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A Situational Awareness Discussion Guide: “Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life”

The goal for this discussion guide is to help leaders in organizations across the military, police, and security industries, as well as corporations, universities, and other academic institutions, have effective conversations about how the concepts discussed in Left of Bang apply to them and their organizations.

As professional reading discussions are an effective way for leaders to understand the concerns of their teams, demonstrate how they view situations and communicate values throughout an organization, each of the topics covered in this guide is followed by a statement of purpose for that particular question as well as questions for leaders to consider following the discussion for internal reflection.

My hope is that through the following questions and reflection points, leaders are able to jump start their discussions with their team about the book or situational awareness and are stimulated to create more questions of their own that solve problems unique to them. If there are any questions that come up during a discussion about Left of Bang that you are unable to answer for your team or that you would like a second opinion on, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask us using the contact form here.

Get left of bang and stay there,

Patrick Van Horne


Part 1 – The War Lab

Prompt:

  • Make a list of the training events you have conducted in the last year and the purpose of each event.  How much of your recent training is focused on what to do both before and after an incident occurs?  Does this align with the tasks and problems you are likely to face in your job?

Purpose:

  • Use this discussion to reflect on what your team has been focused on recently and reassess if that is setting your organization up for success in the future.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • How does the organization view the purpose of the training that has been provided?
  • Are there gaps that need to be addressed in the future because we have been over-emphasizing certain tasks over others?
  • Are there areas in our training where we can do more to focus on prevention (left of bang) to balance out the reactive drills (right of bang) we have been practicing?

Prompt:

  • The challenge discussed in the preface of the book is that Marines had difficulties identifying insurgents during the war in Iraq. How have you been taught to recognize threats in other training?  When you say that you are “looking for threats,” what are you looking for specifically?

Purpose:

  • Use this discussion to determine how specifically your team is able to define what it is they are looking for that could cause a problem or pose a danger. For a person to be in “Condition Yellow” and searching for threats, having an inexact definition of what makes someone a threat slows the decision-making process and creates the opportunity for hesitation in complex situations.  Without something clear, you’ll never enter “Condition Orange” before you see a weapon and, at that point, you’ll be immediately shifted into “Condition Red” as you respond or react to the threat.
  • Situational awareness is only as good as a person’s ability to know what they are looking for, how to look for it (or how to put that information together) and what they are going to do once they see it. The goal of this question is to determine how capably your team is able to identify which elements in their environment should alert them to a decision and to establish a benchmark for their current level of situational awareness.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Based on your current capability in the area of threat recognition, are there gaps that need to be filled because your team’s level of confidence in recognizing people with a violent intent is not high enough?
  • As your team answers these questions, ask yourself whether these indicators are things that you could observe on anyone in your vicinity or whether they are indicators that would require personal knowledge about the person, making them less-reliable or difficult to obtain.

Part 2 – Everywhere We Go, There Will Be People

Prompt:

  • Make a list of the decisions that each member of your team is expected or anticipated to make while you are operating and identify how a person is going to determine how a decision needs to be made.

Purpose:

  • The goal for this exercise is to begin to get people thinking about planning backwards from decisions that likely need to be made and determining what information is needed to make that decision. This is the “how to search” component of situational awareness.
  • For example, if a decision that will have to be made is, “Is this person I am observing a threat or not?”, the follow on question will be, “How will you determine that?” If the answer to that question is, “It is determining that the person has a violent intent,” then the next question is, “How will you know that the person has a violent intent?”
  • This section of the book introduces the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure, and the goal of that is to say, if the baseline is made up of the behavior of the people in this area with a non-violent intent, then an anomaly will present itself because a person with a violent intent will not be part of the baseline.
  • The goal for this exercise is to get a person thinking about the need to develop their judgment by starting with the way they are leading up to the point of making a decision.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Who in your team is thinking about problems and decisions in this “from decision to factors/process” way? The goal isn’t to determine if the process is valid (that can be trained to and will come in the next section), but who is thinking about ways to improve their situational awareness by back planning from decisions to information they need to make that decision?
  • Answering this particular question is not always easy, but if a leader can’t think about how to prepare for decisions, evaluating another person’s decisions is a subjective evaluation.
  • Recommended follow on reading: An article titled “Just Tell Me What To Do,” which shows how to erase the phrase “it is situationally dependent” from our vocabulary.

Prompt:

  • Think about areas or situations you are likely to be in and begin to think about what would go into establishing the baseline for that area. List out all of the legitimate/non-violent reasons why someone would be in that area. Don’t get focused on the behaviors of those people yet, but start by thinking about and listing out the purpose for someone being in a marketplace, in a meeting, in a café, etc.

Purpose:

  • This exercise will get people to begin the process of conducting mental simulations for the areas they will be operating in and thinking about what they can expect and do the preparation needed to have a bias for action.
  • If you are in the military, this will also help to focus a person’s attention on the similarities between areas overseas and here at home (why people are in a market or a meeting) instead of the differences that exist between cultures.
  • As you determine what your situational awareness should be focused on, start by defining this one component to the baseline for the areas you are in.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Who in the organization is able to translate their past life experience into situations they are likely to encounter in the future and find universal commonalities?
  • Is it clear to people in the team where they will be operating and what type of situations will require having a baseline worked out ahead of time?
  • Recommended follow on reading: An article titled “Making the Deli Experience Deliberate,” which talks about applying the deliberate search in that environment. Think about the discussion in the article about the “personas” of people who are present in that situation.

Part 3 – Detail

Prompt:

  • For each of the domains of behavior discussed in the book, have a conversation about where each of those assessments has been observed within your team or organization. Find an example for each and every assessment discussed in the book.
    • The list of assessments includes: the dominant cluster, the submissive cluster, the uncomfortable cluster, the comfortable cluster, the intimate zone, the personal zone, the social zone, the public zone, habitual areas, anchor points, natural lines of drift, positive atmospherics and negative atmospherics.

Purpose:

  • The goal is to ensure that each of the behavioral assessments discussed in the book is something that can be translated from the words used to describe it into real life events.
  • If a person can remember when they saw someone displaying dominance, or where the anchor points in the building are, or times when they came into a meeting with negative or positive atmospherics, then they have shown that they are able to focus on and think about these behaviors and recall elements from those situations that allows for greater awareness.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Who in the team is able to do really accurate impressions of others, even if it’s just in jest? These individuals are often very strong observers and able to notice the subtleties and nuances of behavior a person displays in order to recreate them.
  • We recommend that you reinforce the specific terminology established in the book or in the article linked to in the next bullet point to get people used to communicating in a clear way. For instance, if a person uses a synonym like “aggressive” to describe someone being “dominant,” stop them and correct them while the thought is still fresh.
  • Recommended follow on reading: If the language is an obstacle, take a look at the article “From 6 Domains to 4 Pillars: The Evolution of Behavioral Assessments,” which shows how we have shifted the way we teach and talk about the behaviors since the book was published.

Prompt:

  • How do the behavioral domains discussed in the book lead to more informed decision-making in situations you are likely to encounter in your field? Note that this is easier if you provide the team with some examples about scenarios you have in mind.

Purpose:

  • The goal for this question is to get people to think about how the behavioral observations taught in the book should be thought of as the reality of the moment as captured through your situational awareness, and when compared with the goal or the mission that you have in that situation, how do you use that information?
  • For example, if you are walking into a party and notice that the area has negative atmospherics, how does that recognition impact your decision about how to behave and what you should do? Or, if you are planning a raid on an anchor point, how do you determine the criteria that go into making a building an anchor point to determine your plan of attack?

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • It is really ineffective to judge a person’s decisions without knowing why they made that decision. The language established in the book allows for a way to communicate what a person saw and what information was considered before making the decision. Have you made it clear to the organization that you want the language and the process to be used when operating as a way to describe decisions made in the field?
  • By ensuring that the terminology is reinforced and used, a leader can ensure that a person is considering the information that the situation has provided and is thinking about how to best use that in accomplishing their goal. Once a situation has been defined, then a leader can mentor a person through the available options and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, though not until the situation has been defined. How can you best design scenarios to ensure that a person is capable of reading each type of behavior present?

Part 4 – Taking Action

Prompt:

  • Each option in the “kill – capture – contact” decision tree discussed in the book answers the question of what you are going to do when faced with a threat. They don’t, however, discuss how to do that. For each option in the decision tree (or a “control – call – contact” decision tree for civilian/security professionals), discuss ways that your team can accomplish each of those goals. What options are at their disposal? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of those options?

Purpose:

  • The goal for this question is get the team thinking about the differences between what needs to happen for a successful outcome, and how to do that in the best available way.
  • For example, if the goal is to capture someone, you could use non-lethal weapons, tackle someone to the ground or simply ask them to come with you. By talking through the pros and cons of each choice, the members of your team are better able to understand what they should be considering in those situations, and also how you view those choices and tradeoffs as the leader.
  • Through the mental simulations of using those options, you can also increase the speed of their decision-making and reduce hesitation in real life events.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Who in the organization always defaults to the most aggressive decision and who in the organization typically defaults to the least aggressive decision?
  • What questions are asked or what topics appear to create a sense of confusion about what can or can’t be done? What scenarios and training could you train to in order to overcome that uncertainty?

Prompt:

  • How would you report your actions and the justification for your actions if you have to use the highest degree of force available to you? Note that this will be easier if you can provide a scenario to your team where they use force against a person who started out not being an obvious threat.

Purpose:

  • Talk about how to communicate and explain your decisions after the fact. See how people do this naturally.
  • The goal is to reinforce those people who can go back to the foundation of the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure. If they can explain what the baseline would be for the scenario using the domains of behavior, explain what type of behavior the person they took lethal action on was displaying that made them an anomaly, explain why that behavior caused them to be identified as an anomaly, and explain why their use of force was required based on the observation leading them to assess their intentions, then they are able to tie all of the pieces of the book together into a real life event.
  • A conversation about the need to not suppress intuitive decisions in times when rapid decisions are required balanced out with the need to have a deliberate and repeatable process for the situations when time is available can show how developing one decision-making framework helps develop the other when using the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Who in your team understands why decisions have to be justified after the fact and who in the team pushes back against any request for explanation?
  • Who understands why a repeatable observation process can help develop this ability in low stress times (and will therefore do the work to improve it), and who only wants to rely on undefined gut instincts?
  • Who in the team attempts to provide a full explanation for the events that took place and who only provides the bare minimum of information?

Part 5 – Applications

Prompt:

  • Have each person in the group do a self-assessment about their ability to recognize the domains of behavior and put the behaviors together into the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure. How do people assess their own current level of skill? What will it take to become more capable and competent in the areas where people are weak?

Purpose:

  • This question is designed to see how self-aware people are of their ability. Very few people are true naturals when it comes to a behavioral approach to situational awareness and require development in either their ability to make the behavior-based assessments or to use the terminology to explain the situation.
  • Identifying personal weaknesses is the first step to taking the necessary actions to bridge the gap and overcome the current limitations, and this provides the opportunity for people to vocalize the areas they need to develop.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Who is self-aware of their skills and who is blindly over-confident in their abilities?
  • Who in the team is able to identify ways to practice and improve their observational ability to attain a higher level of situational awareness and who doesn’t see the need to develop themselves?
  • What are creative ways that people are proposing to use the process taught in the book that can be tied into future training evolutions?

Prompt:

  • In what other situations besides threat recognition does the team believe the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision structure or the domains of observable behavior can be applied?

Purpose:

  • While the book was written about recognizing threats and violent individuals, the behaviors and the observation process can be applied in many other situations. From leadership scenarios, to reading a room or going to a restaurant, many of our readers have found numerous ways beyond what we discussed within the book to put these concepts into practice.
  • With each new way that you can find to practice these principles, the likelihood of you being able to use them when it matters the most goes up by finding multiple functions for the same tool.
  • By having the group identify these areas of possibility, each member isn’t limited to only their own individual creativity and can build off of the other suggestions made.

Reflection Questions for Leaders:

  • Which members of your team are able to find similarities to the approach to other scenarios and are able to break away from just the domain a topic was taught in?
  • Who in the team is looking for ways to operate more effectively by mastering the basics of one skill, like situational awareness, and then searching for opportunities to apply that skill in other arenas?

Final Note:

As the leader of an organization, there should not be the expectation that you are a master or expert in everything and throughout a conversation about Left of Bang, there may be some questions asked that you are unable to answer for your team. If that happens, or if you would like to hear about ways that these concepts have been applied in other fields, please reach out to us and let us know through our “Contact Us” form.

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