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Three Keys to Situational Awareness


Recently I began to work with a group of young women who are in an addiction recovery program. I meet with them each week to work on the life skills they will need once they graduate.

One of the skills we work on just about every week is situational awareness.

Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This is where I begin in describing situational awareness.

A friend invites you to a business-after-hours event or a presentation at the local community college. You arrive. Walk into the room. Don't see your friend. The room is filled with people that you do not know. They are mingling around talking with one another. What do you do?

There are two choices.

You find a wall, or the corner of the room, and hope no one sees you.

Or, you begin to introduce yourself to people.

Situational awareness is a missing element in many people's lives. The rapid deterioration of relational and social skills needed for a healthy society is a result.

The lack of this skill is manifested in making every situation about me, instead of about the group or the other person. This is either out of fear or by forcing one's own personality upon a group. In either case, this is a product of the weakness of individual self-perception.

Situational Awareness is a skill, not a cultural condition outside of us.

It is a capacity to see, to engage, and discern what I am to do.

Because situational awareness is a skill, it requires preparation, practice and the mastery of those skills. Anyone can learn them. Even the most introverted person can learn how to walk into a room, function well in that social environment, and walk out having accomplished a specific goal for their time at the event.

In addition, I know no skill that is more valuable than being able to function well in situations that are uncomfortable and alien to our past experience.

Three Keys for Situational Awareness

I have found situational awareness one of the most important skills for individuals and groups who are in the midst of change. There are three keys to developing the skill of situational awareness: Objectivity, Engagement and Discernment.


The key of objectivity helps us see things from a detached perspective. We can, in effect, stand apart from the crowd, read it, and know what we are do in response.

It is virtually impossible to be absolutely objective. Absolute detachment is a mental disorder requiring a total loss of empathy, or the inability to emotionally connect with people. That is not the kind of detachment I see.

The kind of detachment that I am describing is the ability to stand apart, and see the various facets of a situation. It is the ability to not personalize the situation as being about me. When we make a situation about me, we are unable to see the range of motivations that may be affecting the attitudes and emotions of people.

To personalize is to narrow our situational awareness, and make it more likely that we won't understand what is going on.

Walk into a crowded room of strangers. What are the power dynamics of the room? Can you see who is comfortable, who is shy, who likes to draw attention to themselves, and how long to spend with each person that you meet. This kind of detachment identifies why we want to meet someone, what we'd like to see happen in the encounter, and how to structure the beginnings of a new relationship.

This is more than making connections, telling my story, picking up some business cards and leaving. It is about seeing the opportunities to make a difference in the room at that very moment.

To be objective in this way is to see time suspended, so to speak, in the moment. With this person, I am fully present, attentive to what they are saying. I'm listening to connect. I am not looking at my phone, thinking about my next appointment, or observing the person that I see over her left shoulder. I am right there in the moment, not thinking about myself, but about the person before me.

Objectivity, therefore, is the ability to connect with another person in such a way that we understand who they are and how we might contribute to their life or work. This is an essential ingredient in every sales call and every service encounter that we may have.


For this kind of detached objectivity to work, we need engagement. It seems counter-intuitive to say that being detached requires us to be engaged.

To be engaged is to emotionally connect with the people we meet in the room.

We are detaching ourselves from making our interactions all about us, about validating some perception about ourselves by other people.

Engagement requires a kind of empathy that sees into the life that this person is leading. As social settings and communities become more culturally diverse, less homogeneous, we need the ability to engage people as people, as individuals, rather than as objects of interest, a point of sale transaction or out of fear. Doing so, as well, with respect towards the social and cultural differences that distinguish us one from the other.

The portal for engagement, the path into an engaged relationship begins with the ability to listen. Every person's story is a set of cues about who they are. Even those statements and stories that the other person uses to hide themselves, or present themselves in a stronger position than they actually are, or, simply to lie to us, reveals who this person is. We are the same way.

We want to manage other people's perception of who we are as if that perception is a brand. However, the more manufactured that perception, the less engaged we are. The pathway to engagement is through the kind of vulnerability that Brene' Brown describes.

Engagement, as a result, is how we establish ourselves as authentic people. Not by showing authenticity, but by being authentic. By this, we must learn to be transparent (vulnerable), open, listening, while at the same respecting boundaries. The boundaries are ours, not the other person's. For essentially what we are doing by enagaging the other person is establishing the ground for trust.


In the social context of a room of strangers, we need to discern who people are and know what I have to offer in that situation. 

Recently I attended a celebration event for some friends. As I walked into the living room of the home, I saw that I was the only male in a room with 35 women, two-thirds of them I did not know. I immediately realized that my presence could create an awkwardness in the room. I didn't go hide in the corner. I didn't pay my respects to the host, and quietly leave. Instead, I went around the room and introduced myself to every one present. I did so to create an individual comfort level between me and each person in the room. The event was a great celebration and I came to know some new people whom I respect for their support of the cause we were celebrating.

Discernment is a process of seeking answers to the questions we have about people and situations. I'm trying to answer, for example. Do I know this person from another context? Do we have any mutual friendship? Are we Facebook or LinkedIn friends? Is he trustworthy? What is she interested in? Am I am being trustworthy? How far can I go in being transparent with this person? Do we share some value or commitment that gives reason for us to develop a relationship or a friendship?

This is why discernment is the third leg of the stool. It helps us answer the questions that flow through our minds in new or dynamic social situations.

The goal of engagement is to determine whether there is the possibility for a relationship. For a relationship to work, or be healthy, or, happy, requires each person to be open and trustworthy. It is important to understand that our responsibility is to be open and trusting, not really to determine whether the other person is. The engagement and interaction will bear this out in time.

Establishing clear boundaries for our relationships is so important. These boundaries must first be my boundaries. Without an understanding of how far I'm willing to go in being transparent and vulnerable, I cannot see or discern to what extent the other person or persons are open, trusting, and, whether they have an understanding for what is appropriate for the situation in which our relationship is being formed.

Discernment, therefore, is a skill that understands how to translate the values that guide our lives into decisions that affirm those values in action.

This is how learning to be situationally aware can lead us to find strength for our lives and build relationships of openness and trust, so that in any situaiton we can make a difference that matters.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves

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