What’s Your Situational Awareness?


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Talk to anyone in the military about tactics, a topic that comes up very quickly is situational awareness. There are a lot of technical definitions, but in it’s simplest form, situational awareness is about “paying attention to what’s happening around you.”

As a consultant, I have the opportunity to observe a lot of things that happen. I go on calls with sales people, listen in on phone calls, sit in all sorts of meetings–team meetings, reviews, coaching sessions, and other things.

I’m constantly amazed at how bad most of us are in “situational awareness.”

It may be the fidgeting customer, that individual that clearly doesn’t have the time or desire to speak, is just being polite, but just want to get rid of you.

Maybe it’s the people sitting in a presentation, their hands are below the table, their eyes directed downward, clearly they are paying attention to their smart device and not what is happening in the meeting. Yet the sales person plows on through the deck of 275 meaningless slides.

Or it may be the tough meeting with a manager where both the manager and the sales person are talking past each other, each getting more frustrated, each getting more angry, neither accomplishing anything.

The absence of situational awareness happens when we fail to pay attention to what’s going on around us. We aren’t paying attention to or reading the obvious signals. We are so focuses on our own objectives, we are blind to what’s really happening.

Sometimes, we sense something might be wrong, but refuse to recognize it. We want things to be a certain way, so we interpret all the signals and cues in that context. For example, we want the customer to like us, but just because they are politely meeting with us doesn’t mean they do. Wishful thinking causes us to disregard the signals we are seeing, moving forward blindly.

Sometimes our focus is so narrow that we miss the surrounding cues. ( This is sometimes called target fixation.) We may be concentrating on one person in a meeting, missing the signals and body language of others. Sometimes, it’s focusing on one aspect of what the customer may have told us, ignoring everything else.

Situational awareness is critical to our effectiveness and our ability to connect with those around us–our customers, our colleagues, our managers.

Some think of situational awareness as the ability to “read a room.” To some it’s “street smarts.” Empathy is very helpful in situational awareness.

One of the things we miss in situational awareness is that we are always part of the situation. (The physicist in me wants to call it the “Newton’s Third Law Of Situations.”)

There are things going on in every situation, whether it’s a sales call, a meeting, or even thinking more broadly about a deal that are independent of us. We can observe these things, developing and executing strategies to address them.

But then we become part of the situation. What we do impacts the situation. How we interpret what we observe impacts our assessment of the situation. We may not be hearing what’s really being said. We may not see what’s really happening. Our own behavioral styles impact our ability to correctly assess a situation.

We’ve all seen it, one person says “black,” all the other person hears is “white.” Our own communication and behavioral styles impact our ability to correctly assess and address situations. We don’t hear what is being said, we put our own filters on the communication, perhaps completely missing what’s going on.

I’m “coaching” a couple of very senior executives in just this issue. They are each very smart and successful. But they just aren’t communicating with each other. I listen to what one is saying, the other is hearing something completely different than what is really being said……and vice versa.

It’s completely unconscious, they don’t realize they are doing this. They are sincerely trying to communicate with each other, but aren’t –because their own behavioral style impacts their abilities to “hear” what’s really being said.

Situational awareness is critical if we want to accomplish anything—whether it’s with our customers, our colleagues, our subordinates, our managers.

We have to constantly be aware of what’s really going, on. We have to open our eyes, ears, all our senses, to observe what’s happening—in the situation, in the overall deal. We have to understand all the pieces/parts and what’s going on.

We have to see things as they are, not as we wish them to be. Confronting reality, however bad it might be, is the only way we can develop strategies to successfully address the situation.

We have to avoid tunnel vision. We have to avoid being too focused–concentrating only on one part of the situation, but being blind to the things that are surrounding it.

Finally, we have to be aware of how our own behavioral and communications styles may be blinding us to reality.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: this title caught my eye because I’ve written about situational awareness as well. The issue surfaces in revenue risk management, when post-buying decision, situational awareness must enter the analysis (by the way – the knowledge is needed as much for ‘wins’ as for ‘losses’).

    You’ve pointed out the importance of situational awareness in the meeting room, where visual cues reveal much about what people are thinking. As you have suggested, situational awareness requires an understanding of the pieces and parts – or at least the ones that are likely to be consequential.

    That’s not easy, because it first requires filtering what matters. If you’re looking for everything, it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise, to borrow from author Nate Silver. It also means turning off ‘happy ears’ as we say in sales. “Their VP invited us into this meeting. They’re really motivated!” Yes, and what else is happening?

    A blog I wrote, “Asking ‘Where Are We in This Deal?’ Won’t Give You a Clue” lists seven categories of information outside the meeting room that are crucial for having situational awareness in selling.

  2. Andrew, thanks for expanding the discussion. Situational awareness is critical for virtually everything we are involved in, yet too many are unconscious.


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