The Nuts And Bolts Of Awareness. Spotting Trouble Before It Happens

Published: 01st April 2006
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What if violent criminals looked different?

If they did, and you knew what gave them away, would this

reduce the chance of becoming their victim? You bet it

would. Unfortunately rapists, muggers and predatory

reprobates don't look any different than a "normal" person.

However, the good news is that they can be recognized by

their behavior. If you know what to look for, you can

recognize a problem as it unfolds and stay one step ahead

of a human predator. That is the goal of awareness.

==== Communication is Predominantly Non-Verbal ====

People communicate their intent in three ways. Seven

percent of your ability to interpret that intent is based

on words, thirty eight percent through voice, and a

whopping fifty five percent is projected through body

language. Why is this important?

A predominant aspect of self-defense involves the

communication process. Human predators don't just pounce on

the first person that comes along. There is an evaluation

process that occurs where they deliberately or

unconsciously assess the "victim potential" of a target. In

doing so, they project their intentions by watching,

following and even "testing" you. If you understand this

process you will spot predatory intent before an assault is


In future articles, I will explain victim selection and

predatory behavior in greater detail. For now, realize that

knowing what clues to look for will allow to anticipate and

respond effectively to a potential confrontation.

==== What is Awareness? ====

Awareness is the ability to "read" people and situations

and anticipate the probability of violence before it

happens. It is knowing what to look for and taking the time

to notice safety-related aspects of what is happening

around you.

Awareness is not about being fearful or paranoid. It is a

relaxed state of alertness that you can incorporate into

your character. It is neither desirable, nor necessary, to

go about life hectically scanning your surroundings for the

boogey man around every corner. Your level of awareness

should be appropriate to the circumstances you are in.

Some circumstances call for a greater degree of awareness

than others. Obviously, you would want to be more aware

when walking alone to your car at night than when shopping

in a crowded mall with friends.

==== What is Successful Self-Defense? ====

How you define success determines the strategies you

implement to achieve it. Many people confuse the ability to

defend themselves with the ability to fight. If your image

of successful self-defense is fighting off an assailant,

your solution will be directed at learning physical

techniques. You would be missing the point.

Success in self-defense is not winning a fight but

avoiding it. The ultimate success in self-defense is when

nothing to happens! If that's not possible, consider this

philosophy: If you can't prevent it, avoid it. If you can't

avoid it, defuse it. If you can't defuse it, escape. If you

can't escape, you may have to fight your way out of the

situation. If you do have to fight, it will be as a last

resort, not a first. Does this philosophy influence your

success strategies?

==== Predatory/Defender Time Line ====

The sooner you detect and recognize a threat, the more

options you have to respond to it. Imagine a time line

spanning from the time a predator forms the intent to

commit a violent crime and the moment he initiates it upon

you. The time it takes you to detect, recognize and

respond, impacts how successful your actions are likely to

be. The sooner you act, the more flexible and deliberate

you can be in avoiding, escaping or responding to the


Awareness strategies focus primarily to the "pre-incident"

phase of the encounter; to the cues and signals you can

detect and recognize that allow you to anticipate the event

before it occurs.

Knowing What to Look For

There are three primary aspects of awareness: knowing what

to pay attention to, paying attention to safety-related

details and matching the degree of your awareness to your


==== Effective Self-defense Requires a Map ====

The brain's ability to recognize and understand anything

is a result of having a mental map or blueprint relevant to

that experience. Psychologists call these maps, "schemas."

They consist of our accumulated knowledge, experience,

beliefs and habits and are activated when we activate or

recognize patterns associated to them.

A good mechanic can detect what's wrong with a car by the

clunks, squeaks and rattles it makes. Paramedics can

iagnose unseen injuries by the patient's symptoms. Hunters

can track an animal for miles based on broken twigs,

displaced soil and clues invisible to the untrained eye.

They have the mental maps that allow them to do this.

Diagnosing a potential confrontation requires self-defense


In his book, "Vital Lies, Simple Truths," psychologist

Daniel Goleman describes how schemas work. "The (process)

that organizes information and makes sense of experience

are 'schemas,' the building blocks of cognition. Schemas

embody the rules and categories that order raw experience

into coherent meaning. All knowledge and experience is

packaged in schemas. Schemas are...the intelligence that

guides information as it flows through the mind."

Schemas allow us to make sense of the world and influence

what we recognize, understand, notice and ignore. They

allow us to interpret patterns, predict outcomes and

respond in appropriate ways to what happens in our lives.

==== Evaluating Your Self-defense Schemas ====

Effectively defending yourself requires an accurate mental

map about self-defense situations. Assessing your own

schemas is difficult. We tend to resist or ignore anything

that challenges our existing perception of the way things

are. Schema enhancement is impossible without an open mind

and curiosity about the way things really work.

In order to evaluate your own mental maps, and determine

where they can be improved, consider the "Three A's."

=> Accurate:

Accurate mental maps are essential to effective self-

defense. You establish and refine them by learning about

violent and predatory situations; how they happen, where

and when they happen, who they are perpetrated by and so

on. This involves learning to recognize pre-assault

patterns and developing an inventory of skills and

strategies to resolve confrontations.

We build experience by using what we have learned. By

consistently applying awareness and prevention strategies

they become habits. Soon they are unconscious and

automatic. Physical and scenario-based training drills can

reduce your fears and desensitize you to the threat and

exertion of combat.

Beliefs dramatically affect your perceptions and behavior.

Do your beliefs empower or disempower your ability to

protect yourself? Are they realistic and functional or

based on fantasy? Evaluate your beliefs about your power to

defend yourself and, if they don't contribute to your

skill, resilience and ability to respond, change them.

=> Absent:

When you lack knowledge or experience in an area your maps

about it are absent. Absent self-defense maps result in

people being naive about their safety, more likely to place

themselves in risky situations, and oblivious to signs of

danger. If someone with an absent map encounters a

confrontation, they are more likely to panic, freeze or

react ineffectively. In self-defense jargon, that's called,

"Not Good!"

=> Assumed:

An assumed map occurs when a map associated to an

experience is flawed, inaccurate and erroneous. A map of

Winnipeg is useless is Chicago. A map that is wrong won't

help you produce the results you desire.

Assumed self-defense maps are more prevalent than you

might think. Even trained martial artists often hold an

unrealistic perception of what a "real fight" is like. They

confuse the chaos of violent encounters with sparring. They

confuse martial art techniques with the ability to defend

themselves. That's like equating hockey with golf!

Studying self-defense is about developing and refining

accurate mental maps of confrontation. We must build an

accurate mental database of knowledge, experience and

beliefs about self-defense situations and our power to

respond effectively to them. The purpose of these articles,

my courses and seminars, and the Protective Strategies Self-

defense Resource Center is to assist you in the development

of your self-defense maps.

Note: In this discussion, I don't mean to imply that

people without extensive self-defense training are helpless

or unable to respond to threatening situations. It is

indisputable that far more "untrained" people successfully

defend themselves from assault than those with formal

training. We all possess the instinct to survive. More

important than learning self-defense skills is respecting,

re-awakening, and tapping into existing instincts that have

been neglected, denied, or suppressed.

Self-defense training is not always a matter of

"installing" new maps but "dusting off" and improving the

ones we already have.

==== Paying Attention ====

Attention is the process of consciously attending to a

thought, activity or event. It is one thing to know what to

pay attention to. It is another thing all together, to pay

attention on a consistent basis.

What we are conscious of is a function of our short-term

memory. The capacity of short-term memory is limited, at

any given time, to about seven "chunks" or pieces of

information. Our senses bombard us with far more

information than we could ever hope to acknowledge or be

aware of. The vast majority of what is happening around us

is "filtered out," and only a small portion of it reaches

the conscious mind (short term memory).

The mind is selective about what it pays attention to. To

a great extent, the schemas we have stored in our long-term

memory determine what we notice and what we don't. Schemas

influence, usually unconsciously, the filtering out of

stimuli deemed to be irrelevant or unimportant. This

further emphasizes the need to develop accurate self-

defense schemas. Unless we do, the signals and cues we need

to stay safe will be filtered out and ignored.

==== Distraction and Preoccupation ====

Being distracted or preoccupied can occupy the limited

capacity of the conscious mind and disconnect us from

what's going on around us. Distraction is when our mental

focus is occupied with external stimuli such as loading

groceries in your car, fumbling with your keys or being

drawn to something unusual. Preoccupation happens when our

mental focus dwells on internal stimuli such as thoughts,

worries and daydreaming.

Distraction and preoccupation are inevitable. Even if you

wanted to, you wouldn't be able to eliminate them for

extended periods. However, if you are preoccupied or

distracted when you should be attending to your

surroundings, you won't detect a predator positioning

himself for an assault and you won't be able to defend

yourself. It is important to identify situations in your

life when a higher level of vigilance is necessary and

minimize distraction and preoccupation during those times.

==== Attention is like a Spotlight ====

Imagine that your attention is a beam of light. Whatever

you point it at is what you notice. Inevitably when you

point the beam in one direction you neglect another.

Attention works something like this.

Since our consciousness is limited, we must develop the

ability to aim the beam of our attention at details

relevant to our safety. We need to pay attention to the

"right things" (people watching or following us, potential

ambush places, escape routes etc.) at the "right time."

==== Interest & Importance ====

Schema, distraction and preoccupation are only parts of

the attention puzzle. What we notice is also a result of

our interests and priorities. I'll quote Dr. Goleman again

to make my point. "What gets through to awareness is what

messages have pertinence to whatever mental activity is

current. If you are looking for restaurants, you will

notice signs for them and not for gas stations; if you are

skimming through the newspaper, you will notice those items

you care about. What gets through enters awareness, and

only what is useful occupies that mental space."

Goleman is not writing about self-defense but his point

could not be more relevant. We notice what we consider

(often at an unconscious level) important or interesting at

the time we notice it.

==== Responsibility Increases Awareness ====

Have you ever heard of the, "I-never-thought-it-would-

happen-to-me phenomenon?" I'll bet you have and it was

probably in relation to someone who had something happen to

them. At the core of the awareness issue is the need to

take full responsibility for your own safety. Until you

acknowledge, "it could happen to you," pre-incident cues

may not register as important or relevant enough to notice.

They will go undetected. Unless you acknowledge a need to

be aware, you simply won't be.

==== Awareness is a deterrent to assault ====

As you will learn in subsequent articles on victim

selection, a predator's primary targets are people who are

unaware of their surroundings and lax about personal

safety. One of the best, most proactive, things you can do

to reduce the probability of being victimized is improve

your awareness skills. Once the predator realizes that you

have noticed him he'll move on to a less observant prey.

The fact that you are reading this and exploring the issue

of self-defense, in my opinion, decreases the likelihood

that you will fall into the category of a desirable prey.

==== Points To Remember ====

=> Your ability to recognize a dangerous person or

situation makes you safer.

=> Awareness involves knowing what to look for and

disciplining yourself to pay attention.

=> The ultimate success in self-defense is when nothing


=> The earlier you detect and recognize a potential

problem, the more options you have to resolve it.

=> Detecting and recognizing danger is based on accurate

mental maps.

=> Attention involves adjusting your conscious focus

toward what is relevant to a particular situation.

==== So What!!! How can I use this information? ====

How can you use this information in your own personal

safety strategy? Here are some examples of activities and

exercises that will improve your awareness:

=> Accept Full Responsibility for your Safety

Unless you take full responsibility for your safety and

make it a priority, you are less likely to detect and

recognize danger cues. You are more likely to be selected

as a target.

=> Identify situations in your own life requiring a

higher level of vigilance

You can't be totally aware all of the time, nor do you

have to be. Identify times and situations in your own life

where a higher degree of vigilance is merited. When out

jogging alone? When commuting to and from work? When

staying in a strange city? When out socializing at the bar?

==> Build and refine your self-defense maps by continuous


If personal safety is important to you, read books and

articles about it, take self-defense courses, etc. You may

not want to join a self-defense club or spend all of your

waking hours studying self-defense. You don't have to.

However, don't read a single book or take a single course

and consider yourself "finished." Make an effort to

periodically review what you know and continuously build on

what you've learned.

=> Analyze the News

Analyze news events to familiarize yourself with criminal

patterns and factors, which contribute to violent crimes.

Apply the questions who, what, when, where, why and how to

these incidents and use your acquired knowledge to stay out

of the news yourself!

=> Practice Observations Skills

Pre-determine specific things to look for as you go about

your day-to-day activities. For example, when going

shopping make a "game" of spotting as many tall, dark

haired men with a moustache as you can. Next time look for

something else. Consider the fact that "playing" awareness

games makes you appear more observant to a predator who may

be evaluating you as a potential target.

=> Establish self-defense habits

If you knew you were going to be attacked the next time

you went to work you just wouldn't go. The truth of the

matter is that you never know when you may be targeted as a

potential victim. Assaults happen at all times of the day

and in all types of setting and situations. The only

effective self-defense strategies are those that you build

into your day-to-day behavior. They become unconscious

habits by repetition and consistency.

==== Conclusion ====

I have discussed the nuts and bolts of awareness and

attention: what they are, how they work and why they are

important. I'm sure you still have a lot of questions

remaining to be answered. There are still areas of your

"map" that needs to be fleshed out and completed. The

Protective Strategies Self-defense Resource Center is

intended to assist you in that process. As you learn more

about the components of a comprehensive self-defense

strategy, you will develop a clearer, more specific map to

reduce the probability of a confrontation.

Good luck and Stay Safe.

Randy LaHaie

Protective Strategies


Randy LaHaie is the president of Protective Strategies and

has been teaching reality-based self-defense for over 30

years. He is the author of several "Toughen Up Combative

Training Guides" Subscribe to his



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