In the Moment of Situational Awareness

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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.

From this place, situational awareness enables us to discern the influences that affect us both internally and externally. From those perceptions, we gain perspective. We can because we see the distinction between external realities and inner strengths. The external realities of the situation we are in seeks to control and absorb our attention. Our inner strengths are those qualities, so may say character, that enables us to move into a wide variety of settings without losing our sense of who were are.

External Realities - Inner Strengths 

Here's a depiction of this perspective that resulted from my engagement with a group of young women who are each in the midst of a dramatic life change.

ExternalRealitiesInternalStrengths
They identified the six eternal realities that they must address in their lives. Then from our exploration of them, we came up the ten inner strengths that would be most helpful for adapting to those realities with the greatest benefit.

The conclusion is that we need "tools" for coping with challenging situations. This is why situational awareness is a skills-based capacity, and, not just a tactic or an idea.

Here's an example of what I mean.

Like many of us, I often encounter people who are panhandlers, asking for some spare change for various reasons. They may or may not be homeless. They may or may not be telling me the truth about why they need the money. Their reasons don't really matter. What matters is the interaction we have at the precise moment of our encounter.

My values tell me that each person, regardless of their life situation, should be treated with dignity as a human being. That doesn't mean that I have to approve of their life choices, or whether they have the self-respect that should accompany that sense of dignity, or that I should even trust them. It is that without a belief in the inherrent dignity of each individual, we do not have a foundation for a relationship that allows for us to honestly explore what is possible between us.

If a person on the street, who asks me for help, is clearly not high or drunk, then I will do something to help him or her. It they say they are hungry, I will take the time and buy them a meal. If they say they are hungry, yet do not want the meal, but the money, then I know that there is an ulterior motive in their request to me.

I tell them that is all I am willing to do. (This reflects the boundaries that I have set for my interaction with this person.)

If they say they need a bus ticket, I may drive them to the bus station. If I am convinced that this is a legitimate request. I will ask them lots of questions to determine whether the story is legitimate. If I'm satisfied that it is, then I will help them.

If they are drunk or smell of alcohol, I'll send them to the local agency that works with people in need.

I hope you see by this scenario that I have constructed a way of being situationally aware that does not place me in conflict with the external realities are clearly designed to do so. Many of our interactions with people are intended to put us in a compromised position, so that we give against our wishes and our own interests. The key is being prepared to relate to the person or group as they present themselves to us right now, in this moment, not historically, or as may happen in the future.

I have decided that to treat people with dignity, who lack self-respect and feel no reciprocal dignity towards me, requires the kind of internal strengths identified above. 

To learn to do this brings freedom and peace of mind to our relationships, both those with whom we live and work everyday, and, those whom are strangers that we encounter outside of our normal environments.

Situation awareness is a type of intuition into a particular situation.

We see into it, connecting different observations, sensations with logic and past experience.

We see into the situation as a result.

Let's take this interaction a step further.

The dignity I offer to a person asking for help is to believe what they tell me. To respect them as a human being, and to establish a relationship of trust. Even if this is for a minute or two, it is important to do this.

Social conformity, which I wrote about in my previous post, is derived from the need for secure external circumstances. The goal is to minimize the internal discomfort that we may feel as we encounter all kinds of people every day. These feelings of discomfort are the ground upon which we build the inner strengths that we need for situational awareness.

There is a kind of natural co-dependency that occurs when social conditions are secure and constant. It is the picture of happy families and homogeneous communities in movies.

Times of social and economic disruption are more traumatic for people. Their emotional health and sense of self-worth become dependent upon the support and constancy of external circumstances. In other words, when personal security is found in conforming to some social expectation, we lose the best parts of our individualism, and become more resistant to change and social difference.

When a person goes through a divorce, loses their job, finds their children are disabled in some manner, or the nation goes to war, the community experiences a catastrophic natural disaster, or at a more superficial level, their favorite sports team fails to win the championships that everyone expected them to do, then these are not simply emotional blows to be weathered as better times return. Instead, these changes may be threats to one's own sense of self, or identity.

Returning to my scenario of the panhandler, if I give her or him, I then tell them the following.

"I am giving you this money trusting that you are telling me the truth. I have no way of knowing this. But you do. This money is a gift to you. In response, I only ask you that when you are given the opportunity, that you do the same for someone else. I am asking you to give to someone as an act of thanks for the gift that I am giving you right now."

The money is not the point. Establishing a rapport of trust, dignity and mutuality is.

To act in this way requires discernment that is learned at a deep level. It requires of us to be able to listen to the story behind the story, to ask questions that get to that story, and from that awareness, determine whether there is a possibility of establishing, even for a moment in time, an open, trusting relationship. If we can do this once, we can do it again and again.

The risk is that I may have totally misread the situation, and I have squandered the price of a bus ticket or meal on someone who is simply using me. That is the price I pay for treating people with dignity. I accept that, and am willing to take the risk because of the times when the response is one of deep gratitude.

The point is not the money, but the story we tell ourselves about who we are in social situations. My story is about dignity, trust and generosity.

In the next post in this series, I'll write about the story we tell ourselves. I've written about this before in The Edge of the Real: The Unfolding Story.


The Social Space of Situational Awareness

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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.

Situational awareness functions in real time and in real places. Think of it as a relationship, as a connection, to people, places, ideas, structures, institutions and to one's self. The space is a kind of gap, a discernable distance, between me and the other. This space is a situation that calls upon us to think, to engage, to decide and to act in a way that reduces the distance that exists between me and the people and situations that stand apart from me.

Situational Awareness is the skill that enables a person to establish community, peace and reconciliation in places that are fragmented, broken and in transition from what they once were to what they will be in the future.

These social relationships are varied and inter-mingled in time. They follow patterns of attitudes and behaviors, but not always in a predictable fashion. To be socially aware is to observe all that is taking place in a space, and, then, understanding how to respond appropriately.

Here's an example.

Walking into a coffee shop on the way to work, you are talking on the phone. You acknowledge the server, see your best friend in a business meeting in the corner, nod an acknowledgement, and, read an ad on the community bulletin board for a local theater group's play to be performed this coming weekend. The phone call ends. The order is placed. An introduction is made to the friend's business contact, and, order for tickets to the play made from the smart phone all within a matter of just a few minutes.

However, what if this typical busy, non-stressed moment in your morning, randomly includes the following. After you've order your coffee, the person next to you picks up their coffee, the lid pops off, and the hot liquid goes all over her and the floor at your feet. As you turn to find some napkins, you see that your ex-mother-in-law is standing in line behind you with your ex-husband's new wife. Then a text message buzzes, and it is your son letting you know that he has been in an auto accident on the way to school, and that he is okay. 

We move through situational spaces that require us to observe, engage and act. If however, we personalize all these situations, we then demand that each of these situations function for our benefit.To personalize a situation is to make it about ME, and, to narrow and confine the possibilities for interaction and impact.

To practice situation awareness is to see a larger picture, where my needs, wants, desires and demands, are not at the center, but just another set of considerations to be addressed in that moment of decision.

To treat this moment from a socially and situationally aware perspective is to take the initiative to help the woman whose coffee has just spilled, by reaching for some napkins, and to begin to help clean up the mess on the floor. At some point, you wipe coffee off of your own shoes. Instead of ignoring your ex-mother-in-law, you go over say hello, and introduce yourself to your ex-husband's new wife. Then you pick up your coffee, step aside, and text your son asking whether he needs you right now.

If, in each of these situations, we are unsure of ourselves, lacking the confidence to know what to do because we are unsure of who we are, then we avoid having to make these choices. We may stay hunkered over our smart phone, reading email as if no one else in the shop matters. We present an image of strength and detachment in order to block out intrusion.

Charles Taylor speaks about these spaces as a moral space, as "a space of questions" that require us to make distinctions. These distinctions that we make in these situational moments are answers to the fundamental question of who am I in this particular setting at this moment in time. If everything is personalized, or, if we lack confidence to make those decisions, or, if we have no clear idea of what we believe or value, then these situations fill us with fear and anxiety. What happens in situational space reveals who we are at our most basic level.

This is why living in the world of The Spectacle of the Real can be so attractive. We vicariously live through the lives of others, transferring responsibility for acting as a person onto the celebrity or the news opinion reader, instead of discovering the life that is available to us to live. The development of Situational Awareness is a path towards understanding who we are, finding our identity, and with humilty and confidence, understanding how we are to fit into all the social situations that we find ourselves in everyday.

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


Real Life Leadership: Boundaries need to be set to keep workplace a comfortable environment

This week's Real Life Leadership column is online - Boundaries need to be set to keep workplace a comfortable environment.

Over the years, I have had situations arise where people's behavior were clearly out of line.  One of these situations was a two hour presentation on organizational community building that I was to give to a group of local civic leadership. It was part of a day long symposium. The first hour was devoted to local economic development. A group within the larger group - I call them the Gang of Five - high-jacked the speaker's presentation. They did not like the approach his business association took with economic development. They pelted him with questions, and he finally had to leave the event without finishing his presentation because he had another meeting to attend.

As I sat there, I was thinking, if they do this to him, what will they do to me?  So, in probably the most courageous thing I had done in my life time up to that point, with the approval of the director of the program, I decided to abandon my talk and spend my two hours debriefing what went on.  It was a great lesson in doing the right thing at the right time.

There were forty-five participants attending.  During the first hour the Gang of Five all ranted their opinions about economic development in our community. Another dozen spoke up and offered their thoughts. After an hour, I knew there were opinions that were not being said. So, I silenced those who had spoken.  I forbid them to speak for 20 minutes.  As a result, the rest to the group began to speak.  It was an incredible display of anger, frustration, disappointment and resentment at this group of five people who wasted their time and money.  At the end of two hours, I had not given my community building presentation, but we had built community.

Two weeks after that event, one of the Gang of Five called me and asked me to come work with his organization on a variety of issues.  We have now worked together for eight years and he is a close friend and colleague.  People who attended that event still reference it when we see each other.

This is an example for how appropriate social boundaries can be managed. The lesson is that the Gang of Five's right to speak does not cancel out the other forty people's right to hear the presentation and make up their own mind.  If we take seriously the social nature of our organizations, then we'll understand how important it is to protect the social climate of the group so that people feel like that they can trust the environment.