I got on the bus to the parking lot at Denver Airport. It felt crowded and a woman on crutches got on the bus. Being a gentleman, I stood up and offered her my seat. She said: “thank you, this is so kind you.” And when she sat down, she continued by saying “by the way, you can sit down too because the next four seats are empty.” Since I was standing with my back to those empty seats I was oblivious of their availability.

Being aware of what is going on around us is called situational awareness, I completely lacked situational awareness on the bus. In my years as a firefighter, situational awareness was drilled into us. For example, while digging a line on a wildfire, we were told to look up regularly and watch the weather. It was easy to be preoccupied with the ground just before us where we were digging, and nobody on the fireline crew might notice that a thunderstorm was moving in with gusty winds that could fan the fire. In firefighting, situational awareness is a matter of survival.  A lack of situational awareness is more likely as we are getting tired and as a result develop tunnel-vision for what we are doing.

Situational awareness, or lack thereof, plays a role in many aspects of our life. When you are in a group, can you sense the mood in the room? In your interactions with others, can you feel whether they are genuine or whether they fake behavior? When you are in a team, can you sense what the team needs at that moment? In general, to what extent is your perception realistic, and how much of your perception is colored by your own mood or prejudice? Just as with firefighting, our situational awareness likely degrades as we get tired, do you notice this in interpersonal interactions?

Here are three steps that you can take to improve your situational awareness.

1. One step is to pause, look, and listen. When I got on the bus, I never bothered to look around if there were open seats. In this example my lack of awareness did not matter—the woman to whom I offered my seat was both pleased and amused—but in some situations such awareness can be crucial. A useful tool to pause is to use a mindfulness timer that at intervals sounds a bell as a reminder to be aware.

2. We may have preconceived ideas that imprint our perception to the degree that we are not situationally aware. Releasing preconceived ideas thus can help to increase our awareness. Reflection and meditation are useful habits to become aware of our biases and assumptions.

3. As noted above, our situational awareness degrades as we get tired because then it is harder to muster the energy to pay attention. Taking care of ourselves with sufficient sleep, healthy food, and exercise, helps to increase our situational awareness.

Therefore (1) stop pause, look, and listen, (2) be aware of preconceived ideas, and (3) take care of yourself. By taking these steps you could avoid offering up your seat on an empty bus!

Roel Snieder

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