Communicating effectively, being an active listener, being able to follow a conversational framework are some of the desired skills in a coach.
People decide to hire a coach because they want to succeed in something but do not know yet how; they need to have someone who keeps them accountable for consistent signs of progress; finally, they just may need someone to talk to, searching for new perspectives that will come alive during critical conversations.
Basically, who is in for coaching has in mind a clear expectation of attentiveness and interest from the other side, and that is displayed by direct signs during the confrontations with the coach.
What do the coach should really focus on?
In reality, there is much more to being prepared to coach than what is visible to the client, and that includes other non-technical skills.
I previously argued that, for instance, showcasing our memory by recalling something previously discussed as if connected to the current topic is one of them.
Also, being emotionally competent is somewhat necessary to handle delicate situations or self-deceptive episodes, for they provide us the ability to critically assess a situation without further hijacking the other person, or even compromising the relationship of trust we tirelessly built together.
These are, indeed, skills for life that prove to be useful also out of the coaching role, making the practitioner a greater human being.
However, if there is a skill that rarely has been examined in the context of coaching is situational awareness. This is truly a perceptual ability that most human beings stopped using actively, and has become a rarity in our modern world.
Situational awareness is mostly trained among the military, despite its usefulness in many “civilian” applications.
In this article, I advance the idea that situational awareness represents a critical skill in coaching, both in training and in real-life application.
There are multiple purposes and benefits of training situational awareness and making it work with other skills, also in the context of coaching and mentoring.
What is situational awareness?
With situational awareness (or else, situation awareness) we refer to an exercise of active perception of what is happening around us, contextualized by time and space. In other words, it is equal to “be present” in relation to our surroundings.
According to the APA (American Psychological Association), situational awareness is defined as “conscious knowledge of the immediate environment and the events that are occurring in it. Situation awareness involves perception of the elements in the environment, comprehension of what they mean and how they relate to one another, and projection of their future states”.
Furthermore, it includes the people in the environment, their disposition in the space, and the way they interact.
In situations like a coaching conversation, where usually only one other person is in the room, it mostly focuses on the way they interact and communicate.
In situations where a group is involved, that extends on their social interactions as a whole other than their individual behaviors.
It is a complex, yet versatile ability that is honed by working on a diversified set of “micro-skills” that we used to naturally develop in ancient times: spatial orientation, listening, tactile perception, and vision.
Experience gained by using our senses allowed our ancestors to build up a higher level of awareness of their surroundings, allowing at times automatic reactions, and at others quick thinking to avoid natural dangers and predators – thus to survive.
Because of this natural disposition, situational awareness is regarded as a survival skill that is otherwise trained by the air forces, security officers, and investigators. However, in the last thirty years, there have been studies revolving around the skills needed to achieve situational awareness, that especially at the cognitive processes behind it.
These studies aimed to understand better how we learn, and finally how situational awareness is employed to improve the performance of medical specialists and educators.
Being situationally aware
For people who never encountered the notion of situational awareness before it is easy to mistake it for the concept of mindfulness. You can easily distinguish between them by considering the former a state of external scanning while the latter is rather an internal monitoring (of how we feel in relation to the environment and present situation).
In general, we can distinguish four phases in situational awareness: observing, orienting, deciding, and acting. It takes a considerable effort for one to be able to go through these four stages quickly and effectively, for it demands attention and deliberate practice.
First of all, we must actively work on our observation to ensure that over time our perceptive skills become more sensitive to what is going on around us with little conscious effort.
Observation is an active form of perception. We experience the world because we are able to perceive it, but much of its stimuli come in passively, without reasoning on them. Our degree of surprise to events decreases by aging because we get accustomed with what we define the “norm”. Once our childlike curiosity is satisfied, we become less observant.
This also explains why we have visceral responses (such as anxiety, shock, and surprise itself) when we face something that normally we would not expect to be there: we build a fixed construct on the world in our mind, based on elements that may change.
Second, our attention span is scarce and requires lot of mental energy to process all the stimuli we get from other people and the environment – all while we elaborate on them. The lifetime process of learning partially relieves us from this burden: experience, memory and thinking constitute baselines for all kind of events, allowing us to allocate our attention where it matters.
The world is also full of distractions that divert our attention elsewhere. Sometimes we must focus on one thing while doing many others. We become blind to the evident, such as a gorilla walking past a group of people playing a ball game.
Third, our experience is always subjective and even while keeping an internal reality-check on all the time, we are prone to bias.
In conclusion: focus, observation, memory, mindfulness, self-awareness, and curiosity are all part of the set of skills and abilities needed to develop situational awareness.
The science behind it
Learning without knowing it
As observation is more easily associated with the sense of vision than touch, hearing and smell, it will not surprise that most experiments and research focus on visual perception and observation.
Either way, these findings report that much of what we learn through perception is unconscious and unintentional. This is referred to as implicit learning. We aren’t aware of it, but our senses retrieve information even when we do not pay attention.
In 1997, Moore and Egeth put people to a test: to recognize certain visual patterns, without knowing that they were doing so through optical illusions. These people fell for the illusions because they were focusing on a different task. However, they noticed something else but they could not recall what. That is because the illusion was in their visual field and they saw it unintentionally. In fact, they could see the illusion only once told about it.
This is possible due to the brain storing information in our memory without us being aware, too. This implicit memory affects our behaviors and thoughts in the long term, thus producing explicit behaviors and knowledge.
This can happen “by mistake”, like when we mindlessly absorb cultural traits and dialectal expressions like a sponge. We may even accept them as the norm, without even knowing how they came within us in the first place.
The same goes when we try to learn a complex skill, like riding a bicycle. The act of riding is really a work on pace, balance, and strength; yet we do not focus on these inner aspects but rather on the bike itself.
Finally, we may be learning unintentionally while focusing on something else. For example, we may remember the tune or lyrics of a song we heard at the radio while driving.
What is astonishing about implicit memory and knowledge is that although we do not actively recall or practice it, it does not leave us. We do not forget words of common use if we move to another country for decades, and we do not forget how to ride a bike after our childhood.
Looking for context, not only for signs
Implicit learning and memory have in common that both account for little or no attention, perhaps because we focus on something else.
Now, this form of learning can happen because our knowledge exists in relation to reference points. In other words, we know things because we put them into context. This is an effect known as contextual cueing, an automatic memory feature that produces contextual knowledge through implicit learning.
This is the basis for Chun and Jiang’s set of experiments in 1998 that demonstrated that this form of knowledge is consistently built on the closeness or the similarity of objects.
This explains how we can orient ourselves using cues found in the environment on which we do not actively focus, attributing importance based on our previous experience.
It is a very detailed way to confirm that “content is key, but context is god”. This form of knowledge is of help at any moment without the need to actively recall it.
In terms of situational awareness, this is equivalent to train observation of certain cues until it becomes as natural as a habit. In the context of a coaching conversation, it is especially about how non-verbal and paraverbal cues present themselves in relation to the current topic, mood, and continuity.
Being blind to the obvious
The coach must observe before asking any question, take notice of what is already happening and address the questions accordingly. This is also part of what we commonly define “active listening” in reference to the coaching practice.
Indeed, focusing too much on something (like on what is being said) may cause us what Mack and Rock (1998) described as inattentional blindness, which occurs when we fail to notice something unexpected due to our fixation on something else. This concept was brought further by Simons and Chabris (1999) with the famous experiment of the invisible gorilla.
In certain circumstances, this failure to notice the obvious may prove dangerous, like when we cross a road while watching on the screen of our smartphone. While performing coaching, we may focus on the wrong aspect and being fixated with something without realizing it, missing a broader picture. This can lead to poor results and even worse, affect the coachee’s experience.
Working with Situational Awareness
We cannot keep a continuous state of situational awareness, but we can train the senses to do their best and our mind to get into the right approach.
We must consider that situational awareness is the product of attention, memory and mental models. The latter is heavily influenced by our tacit (or implicit) knowledge and therefore the training must challenge them, offering diverse point of views.
Unfortunately, it is something hard to measure given its complexity, and global assessments relies on visual clues, although it would be possible to test it by other sensorial meanings.
The usefulness of this skill is already recognized in the medical field, where it is used to assess human factors in medical practice and modulate the behavior accordingly. The way it is trained among medical students is through simulation based learning.
Trainees are grouped into triads and at turn, they all cover the role of doctor, patient and observer in realistic scenarios, to which follows a feedback session (Gregory et Al, 2015). This activity is meant to encourage students to share their perspectives, thus debating on the ways to handle patients based on their interpretation of clues.
Simulations are more affordable and easier to achieve and already play a particular role in form of coaching triads. In this case, the three roles of coach, coachee and observers rotate within the group of three, and feedback is critical to raise attention on flaws or alternatives.
These simulations also occur in a controlled environment, with a specific goal in mind, but can be helpful to develop situational awareness by encouraging critical thinking and focus on emotional and social clues that perspirate from the interlocutor (Salminen-Tuomaala, 2020).
In other words, at least in the context of coaching, situational awareness is a form of assumption that serves our decision making, based on a volume of instantaneous observations, that allows the coach to be truly present and act more effectively.
You can learn about situational awareness in its complexity, but practicing the skills that make up this ability is another thing.
You should begin by practice observation of your surroundings and what happens about you. Changing habits of mindlessness, such as scrolling the phone on a walk or listening to music on the bus, is not easy. These habits comfort us and let the time pass faster, but in a way they also numb our senses.
Observing means also to discipline our thoughts, learning to ask the right questions. Hence, fighting biases. These originates from experience and history, and many of them are unconsciously built within us.
Replacing old habits with observations, or just fitting it in between, is what we need to use this ability effortlessly.
Working with our senses means to appreciate the extent of their reach. The most common practice would be to use peripheral sights rather than fixation, which would allow us to scan the environment without staring at particular points or people.
It is something that must be trained and reflected upon, especially if you plan to bring it in your coaching practice:
- learn more about non-verbal communication to pair what is said with what is not
- train your memory to retain more information than you are used to
- bring it on coaching triads and simulation training for a continuous learning
Situational awareness is a critical skill for life, that some other industries already consider in their training. Coaching should be no less, as the coach works with individuals or groups, and their stories and emotions.
Being situationally aware would complete the practitioner which already practice mindfulness, giving him the upper hand in dealing with difficult scenarios or to critically assess the interlocutor and the situation she is in, all while keeping the necessary degree of detachment.
Finally, this would finally reflect on the way the coach is viewed as a trusted, empathic active listener who is mindful and attentive to the client’s needs.
- Chun, Marvin M., and Yuhong Jiang. “Contextual Cueing: Implicit Learning and Memory of Visual Context Guides Spatial Attention.” Cognitive Psychology, vol. 36, no. 1, 1998, pp. 28–71., doi:10.1006/cogp.1998.0681.
- Endsley, Mica R. “Measurement of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems.” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, vol. 37, no. 1, 1995, pp. 65–84., doi:10.1518/001872095779049499.
- Gregory, Audrey, et al. “Innovative Teaching in Situational Awareness.” The Clinical Teacher, vol. 12, no. 5, 2015, pp. 331–335., doi:10.1111/tct.12310.
- Konnikova, Maria. Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes. Canongate, 2014.
- Mack, Arien, and Irvin Rock. “Inattentional Blindness: Perception without Attention.” Visual Attention, 1998, pp. 55–76.
- Moore, C. M., and E. Egeth. “Perception without Attention: Evidence of Grouping under Conditions of Inattention .” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol. 23, no. 2, 1997, pp. 339–352., doi:10.1037//0096-15220.127.116.119.
- Navarro, Joe, and Marvin Karlins. What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. Harper Collins, 2015.
- Navarro, Joe, and Toni Sciarra Poynter. Be Exceptional: Master the Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart. William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2021.
- Salminen-Tuomaala, Mari Helena. “Developing Emotional Intelligence and Situational Awareness through Simulation Coaching.” Clinical Nursing Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 2020, p. 13., doi:10.5430/cns.v8n2p13.
- Simons, Daniel J, and Christopher F Chabris. “Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events.” Perception, vol. 28, no. 9, 1999, pp. 1059–1074., doi:10.1068/p2952.