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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.

5) Grooming

One of the most telling pre-incident indicators is what’s known as grooming. People up to no good try very hard to look casual to avoid spooking their victims. Casual grooming actions like smoothing your hair with your fingers, scratching or wiping your face, or any similar unconscious gesture look very contrived and unnatural when done consciously. In simple terms, if you see someone trying too hard to look natural, it’s unnatural and a sign of potential danger. This type of behavior very often precedes violent criminal attacks but can also signal the fact that a verbal altercation is about to become physical.

6) Furtive Glances

Criminals don’t want to get caught, so they’re always wary of witnesses. If a criminal is sizing someone up as a target, one of the final things he’ll often do, right before he attacks, is look around for potential witnesses. Again, the natural action of looking around appears a lot more suspicious when it’s done purposefully. When it’s done in conjunction with other pre-incident indicators, it’s even more noticeable. For example, if you’re walking near someone seated on a bench and he suddenly gets up, walks toward you and starts scanning the area as he approaches, warning bells should start going off in your head.

Such glances can also be in the form of unnatural eye movements. If normal individuals hear a noise or catch something out of the corner of their eyes, they will naturally turn their heads to look at the source of the stimulus. A person with ill intent, however, will often try to keep his head “naturally” pointing in one direction while looking to the sides for witnesses or to see if his intended victim is paying attention. This Felix-the-Cat type of eye movement is unnatural and typically an indicator that the person is up to no good.

7) Target Glancing

Before the assault, violent attackers will often pick their shots—choose the specific target they plan to strike and visually focus on it. If someone suddenly fixates on your chin, your stomach or some other body part, he’s probably not admiring your looks. Target glancing can also involve your personal belongings—the potential targets of a violent robbery. If you notice someone staring at your jewelry, your laptop or some other high-value possession, get your guard up and be ready to act.

8) Weight Shifting

One very disturbing form of violent crime that has become popular in recent years is the knockout game. In this brutal game, the goal is to knock out an unsuspecting victim in public with a single punch. This approach is also common among robbers, who get close to their victims and, without warning, knock them out with a haymaker punch before stealing their valuables.

For most people, delivering a knockout punch requires a wind up. Typically this is a rearward shift of body weight and a bending of the back leg to create both rotation and drive to power the punch. In many cases, the rear shoulder will drop and the attacker will actually look away before turning back to the victim to strike. Weight shifting is often preceded or combined with other indicators like target glancing, looking for witnesses and grooming actions. As obvious as these actions may seem, most people can’t believe that it could be happening to them—they do nothing to react.

High-Tech Training

Now that you have a better idea of what to look for to keep yourself from being victimized, what’s the next step? In my opinion, some of the greatest personal-defense training resources can be found online. YouTube, LiveLeak and similar video-sharing websites are some that I recommend. These sites as well as real-crime programming on networks like TruTV are a virtual treasure trove of CCTV footage, cell-phone video and other video clips that show the brutal reality of street attacks. In many cases, they also show the buildup to these incidents, which includes the behavior and actions of the attacker moments before the actual attack. Careful study of these videos can allow you to see exactly how attackers behave as they size up their victims and prepare to launch their attacks. They also allow you to expand your knowledge of pre-incident indicators and to practice your ability to recognize them and the threats they represent.

Go To School

In addition to this academic study, you should supplement your hands-on training with courses that specifically address pre-incident indicators. The leader in this type of training is Craig Douglas, a.k.a. Southnarc, a veteran law enforcement officer and highly skilled martial artist with decades of experience as an undercover narcotics officer.

Douglas teaches a course called Managing Unknown Contacts, which focuses specifically on identifying pre-incident indicators and managing them effectively with verbal skills and boundary setting. I have personally trained with Craig and recommend his courses highly (shivworks.com).

Situational awareness is without a doubt the most powerful personal-protection tool in your arsenal because it allows you to recognize and identify potential threats before they escalate. The more notice you have that something bad may be happening, the more options you have to do something about it. However, true awareness is more than just looking: it’s knowing exactly what to look for.

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