Criminals rely on surprise; the kinds of duels you see in the movies almost never happen. Attackers don’t waste time threatening you first. They attack first, then threaten to exert more psychological leverage. The only exceptions are some bar fights and school fights, and in those cases, you can often get away simply by refusing to participate and removing yourself from the situation.
Situational awareness is one of the core concepts taught in policing and the military. You can notice things, but are you paying attention? Do you immediately think about your relationship with events around you? There are many ways of modeling this, including the OODA Loop in military aviation and SWOT Analysis in business and combat strategy. The average person can develop situational awareness by using a few simple principles.
Active Seeing and Listening: Many people walk down the street paying more attention to their inner monologues than the world around them. Instead, treat looking and listening as an active process. Look around you as you walk and think about what you see. Try to identify sounds. Don’t fixate on any one thing. As an avid hiker, I try to bring the sense of observation and exploration I feel on the trail with me around
Sense of Self and Others: You should develop a mental “landscape” where you pay attention to your place in the surrounding environment as well as where other people are. This includes paying attention to being observed. Are you being followed, or is someone just walking your way? How far away is from the nearest brightly lit location? Note that this is not paranoia or fear. Be cautious, but you should notice the positive as well as the negative. There are a lot of happy families and fun things out there. Notice them as well as potential sources of trouble.
Mental Rehearsal: You should mentally rehearse what you will do in case of danger. Do this as you’re out in the world. Where can you run? Would yelling for help do anything? How would you draw your pepper spray or a cell phone stun gun? Remember that you should assume a sudden attack without warning. If you do notice it coming, that’s a blessing. Visualize yourself resisting and surviving as soon as you make contact, and prevailing despite the assault. Again, if you do better that’s great, but be prepared for the worst.
Post-Situation Assessment: After the emergency, go through the previous three concepts. Look around to see if there’s more trouble. Assess yourself. After an assault you may have injuries you didn’t notice. Get away from other hazards and locate the nearest source of help. Even if you feel fine, do your civic duty and report the incident to the police. Even if they didn’t help you, your information helps them record and understand local crime trends.