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One of the best skills you can hone for survival is situational awareness. Being able to stay alert, focused and vigilant no matter what is happening around you. But no one ever really tells you what to look out for, and you can bet the bad guys aren’t walking around with a big sign around their necks advertising all the shady antics they’ve been up to.

To survive, you need to be able to spot the villains in a crowd, when they don’t want to be seen. There’s no hard and fast rule to this, but if you’ve got a watchful eye you can get an edge, and that’s what situational awareness is all about. Knowing what’s going on around you so you’ve got the opportunity to gain the upper hand.

Because avoiding trouble isn’t always an option. Even if you’re keeping your head down, without causing trouble, you can’t shake the fact that some people are out there looking for easy marks. Looking for targets. But with a little focus, and a little practice, you’ll be able to refine your situational awareness, to ensure you’re never caught off-guard.

Look for the out-of-place

Whatever situation you’re in, to stay situationally aware you need to take it all in. And part of that is evaluating what’s out of place. Perhaps someone is loitering for no reason, or they’re nervous and fidgety at a public place or event. Keep an eye on them, because if your gut is giving you a funny feeling that something “just feels wrong,” then there’s probably a reason for it. You need to stay alert and pay attention.

But don’t just watch, try to think a step or two ahead. Imagine there’s a dodgy looking character ahead, think about what you’d do if he lunges out to grab you. What you’d do if he tried to snatch your purse. What you’d do if he pulled a knife. Thinking through potential outcomes is at the core of situational awareness, speeding up your response times should the worst ever happen. You want to look for the out of place, and act first.

Look for people mirroring you

When people are following you, or targeting you, they start mirroring your behavior. Tails are going to walk at a similar pace, with a similar step, and if you’re looking out for the people who are mirroring you, it’s a likely indication something is wrong.

If you think there’s someone following you, you need to test if your assumptions are correct. Slow down, speed up, and watch their reaction. When they make a move to keep up, that’s a bad sign, because they’re synchronizing with you. You can stop this head on by taking immediate action, like turning and confronting your follower. An innocent person would be shocked, someone following you is going to be nervous and anxious.

Look for people approaching you

Now, there may be a very good reason they’re making a bee-line for you, and you’re already watching them from across the crowd as they get closer with every step. But you need to consider the why, why are they approaching you?

In a crowd during the Friday after-office rush, it could just be a promotional staffer handing out flyers for drinks at a local bar. At night, in a desolate car-park, it’s a pretty good sign that something bad is going to go down. Just be wary, many criminals don’t act alone, and while you’re distracted from the front it provides ample opportunity for a surprise trap sprung from behind. When someone is invading your personal space, or obviously making a move to, you better have your guard up.

Look what’s in their hands

Want to know one of the most obvious indicators someone is up to no good? They’re approaching you directly and they’ve got one (or both) hands in their pockets. This is not normal (unless perhaps it’s the middle of winter), and it’s a pretty good sign they’ve got something in their hand they don’t want to show the world. Like a firearm, a knife, or something else they plan to attack you with.

If someone is closing in and you can’t determine what’s in their hands, you need to act fast. Duck into a store, somewhere with people, and try to take back control of the situation. If you let them get close and they have the chance to pull the knife, or the gun, that could be game over for you if you can’t give them what they want.

Look at their demeanor

You can tell when someone is nervous or anxious, right? They’re agitated, moving suspiciously, unable to stay calm as they shuffle from side to side, perhaps even nervously touching their head or tapping a pocket with a weapon concealed within. There’re many good reasons to be nervous, but its important you’re paying attention to their demeanor, especially if they’re making a move to intercept you. People get agitated before committing a crime, and you never want to be a victim.

Look where they’re standing

A predator is going to choose their preferred killing grounds, and the same goes for villains. Expect them to be loitering about any particular location that gives them an upper hand. Like the entrance to an alleyway, a natural choke point in a path, the bushes beside your garage. Your job is to identify the natural choke points you come across, and be cautious before you enter, like walking into a stairwell without a clear path to the exit. You don’t want to give an attacker the upper hand in choosing a location for the confrontation.

Ultimately, the best way to defend yourself is to get offensive. Start thinking like a bad guy and planning it out, consider how you might take down an unsuspecting mark. What key factors would come into play, how would you approach it to gain the maximum element of surprise, and how would you ensure it’s a complete and utter success.

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