Eye Contact: Observe Surroundings, Part II – Tristan Chermack

Observe surroundings

Any self-protection must involve you paying attention to your surroundings, regardless of whether there are people around.  Keeping an eye on people adds a little more difficulty to the task, but it is still pretty easy to do.  Let’s look at each of these separately.

When observing your surroundings, you should first be looking for anything that might pose a danger.  Accidents claim more victims than predators, and self-protection skills also work with accidents.  Many accidents happen because of a lack of awareness.  The street crossing analogy comes into play here:  look to see if you can safely cross the street regardless of what the light says.  Potential threats come in many shapes and sizes, so we cannot possible tell you every way to spot them here.  Keeping your eyes open for potential problems, or accidents waiting to happen, is something you must build.  The practice of looking around rather than having your eyes buried in a cell phone or iPod works splendidly.

It should take a quick look around, for only a second or two, to get a decent feel for your surroundings.  Familiar surroundings are easier, but you should take the time and effort to notice anyway.  If a place is familiar to you, looking around can show you something that is out of place or not normal.  This can be helpful to give you a heads-up that something might be amiss.  Your instincts will pick up on these things, you only need to scan around and take in what you see.

If you are in an unfamiliar place or somewhere that gives you an uneasy feeling, you will probably look around a lot before becoming assured that you will be safe.  This is an instinctual trait so use it.  Once you have looked around extensively and still feel uneasy about where you are, you should really leave.  If you cannot leave, get yourself to a position where you can see anything approaching you.  This brings us to the next point about observing surroundings.

When you observe a room, you should be doing more than looking for threats.   You should look for where the exits to your immediate area are.  If you had to get out fast, which ways could you go?  These exits are also entrances.  We will discuss observing your surroundings for people next, but you should know where they come in so you can see who comes into your area.  Knowing where the exits are is a good habit to build.

Another thing to watch for with your surroundings is where you are in them.  Are you in a place where you can be approached by someone without noticing they are coming?  In the best case, you should be somewhere that you easily notice people approach you.  It is also best that you are in a place that has an exit handy from any given direction.  The last thing you want is to be cornered by a threatening person, with nowhere to go to escape.

One last thing to look for in your surroundings is obstacles.  They can provide a place for you that make approach difficult.  It may happen that you notice a bully or group of potential bullies coming and want to stay out of their path.  Rather than running for an exit, you can position yourself near obstacles to make it difficult to get to you.  The great benefit of this approach is that you can usually move there casually without drawing attention.  It will be easy to notice if the people you are concerned about are approaching you, and then you can move to an exit if it appears they are coming for you.

If you have ever been in the same room with a bully, you may have experienced looking at your environment in these ways.  It is best to have an idea of what is around you before that panic hits and you are desperately looking for where to exit.  We believe in preparing early, and this is a perfect example.  It takes only a second to notice exits, so take a look.  You might not need it, but if you do it is great to know already.

Now that we’ve covered the environment itself, the really important part is to watch people.  You should at very least look for a moment at every person in your immediate area.  If the area is very crowded, you should scan the crowd for anything that appears out of the ordinary.  When you do your scan, let your instincts talk to you.  They will tell you if you should be concerned.

This kind of looking around and scanning is more than glancing up from time to time.  If you are sitting hunched over a book or cell phone and glance up momentarily and down, then you are missing two points: posture and observation. These two should work together.

Keep good body posture whether you are standing or sitting and scan regularly.  Take your time scanning and don’t rush it.  Anyone looking at you will quickly be able to tell which is more important to you: looking around or not paying attention to surroundings.  It is okay to be absorbed in a book or texting with someone, but go to a place where you are safe to do so and look up and around frequently.

It is very common to watch for people when you know they might be present, and it is almost always someone you already know to be a potential threat.  Kids who are around bullies learn to watch for their bully through pure fear.  They are constantly scanning so they can see them coming and get out early.

One thing to add here, which is something more common to adults than children, is that purposefully not making eye contact is also a signal. Take care not to think that this is imperceptible because it is. If a potential predator looks at you and you are intentionally avoiding eye contact, he will very likely be able to tell. This is a signal of pure fear, which is not the signal you want to send. A confident person does not fear making eye contact.

Once you make eye contact, what you are thinking is pretty easily conveyed through your facial expressions. I’m not talking mind reading here, but simple mood and attitude. What is on your mind will affect the signals you are sending, so take care of what is on your mind. Be smart, not oblivious – confident, not fearful. This type of communication is fascinating, but not within the scope of this article.

What we take in about our surroundings and the people within it is crucial to avoiding trouble. You can think of it this way: your goal is to see trouble before it sees you. A predator decides when and where he will strike, which is powerful. Predators will avoid targets which are aware (hard to approach undetected) and do not look like good opportunities. They will dismiss inviting targets which are not in a good place or time to strike. The first indicator is eye contact or lack thereof. An unobservant target is very inviting. You might never even make direct eye contact with a predator. He may very well dismiss you as a potential target merely because he sees you scanning the area, staying aware, and appearing ready. It is so much better to avoid being targeted early than try to evade a predator who has already chosen you as a target.

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