Awareness is a term you hear a lot in personal-defense circles. Whether you formally define it as Condition Yellow or regard it in simpler terms, being aware of what’s going on around you is the best way to spot and avoid danger before it happens.

Though we all know we should be aware, unfortunately very few self-defense programs specifically address what you should be aware of. These danger signs, often known as pre-incident indicators, are specific actions that criminals and other violent individuals will perform in the moments immediately preceding an attack. Knowing what they are and what they look like is one of the most important personal-defense skills you can have. Even if you aren’t able to avoid trouble completely, being aware of these indicators will maximize your options in a critical situation and give you additional time to prepare and execute your defense.

Human Nature

Violently attacking another person without warning is, for most, an unnatural act. That doesn’t mean people aren’t capable of it or that some don’t do it quite regularly. It does mean that such an act is outside the normal realm of human behavior. And people who intend to act violently (a distinctly abnormal act) usually overcompensate in their attempts to appear normal beforehand. They also do things to set themselves up for success, which are obvious if you know what to look for. What follows are some of the most common pre-incident indicators and tips on how to recognize them more readily.

1) Closing Distance

In Western society, we are used to maintaining a comfortable distance especially if there aren’t many people around. For example, if you’re on a subway platform full of empty benches and there’s only one other person in sight, it would be unnatural for that person—a stranger—to try to sit down right next to you. Even if he decided to speak to you, he would typically do so from a respectable distance.

An attacker, however, wants to get close to you because attacks launched from close range give you less time to react. This may be done by simply walking up to you, by sitting next to you or through a more subtle means known as boundary testing.

2) Boundary Testing

Most criminals evaluate their victims before making the decision to attack. One of the most common ways of doing this is to engage the potential target with some type of question to test the person’s boundaries and awareness. A classic example of this is asking for something like the time, change for a dollar and so forth. If your response is to look down at your watch or dig your hand in your pocket while allowing a stranger to move close to you, you’re lowering your guard and allowing your boundaries to be violated. Don’t let that happen to you!

3) Coordinated Motion

Another potential cause for concern is someone coordinating their motion with yours. For example, if you’re walking through a park and a seated person suddenly gets up to follow you, to walk parallel to you or to walk on a convergent course, that’s suspicious. If two people begin moving simultaneously or seem to be coordinating their movement to trap you between them, that’s an even bigger tell. Watch for others’ unnatural reactions to your presence and be prepared to change the dynamics of the situation to keep yourself safe.

4) Hidden Hands

When people walk naturally, they swing their arms and their hands are open. A person hiding a weapon, however, may move very differently. If the weapon is concealed behind his leg or back, that arm will not swing naturally as he walks. If a small weapon like a knife is hidden in the hand, the fingers will not be naturally extended or the thumb may not be visible.

Similarly, a person preparing to attack with a punch may unconsciously clench his fists well before he begins swinging. If you don’t see naturally extended fingers and a normal arm swing, be prepared.

Hidden hands may also mean the hands are concealed in pockets. A person approaching you with his hands in his pockets or inside a jacket may be preparing to draw and attack with a concealed weapon. Shouting the simple phrase “Show me your hands!” at your attacker and from a safe reactive distance can be a game changer. You should also be aware of people openly carrying ordinary objects in their hands that could be used as improvised weapons—especially things like bottles.

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