the less focused you are on what's going on in the present moment. The less focused you are on the present moment, the less able you are to detect conditions or situations, both favorable and unfavorable that might impact you. By contrast, the higher you shine your SA light, the more focused you are in the present moment. The more focused and alert you are, the better able you are to detect conditions, both positive and adverse, that might impact you. It might be okay to have your SA light on “night-light” level when you’re secure in your own home, but in any dynamic setting, your SA needs to be powered on, so you are solidly equipped to make decisions and act quickly when needed.

If your SA light is completely off, you aren’t focused on the present moment at all and that’s where the real trouble begins. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and deciding you need a drink of water. Instead of turning on a light or grabbing a flashlight to make your way to the kitchen, you put on a pair of sunglasses. The challenges you would face navigating through your home without stubbing your toe or tumbling down a flight of stairs are like the challenges you face navigating any aspect of life with your SA turned off. So, here’s where those additional benefits I previously mentioned come in:

1. Optimized Decision-Making: SA isn't confined to personal safety; it's a tool for life optimization. For example, when you're trying to beat traffic on your way home, your SA helps you consider alternate routes, monitor the behavior of other drivers, and even anticipate bottlenecks, making your journey more efficient and less stressful.

2. Connection with Nature: During leisure activities like forest walks or beach outings, SA enhances your experience by making you more attuned to your environment. You notice the subtle shifts in weather, the rustle of leaves indicating wildlife, or the change in wave patterns, thereby enriching your connection with nature.

3. Improved Work Performance: When embarking on a new work project, SA allows you to grasp both the overt and covert dynamics within your team and the organization. This understanding enables you to position yourself advantageously, whether it's in aligning with the right stakeholders or preempting potential obstacles.

4. Enriched Learning Experiences: While attending events like TEDx talks, SA helps you absorb more than just the spoken content. You observe the audience's reaction, gauge the room's energy, and even pick up on the unspoken messages the speaker might be conveying, offering a more holistic understanding of the experience.

5. Empathy and Social Awareness: SA is essential in developing emotional intelligence. By being aware of your surroundings, you can read social cues and emotional undertones more effectively. This heightened awareness makes you a more considerate person, whether you're in a meeting, at a social gathering, or even deciding where to return your shopping cart.

6. Consistency in Character Development: Keeping your SA 'turned on' ensures that it becomes an integrated part of your character rather than a sporadic survival mechanism. This consistency not only makes you more reliable in various situations but also contributes to your overall personal development by fostering traits like alertness, empathy, and prudence.

Remember, the journey to cultivating situational awareness is continuous. It's about fostering a mindset where your SA is always powered on and shining a light on the world around you. This will not only ensure better personal safety but also contribute to a richer, more considerate approach to life.

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