in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #438: Developing Real-World Situational Awareness

If you found yourself in a situation with a violent attacker, would you know what to do? While it’s easy to think you’d instinctively make the right decision, the truth is, if you haven’t been formulating and practicing a plan ahead of time, you’ll likely make the wrong, and possibly deadly, choice.

My guest today has spent over two decades teaching people how to deal with threats, and even more importantly, how to avoid them in the first place. His name is Dr. Gav Schneider and he’s an expert in personal risk management and security and the author of Can I See your Hands: A Guide To Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience and SecurityToday on the show, Gav shares the biggest mistake people make when it comes to their personal safety and why understanding that criminals have an advantage is foundational in keeping you and your family safe. He then walks us through how to develop situational awareness so that we can avoid problems before they occur, why it’s important to have multiple plans of action for when an attack happens, and why realistic training is crucial in being ready to defend yourself.

Show Highlights

  • The biggest mistake people make when it comes to their personal security
  • Why do people have so much denial about bad things happening?
  • Understanding the mindset of a criminal 
  • How much time you really need to spend on your personal security
  • Applying the Pareto principle to protecting yourself
  • Presilience vs resilience
  • How violence actually manifests in real life 
  • The first step to establishing situational awareness in any situation 
  • What should you look for when out and about to become aware? 
  • How to avoid panicking in a life-threatening situation 
  • Mastering the OODA Loop
  • The difference between sport fighting and fighting for your life 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "Can I see your Hands" by Dr. Gav Schneider.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. If you’ve found yourself in a situation with a violent attacker, would you know what to do? While it’s easy to think you’d instinctively make the right decision, the truth is, if you haven’t been formulating and practicing a plan ahead of time, a lot people make the wrong and possibly deadly choice.

My guest today has spent over two decades teaching people how to deal with threats, even more importantly, how to avoid them in the first place. His name is Dr. Gav Schneider. He’s an expert in personal risk management security, and the author of Can I See Your Hands: A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience, and Security.

Today on the show, Gav shares the biggest mistake people make when it comes to their personal safety and why understanding that criminals have an advantage is foundational in keeping you and your family safe.

He then walks us through how to develop situational awareness so that we can avoid problems before they occur, why it’s important to have multiple plans of action for when an attack happens, and why realistic training is crucial in being ready to defend yourself. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at, all one word. Gav joins me now via ClearCast.IO.

All right. Dr. Gav Schneider, welcome to the show.

Gav Schneider: Thanks Brett.

Brett McKay: So, tell us about your background. You are involved with security training and consulting. This is like bodyguard stuff, executive protection. How did you get involved in this?

Gav Schneider: So, I started training martial arts when I was about five years old. The career in martial arts has been awesome. It led me to travel all over the world and I spent a lot of time as a live-in student under an Israeli great grand master known as Dennis Hanover.

I then spent time traveling around in the US and through Thailand and various other places while I started studying academically. My first qualifications were in marketing and management. I got contracts training bodyguards, police and military back in South Africa, where I’m originally from.

Started working as a bodyguard shortly thereafter. Set up my first business providing close protection and training services about two decades ago. I’ve never formally served in the police or military. Although I’ve worked with many special units and awesome operators, it’s not the common pathway into the security world.

So, I started focusing on academics and got a master’s degree and later on a PhD in criminology focusing on security management. Now, I teach a post-graduate course in the psychology of risk and I’m the CEO of three or four businesses that work across risk in security safety, emergency response, and overall risk integration.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That is an interesting background. Most people who do what you do, they’ve had some sort of military or police background, but you went at it from a different angle.

Gav Schneider: Yeah, and it’s been a great journey for me. I think I’ve been very lucky and also sometimes right time, right place for things to happen, but also sometimes it’s incidents that aren’t so lucky that happen. When I was, I think I was about 21 years old, I was a Jiu Jitsu champion in the style I was training, a professional bodyguard, and living in South Africa, which is a very high crime rate environment.

Got a phone call one night from my mother, who was on the way to hospital after my stepfather had been shot in the head in an attempted carjacking. I rushed to the scene. Almost nothing I could do there. Rushed to the hospital. Almost nothing I could do there. The worst part about that for me was that it actually doesn’t matter how good professionals get in many cases because a professional is not likely to be there when people need them.

It steered my career in many ways, but particularly focusing on how do you translate the knowledge and the skills that every person needs to that they have it when they need it because as we said, the specialist or the sheepdog, as David Grossman refers to them, is not usually going to be there when the bad things come.

Brett McKay: Right, right. So, you wrote this book, Can I See Your Hands, which you basically distill or make explicit the skills, the knowledge that you have and that a lot of operators have or people who do what you do have. I was talking to you on this show before. I think you did a great job making lot of these things explicit, because one thing I found, you talk to these guys who are in this field, and they’re super good at what they do, but a lot of the skill they developed, it’s almost like it’s intuition, right? It’s like fingertip.

If you ask somebody what exactly you’re doing, they just know, which that’s an advantage when you’re in that situation, but when you’re trying to convey that or pass information on to say, a layman, you have to kind of approach things from a beginner’s mindset. I think you did a good job with this book doing that.

So, let’s talk about from the beginning. In your experience with training individuals, and we’re talking just regular citizens here, what is the biggest mistake you see people make when it comes to their personal security?

Gav Schneider: Thanks, Brett. I think it’s hard to put your finger on one thing, but if I had to put it down, I think there’s two real variants that we see with this. One is absolute ignorance and denial where people are going, “This won’t happen to me. Nothing bad will ever happen to me, so I’m never going to prepare for that sort of thing,” so they absolutely disempower themselves and actually make themselves an easier victim for somebody who would want to do something bad because of that denial.

Then, the other side of the spectrum that we do come across a lot is overconfidence. When you look at the two, you’d rather be overconfident than underconfident because at least that creates a bit of a deterrent for most would be attackers, but overconfidence without the ability to follow through can also have its limitations.

Brett McKay: Got you, so that combination of negligence and overconfidence and just denial that bad things are going to happen. Why do you think people deny? Is that just willfully, like they’re willfully trying to be ignorant that bad things could happen to them, or is it just it’s unpleasant to think about bad things happening?

Gav Schneider: That’s a very good question. I spent a lot of time doing research onto this issue, and I’ll just give you a few examples that have fascinated me around the decision-making and the psychology of risk over the years. During my bodyguard and protection career, you’d see crazy things. We’d have people phone our office, and the conversation would often start, “I need a bodyguard. Money’s not an issue. Somebody’s trying to kill me. I need help right now.”

We had a standard process that when we got those phone calls, we would ask a few questions really to verify as much as we could, but we would never normally send less than four people because if it’s a confirmed threat and you don’t know what you’re facing, at the very least you need a minimum number of people to make sure it’s safe for the people you’re deploying. All of a sudden, there are people who had two minutes before said money was no object starting to try and bargain us down to go, “Oh, can’t I just get one or maybe just two at the worst?”

I’ve had other experiences in the bodyguard world where people pay for all this protection, and then see if they can lose their protection team as some sort of game. You sit there and you just wonder why do people make decisions like that.

So, it’s quite interesting. There’s a part of our brain called the reticular activating system that sorts all the information that we bring in through our senses all the time. It sorts it really on only two things, what we’re interested in or what could hurt us. So, for the most part, people aren’t interested in safety and security because it’s not as much fun, for example, as going on holiday.

On the other hand, if people haven’t actually been exposed to something, they truly in many cases don’t believe it will happen to them. So, the biggest challenge is exactly what you said. Step one is people just learning that look, sometimes you could do everything right and you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, if you accept that that could happen, you then empower yourself to be able to act on it.

The biggest challenge is avoiding the myth of, “Somebody else will take care of these things for me.” In most first world countries, we’ve been very lucky. I live in Australia, spent quite a bit of time in the US. There’s competent first responders. There’s great law enforcement agencies. By definition, the first responder is always the person who’s on the scene when the incident happens.

It’s a two way thing. We get so caught up in talking about personal security, but the thing that’s likely to kill most of us is probably a heart attack, cancer, or some sort of other illness. To stay healthy, we know what to do. We just got to exercise, eat right, and visit the doctor regularly, but even that, we often find people are just in denial and don’t accept that it’s their responsibility, too.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah. I imagine the idea that something bad happening is so abstract, just like dying of cancer, getting diabetes is so abstract. You just don’t even think, “Eh, I’m not going to worry about it until it actually becomes a problem.”

So, let’s talk about sort of mindset shift. So, if we realize that bad things can happen to us and then also understanding that when that bad thing happens, like an attack on us, typically the police aren’t going to be there to help us, we’re on our own basically, let’s talk about understanding the mindset of a criminal and understanding the situation. So, you talked about in the book one important thing to understand is when you are in a personal defense situation, the criminal has the advantage. Why is that?

Gav Schneider: So, it’s a critical piece to understand. I think this is something even people who are really into personal safety, people who train martial artists or go to the shooting range, they often forget the fact that they get attacked on the terms of the attacker. So, the attacker picks when the situation actually happens. They pick where the situation happens, and the pick the manner in which the attack will manifest. Those are all variables that are difficult to control.

As you saw in the book, we talk about three things. We talk about capability, opportunity, and intent. We very rarely have the reach to influence people’s capability. Somebody can go and buy a gun. Somebody can go and train in martial arts. Even somebody with ill intent who has no skill can drive their car into you. They just have to wait . . . so capability is hard.

Intent is equally as hard to manage for the average person, although with a lot of experience, you can learn to determine the early warning signs that somebody may actually harm you or may be looking to harm someone else. It does take a lot of work, but the easy one that we can control is this idea of the opportunity.

Most criminals, even deviant criminals will take the path that leads them to the highest likelihood of success. So, why pick a hard target that will see me coming, has created enough space to run away, or has potentially got an improvised weapon at hand to defend themselves when I could pick somebody else who doesn’t have any of those things in place?

Brett McKay: Got you. So, understanding that, that the criminal has the advantage, you make the case that instead of spending your time, or most of your time training or preparing for when you have to fight back, you’d be better served spending more time just avoiding those situations in the first place.

Gav Schneider: Absolutely. I think this is an interesting challenge. Having taught martial arts for nearly 30 years now, and I’ve trained thousands of people and had many of them involved in pretty serious incidents, to get really good at self-defense is not a quick thing.

Despite the fact that people do online training programs or want to go to a one hour course, realistically, you have to train enough so that your instinctive response is a response that works and that takes thousands of repetitions done perfectly under simulated stress situations, which the average person just won’t put the time, effort, and energy into doing, even though it’s not that hard and you get the health benefit with it, too and you get the confidence, which means you’re less likely to be attacked.

So, often when I run face-to-face seminars, I ask people how much time they would be willing to give to their personal risk management. If you look at your personal risk management, first and foremost, as we discussed, probably the biggest risks of getting hurt or killed come from medical issues.

Eating and living healthy is probably the first starting point. That might take three or four hours of effort a week, staying in shape, running, going to the gym. The next step would probably be making sure you could provide a decent level of first aid to people and loved ones around you if something happened based on this medical risk. Next is probably if people live in a place where they commute, learning how to drive properly. You’re more likely to get into a car accident than you are to get assaulted or attacked, but very few people ever go and do regular defensive or advanced driver training. Then, next on the list would be self-defense training.

So, without trying too hard, you might actually need about 20 hours a month to be really on top of your personal risk game. In talking to most people, we’ve trained thousands and thousands of people, most people will at best give you 20 minutes a week if you’re lucky.

So, the question comes down to, what do you do in that 20 minutes that will give you the best bang for buck? What will give you the most effective chance of minimizing the risks you might be exposed to? That’s situational awareness. It’s knowing how to scan your environment, look at who’s around you, work out who may be a threat, forecast the probability of that happening, plan an action, and run it through in your head a few times so if you actually had to do it, you could.

You know earlier on, you spoke about how it becomes intuitive for experts? It’s because they’ve done it so many times, but learning how to visualize is a great cheat for everyone. The world’s best athletes do it. Why shouldn’t we? If you can get good at that, it just makes you a much harder target for people that have never thought about it or never actually look around with what could cause harm.

Brett McKay: So, how you break it down in the book, you bring in the, is it the Pareto Principle, the 80/20, right? So, we should be spending basically 80% of our time that we have on learning how to avoid these situations in the first place through situational awareness, and then the remaining 20% would be spent preparing on how to actually handle that situation if it ever occurred to us, correct?

Gav Schneider: Well, what’s interesting is it merges, right? I love the term presilience instead of resilience. The idea of resilience is I can bounce back after something bad happens, but the idea of presilience is that the ability to bounce back is formed by all the effort, work, and initiatives I put in ahead of time.

So, when I look at this idea of where I put my energy, it’s not just focusing on what do I do when this thing happens, for example, if I’m walking down the street and some guy jumps out in front of me and puts a knife at my throat. Most of the time, it’s a compliance process, right? If he wanted to kill you, he probably would’ve just killed you.

It’s about how do you stay calm enough to give him your money, but if you were situationally aware, you would’ve realized maybe that’s not the street to walk down, or when this guy’s approaching you, potentially he’s a threat so you move yourself out of the situation, but what gives you confidence to be able to act under pressure is the physical training.

So, the biggest benefit of self-defense and martial arts training is that if I get really good at it, I actually probably never have to use it because I’m able to focus on the pieces beforehand. It is a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of mixed martial arts and any sort of competitive training, but in a world where we’ve made combat very sporting, it takes that pre-phase out of it, and in the pre-phase is where the average person can avoid these things.

So, absolutely, putting your energy into the focusing before something happens as opposed to responding and recovering just makes sense. The challenge we’ve got, as we spoke about before, is that if people are in the stage of ignorance, negligence, or denial, the chances of them doing something proactively are very, very slim.

While luckily, bad things won’t happen to most people, if you’re sitting there without any pre-thought of what would you do, it’s the equivalent of never having any insurance for anything, a car, a house, your health, and then when something bad happens going, “Oh man, I should’ve had insurance.” If we’re not going to even invest in our own wellbeing, how are we going to ensure we have a great life?

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think another challenge of why it’s hard to do this presilience that you talk about, like avoiding the situations in the first place, and instead focus on what do you do when the thing actually happens is the training for what you do when the event actually happens, it’s fun. I think we should not downplay that. I like taking self-defense courses. I like doing tactical gun courses where you’re running and gunning and it’s super fun, but you make the case, okay, it’s fun and it’s interesting and it’s engaging, but in order to get really good at that, you have to do that training a lot, make a big, big investment.

I even realized that after a while. I was like, “Yeah, I mean, this is fun. I’m doing this. I’m doing pretty good in this sort of simulated situation, but it’s not simulating closely what an actual situation would be like if I were to have to use my firearm.”

Gav Schneider: That’s a very valid point. I’ll loop back to a few things. I’ve trained many styles of martial arts and tactical firearms instructor and I’ve been in a few situations over my career. When violence actually manifests, it doesn’t really manifest the way you practice it in a gym or in a dojo, even on the shooting range. Things happen way differently. It’s messy. It’s erratic. You get time distortion. All those adrenal factors kick into play.

So, one of the goals we have when it comes to practical training, the goal is to get as close to reality as safely as possible. That’s a very difficult thing to do. What’s the point of going to learn how to defend yourself if you keep getting hurt during the training, but conversely, if the training never actually puts you under stress and simulates the need to read body language, the need to respond, simulate resistance, multiple attackers, dealing with weaponry, if it doesn’t have some of those variables in, you develop that false sense of security.

It’s quite an interesting example. If you look at a lot of self-defense systems, and it’s something that drives me crazy, most sporting martial arts work on some sort of resistance or somebody challenging, hitting back, trying to choke you, et cetera, a lot of self-defense systems still have this idea that our techniques are so deadly, we can’t actually practice live, which is a real cop out.

We find that the one or two life situations where you get . . . and you force people to respond are often the most important aspect of a short self-defense course because it teaches people how to manage the adrenal response as opposed to apply techniques. We’ve had some amazing cases over the years where people have been attacked. They really couldn’t do any techniques in the one hour or one day self-defense courses, but because psychologically, emotionally, and mentally, they made the decision to fight and they saw that trigger point where they had to fight early enough to respond, they survive quite well.

So, it really is a challenge between finding that balance. It’s awkward because quite literally, being paranoid is worse than not being aware at all. If you borrow a little bit from the field of sports psychology, they found that athletes who play games such as baseball or in more British-type companies, like Australia, who play cricket, the people who are on bat and do really well are usually people who are able to raise and lower their awareness.

The challenge we’ve got is it’s estimated we’ve only got between 30 and 45 minutes of laser-like focus a day. So, if I’m paranoid, I chew through that laser-like focus instantly, which means for the rest of the day, I actually have no ability to cognitively function at a very high level and be vigilant. So, it’s really important, that point.

People often confuse the idea of being aware, situationally aware, ready, and capable with being paranoid, and it’s almost the exact opposite. Because I’m aware and situationally aware of what’s happening around me, I know when I actually can relax, but I also know when I should potentially be more prepared, so I ration that level of awareness more effectively. You can have an overall much higher quality of life and much more effective daily engagement, as psychologists talk about, being mindful, but it really is more effective when I learn to manage and moderate what I’m doing based on what’s happening around me.

Brett McKay: Well, so, let’s talk about that just so we understand. Understanding that the criminal has the advantage in the situation if we’re being attacked, we want to spend most of our time, like 80% of our time learning how to avoid that situation in the first place because that will give us the most bang for our buck. So, let’s talk about how we do that. What’s the first step of establishing situational awareness, no matter where you go?

Gav Schneider: Sure. In the book, I try to summarize it as the awareness toolbox, but it really starts first and foremost with a little bit of knowledge of your own internal context. I’ll give you a simple example of that. If I wake up in the morning and I have a bad night’s sleep, I might have a bit of a head cold, and on the way into work, I get cut off by somebody and I end up screaming at him, for the rest of the day, I’m probably not going to be that effective at being situationally aware or at making good decisions in totality.

So, if I don’t take context of where I am mentally and emotionally, I might miss what I should actually be doing. So, people, for example, who work in high risk environments need to be so attuned to their internal state first. Otherwise, they might expose themselves to risks that normally they could do with, but in a different state might not be able to deal with.

The way we see the world is always governed by how we feel. So, if I’m feeling good, I’ll look around and I’ll actually notice good things, not bad things. If I’m feeling bad, everything I look at is a problem or an issue. So, it starts with that internal baseline. Once you have that, you can then try and generate an external baseline. That external baseline is knowing what’s happening around me.

We teach a tool called the Three Point Check System. There are many tools like this, but the history of the Three Point Check System is an interesting one in that roughly 20 years go, we set up a bodyguard training school. We would get sent these guys to train in 10 or 20 days and many of them were not the perfect specimens for the job. They weren’t academically capable. Many of them weren’t physically capable, but we had to train them nonetheless, and the timeframe was really short.

So, we actually went on a research process and we interviewed around about 150 experienced operators, the people you spoke about earlier who do it intuitively, and asked them, “What is it that you do? What do you look for? How do you look for these things? What tells you that this place or this place is bad or that guy’s dodgy or he’s not?”

It was a very frustrating research process because many of them just looked at us and said, “Look, I don’t know how I know. I just know, and if you want to be like me, you’ve got to do this for 20 years,” but in the end, we pulled out that basic Three Point Check System, which is the ability to scan your environment, scan the people there, and come up with a contingency plan. So, we simplistically talk about places, people, and plans, and then there’s a few subcategories under that.

The next aspect is if I get good at doing that, I can program my intuition, because most assessments and most activities are all done intuitively. Daniel Kahneman, who’s a really famous behavioral scientist, likes to divide the mind. He talks about a system one aspect of our mind and a system two. The system two is our deep thought, cognitive, intellectual, decision-making capability, and system one is our reflexive, intuitive capability.

It takes so much energy and effort to engage system two that we almost always default to system one, which is our intuitive decision-making. So, the better we program our intuition, the more likely we are to actually not have to do anything because we’ll naturally be scanning the environment, naturally be evaluating people, and naturally be coming up with a plan, but it takes quite a long time to program your intuition to work that way.

We also know we make decisions primarily based on bias and heuristics, so if I don’t like the look of somebody, I might not know why I don’t like the look of them and they may actually not even be a threat at all, so I’m wasting all this energy being biased thinking somebody’s a threat when they might not be and I might be missing the actual thing that is a threat because of where I’m focusing. So, learning to manage our own biases is really important.

We like to divide decision-making into sort of two categories: I have to make the call right now, or I have time to analyze it. If you have to make the call right now, then going with your gut is almost always the right call to make, particularly when it comes to personal safety. There’s really only two downsides usually about going with you gut even if you were wrong. They are usually you might offend somebody and be rude to them, or you might inconvenience yourself a little bit, whereas if you ignore your intuition, you might land up having something really bad happen to you.

The flip side of that is obviously if I have more time to evaluate what’s going on around me, I’m probably going to make a better decision by actually thinking about it than just reacting on gut instinct.

We also leverage off Jeff Cooper’s Color Code system, which is a really useful tool to learn how to raise and lower your awareness based on what’s happening around you so that we don’t walk around in a state that’s too paranoid or too stimulated when we don’t have to, also so that we’re not walking around in a state of non-awareness at all when we really should be. A good example is driving a car. Most people who drive to and from work will have had an experience where they get in the car and don’t remember the journey home at all.

That’s a pretty risky thing. Bear in mind, you’re driving or operating a tool that could kill you and kill other people. We should at the very least have some level of basic awareness. You don’t have to drive around like you’re paranoid all the time, but being cognizant of where you are is pretty important. So, these things do become life skills once you embed them.

Brett McKay: All right. So, yeah, there’s a lot to break down there. Let’s talk about sort of some specifics. This places, people, plan. Let’s talk about the place. What sort of things should just regular people be looking for in their environment when they to a restaurant, the grocery store, wherever, to be better situationally aware?

Gav Schneider: Sure. So, the starting point is to make sure you know the entrances, exits, escape routes, and hiding places. It’s one of those questions. I often ask people just to ask themselves a very simple question. If you go to a shopping mall often, do you know where the fire escapes are? It’s quite shocking that people will go to a place hundreds of times, but they park in the same place, they go in the same entrance, and they leave at the same entrance and they’ve never thought about other ways of getting out if something went wrong.

So, the most basic things of knowing how to get in and how to get out is where we start, but it also enables us to know where other people would get in or get out from, where other people might be hiding to hurt me or where I should hide if something went wrong. It just takes a little bit of practice, not much to get good at that aspect, and just knowing where to run to could be the most important thing if something bad happened.

The next stage is actually being able to understand structurally what’s around you. You don’t necessarily have to have a blueprint map of every building you go to, but just the ability to be able to tell, “Hold on, this is a five story building and I’m on floor five, so if I hit the staircase, I better run until I get to the ground, but it’s five staircases.” It often becomes an argument of, “I really thought the penthouse was a good idea, but if I’ve got to run down all these stairs, maybe it’s not if something happens.”

The other challenge is if we were looking for something out of the ordinary, it’s really hard to tell if something’s out of the ordinary if I don’t know what the ordinary is. So, if I’m looking for an object that looks out of place, it’s important to know what is in place.

Airports are a great example of that. At airports, they’re always going, “Make sure that you don’t leave your baggage unattended,” yet I’m sure you travel a lot, Brett. I do, too, and I’d probably say almost every trip I’m at an airport, I see baggage unattended. It’s just one of those things that we fall into normalization when actually, we should be noting these anomalies.

Then, the last part of scanning environment, we talk about improvised weapons or defensive tools. What in my environment would somebody potentially use to hurt me, or what if I had to in my environment could I use to protect myself in a worst case scenario?

I know when you run through this environmental scan, it seems long, but in reality, most people do this anyway. If I want to cross the road safely, I actually do a scan like this anyway. I look at what’s coming. I scan the environment and I make a decision.

Once we’ve built a reflexive capability, environmental threat is often much easier to manage than the next level, which is when we integrate people-based threat into it because with the exception of natural disasters or a total unforeseen event like a building collapse, environmental threats are often slow to manifest.

I’ll give an example. Say you walk into a building and you need to go to a meeting on floor three, and you look at the elevator and you’re going, “If I get in there, I probably will die. It doesn’t look like that elevator’s ever been serviced,” most people would just logically take the stairs instead of riding the dust, taking the elevator.

If you walk into a restaurant and you sit down at a table and you sit on the chair and the chair feels very rickety and you think you’re going to fall on the floor, most people would just swap chairs. So, those slow-acting environmental risks are easy if we’re aware of them. It’s usually the combination of people and place that pose the challenge.

This is the interesting part. One of the things that drives me crazy is where you have a serious incident, whatever the incident was, and after the incident, everybody becomes either masters of hindsight where they’re going, “Oh yeah, yeah, we knew there was something weird about this guy,” or people will go, “Yeah, I knew this guy for ages and he seemed totally normally.”

We’ve kind of built this false sense of reality where we don’t think that potentially violent or dangerous behavior is something we can tell in advance, which is a real inaccuracy. We can predict likely outcomes of the way people behave quite easily. What we don’t do is take the effort and energy to evaluate people around us regularly enough to actually assess whether they’re displaying any of these characteristics.

What’s interesting with this is somebody who is paying you undue attention might be dressed in a way that they’re concealing a weapon, is behaving erratically, and following you while you walk to your car, we could all say, “Yeah, that’s pretty dodgy, pretty threatening,” but if we’re not looking for it, we won’t even see it. If we don’t even accept that this stuff might happen to me, I’m going to miss all of those cues.

Even the terrible cases of these kids that land up conducting shootings at schools, there’s many indicators, and a lot of those indicators are the early warning signs of disassociation. People feel isolated or they feel alienated. They’re just behaving differently from the rest, and it’s those differences that trigger the need to look deeper.

So, it doesn’t actually mean that this person is an attacker or they’re dodgy. Maybe that person just needs a hug or someone to talk to, but if we don’t actually learn to spot these anomalies, we can never actually act proactively and focus our energy before.

It’s a pretty convenient excuse. It kind of covers off everybody who didn’t do what they should have when we go, “Oh, there’s no way we could see that coming. There’s nothing we could’ve done anyway,” which as I said, for me, I think is just an excuse. I reckon the vast majority of situations, we can do something. We can see the early warning signs. We just don’t look for them or know what to do when we see them. Sure, there are the very limited number of situations that just instantly manifest, but that’s really small.

Then, the last part of the situational awareness piece is just this ability to come up with a plan. We often find this is where most organizations fall really short. They come up with these really complicated plans of what they want their people to do that’ll never work. We use the acronym in our corporate consulting business CYA, cover your ass. We find most organizations focus on CYA instead of actually empowering their people to be safe in and out of the workplace, to be safe online and physically. A lot of that becomes how do we actually practically apply the skills as oppose to how good do they look when we put it down on paper.

Brett McKay: So, what does this planning process look like? Does it take a lot of time, or this something you can walk into a building, you scan your environment, you scan the people, and then you can just quickly come up with a plan based on that information you have there?

Gav Schneider: You’re exactly right, because the problem is if you can’t do that and you’re the first responder, it actually doesn’t help that somebody else has built this detailed plan that you might’ve never seen or can’t be explained to you quickly. This comes back to that idea of personal power. If I’ve owned the fact that my safety is my business, I should make it my priority to have a plan if something happened.

There are so many examples of this, but just think about something simple. In the middle of the night, what happens if one of your loved ones needs to go the hospital? So, most people go, “Oh, well, I’ll call the ambulance,” but for whatever reason, what happens if the ambulance is not going to get you in time and you want to jump into your car and drive this person there?

Proactive practices like just making sure you’ve got a little bit of fuel in the car as opposed to leaving it overnight with just the reserve tank light flashing and no ability to drive thinking you’ll fill up in the morning disempowers you. So, it’s quite a simple way to actually think about it that if you just think about, “What are the basic responses I might need to do if something bad happened?”

We like to use the run, hide, fight, communicate model. There are lots of variations, but I like that approach because it aligns back to our adrenal response. Our adrenal response, really, under stress, we’ll have three instinctive responses. We would fight, flight, or freeze. Fighting aligns to fighting, freezing aligns to hiding, and flighting responds to running.

So, it’s a good map, but because in the modern era, most of the time our first response happens with some level of communication, we’ve got to have this communication ability built in. Communication works at various levels, but the first level is there’s nothing more powerful than the voice in your own head. So, if you can’t even articulate a plan to yourself in your mind, the likelihood of you being able to actually carry it out under stress is very slim, so that’s why this planning ahead is so important.

Calling the authorities, sharing information with the authorities, warning people around you, those are things that save lives, but equally so, if I couldn’t get away and I saw this attacker coming at me and I decided my only choice is to fight, me warning the attacker, loudly telling them, “No, get back. Stop,” can actually make a massive difference in the aftermath of the situation legally, okay? It also tells other people around you that you’re a victim, you’re not the attacker. So, understanding this run, hide, fight, communicate model, we make these things complicated. They’re not. That’s just tied back to our instinctive response.

The challenge we’ve got, though, is we look at a societal level, most of us, roughly 98% of the population are flight-dominant. When something bad happens, our instincts tell us run first. We’ll only fight if we are absolutely cornered. That reason is why it’s so hard to train soldiers or even train law enforcement officers are security personnel to run to a problem as opposed to run away, because we have to actually train them to overcome that flight response.

The exception to that 98% are usually people that exhibit sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies. Doesn’t mean they always become criminals. It’s been found that many people that sit in that 2% are the people who become special forces soldiers or high-flying corporate CEOs.

The real challenge for the everyday person is to try and make sure that they can fight, flight, or freeze, or run, hide, or fight, and try and make sure they can avoid the number one challenge, which is to panic, because panic is a killer. If I panic, I can’t think and I can’t act.

That’s why this planning process, as you said, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. If I walk into a building, all I need to do is have a look and go, “Right, there’s the fire escape. Awesome. If something bad happens, I know where to run.” If I’m looking at a guy and I go, “This guy really looks dodgy,” my plan can be as simple as, “If he gets up and he comes close to me, I’m just going to leave.” Because I know where the exit is, it’s much easier to leave.

If you mentally role play that just once or twice in your head, all the research has shown you’re far more likely to respond that way, the way you’ve just visualized, than you are to respond randomly because of association. So, we can get a lot of bang for buck just by actually leveraging basic awareness around us and just having a little bit of a plan that we role play in our heads a few times.

Brett McKay: Right. I think you also talk about, this goes back to the OODA loop. You talked about this in the book. We’ve written about it on the website pretty in depth. For those who don’t know, the OODA loop is observe, orient, decide, act.

In a self-defense situation, the attacker, his OODA loop is already going before yours is going, right, but by having a plan, you kind of speed up your own OODA loop in a way because you’ve oriented, you’ve decided what you’re going to do in a certain situation, so you’re able to act and respond much more quickly. If you can do that faster, you’re more likely to come out the victor in the situation.

Gav Schneider: Exactly right. It’s interesting. So, during our career, we’ve done lots of interesting things. One of them was that we actually got to rob a bank. This was a bank in South Africa that we were developing an armed robbery management program for, bullet-resistant glass, armed security, five minute tactical response. We had 30 people who participated in the exercise as volunteers obviously, and we only had one chance to do it right because we were breaking the bullet-resistant glass, which was pretty expensive. The bank said, “You’ve only got one chance to do it.” I’ll ask you the question, Brett. How long do you think it took us to rob the bank, to overcome all of those barriers and successfully pull the robbery off?

Brett McKay: I’m going to say two minutes.

Gav Schneider: Pretty close. I hope you’ve never been a bank robber.

Brett McKay: I think like one.

Gav Schneider: It took one minute, 23-

Brett McKay: Wow.

Gav Schneider: … which we reckon we could’ve shaved a bunch of time off that. We’ve also spent tons and tons of time training people on how to manage carjackings. So, with the context of the bank robbery, how long do you reckon it takes to pull off a carjacking?

Brett McKay: I’m going to say 30 seconds.

Gav Schneider: So, we’ve averaged that out at about 8 to 12 seconds.

Brett McKay: Wow.

Gav Schneider: The last piece of thinking about that is imagine somebody standing in front of you being verbally aggressive. You can see this guy posturing up. How long does it take for that person to go from verbal to physical and strike you?

Brett McKay: One second.

Gav Schneider: Realistically, between .3 and .6 of a second if they’re in touching distance.

Brett McKay: Wow.

Gav Schneider: So, the biggest problem we’ve got is this fallacy that we actually will have enough time to evaluate what’s happening around us and decide on a response when something actually happens. The truth is, we won’t. This is where that performance ahead of time is so important. If we haven’t thought about this stuff beforehand, the way we respond is random. Now, we might be lucky and our random response might be effective, but what happens if it’s not? What happens if it’s a panic response? What happens if it’s a flight response and I run the wrong way?

Conversely, what happens if it’s a fight response that could’ve been avoidable? Having taught thousands of young men over the years, most young men get into fights or get engaged in violence because of ego, not because they have to.

The best way to manage that is to get people to understand ahead of time what the difference is between having to fight for survival, which is because you have no other choice and you’ve tried to avoid every other possible recourse, and throwing a punch because this guy looked at you funny and you felt cornered. One might save your life. The other might land you up in jail.

So, this ability to actually understand the way things manifest is so important so that we can be realistic about the way we visualize our responses. It’s a really hard thing to do because let’s take an active shooter situation. In hindsight, and after situations, it blows my mind, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this with many of the people you’ve interviewed and what you look at, everyone’s an expert, right? “Oh, why didn’t somebody take this guy out? You could’ve tackled him. You could’ve thrown a chair at him. You could’ve done this, you could’ve done that,” but when these things actually manifest, it’s exceptionally difficult if we haven’t prepared.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the case of Anders Breivik. Anders Breivik was the guy who shot all those kids in Norway.

Brett McKay: Right. I remember that.

Gav Schneider: He actually claimed that it was so much easier. He trained using first person shooter TV games, which came out in his inquiry, and he said it was so much easier when he was shooting the kids because most of them froze and they were just standing dead still, so it easy for him to shoot them, and nobody was shooting back at him. When he was playing his TV games, people were shooting back and running.

So, just a little bit of pre-thought around what’s real and what’s not, and this is a hard thing to do. People don’t like to think about worst case scenarios. This is always the challenge. In terms of writing the book and trying to put some of this stuff down, we’ve probably trained about 50000 people in at least one of our face-to-face versions of some of the stuff that’s covered in the book.

The challenge you’ve got is this stuff is actually a practical skill. It’s not a theoretical subject. It’s about doing the things and it’s about practicing them until they become repetitive and just become naturally ingrained in the way you live. When you get to that level, this is easy. It just becomes intuitive, much like looking left and right or right and left, depends which country you’re in, before you cross the road.

That’s where we want to get to, but we need to get there from a response capability first. We need to look at what actually will work as opposed to what is perceived. Maybe you’ve seen this in the years. You’ve spoken to many experts. There’s so many experts out there who can do stuff that layman can’t. Somebody who’s a master in whatever martial art you want to talk about can actually pull off stuff the average person can’t. Therefore, they think that that’s effective. For them, it might be.

A good example, I trained TaeKwonDo for many years when I was young in my career. TaeKwonDo is a kicking system. Lots of self-defense experts go, “High kicking in the street or self-defense is a bad idea.” It is a bad idea, but if you’re an expert in it, you probably can kick somebody in the head faster than they can punch you in the face, but to get to that level of mastery takes so long that the average person would never have benefit. So, the actual system itself is pretty bad for self-defense because the average person can’t use it.

Not to pick on that. The same is relevant for many other systems. Mixed martial arts, which is a great close to reality example of the way fights manifest is awesome, but the things that enable smaller people to beat bigger people are all the things that have been made illegal. The only way you can stop a bigger, stronger person is trying to poke them in the eyes, trying to hit them in the groin, breaking small joints like their fingers, trying to hit in the throat, trying to grab a weapon, trying to run away. All of those things are illegal and things you can’t do in mixed martial arts. So, the more you train with the limitations, often the less effective you are in the real world, which is a difficult conundrum to overcome.

Brett McKay: So, I think that’s a good point you just raised, the difference between sport fighting and fighting for your life. When you’re fighting for your life, there are no rules, but unfortunately people, because it’s like most people are good people, right? They grew up thinking about you’ve got to have a fair fight, or they’re thinking about the legal consequences afterwards. They fight like they’re in a boxing match or MMA, when they should be, if it’s for their life, gouging eyeballs, punching throats, et cetera.

Gav Schneider: It’s really challenging because as mentioned before, there’s only two reasons in life people will ever resort to violent behavior. I have this debate often with criminologist colleagues of mine who love to over complicate the world we live in, but the reality is people either fight for ego or for survival.

Even if you look at serial killer behavior, most of those actions are based on ego. They’re based on fulfilling a need that that person perceives is real, whereas in reality, if it’s a survival-based situation, which comparatively would be very, very rare. If you were aware, you were vigilant, you knew where things could go wrong, you could avoid it. We’re unlikely to get caught up in a bad situation.

Conversely, if we go into a situation that is a survival situation with the limitations that people are good people, “I couldn’t hurt somebody. I don’t want to hurt somebody,” well, the chance of you coming out okay are pretty slim because your attacker doesn’t have those limitations. It’s an awkward discussion.

I’ll just go back to … We teach a lot of female self-empowerment and female self-defense. I’ll find women and girls who come on our self-defense programs often are really in one of two categories. They’re either really under-confident where they go, “Look, what could I do against a bigger, stronger guy anyway? So, I don’t even know why I’m here because there’s nothing I could do anyway,” or on the other end of the spectrum, we sometimes get girls and ladies who have grown up with brothers, really cocky and go, “Oh, I’m not even worried about this. I’ll just kick him in the balls,” forgetting the fact that most men have learned how to protect our groins since the age of three when we realized it really hurts when you get hit in the nuts.

So, it’s about finding that balance because neither of those is accurate, as we discussed, about finding the balance between both, but it’s also about exposing people to, in a slower, measured way, to the very things they’re most scared of. So, people who are scared of violence and believe it will never happen to them have no ability to respond if God forbid it does happen. People who slowly acclimatize themselves over time have a much better chance of being able to manage it. That’s a process. It’s really important to find good coaches and good trainers if you want to go through that.

One of the worst things we find people can do is go and do a self-defense training program, for example, or we often have a lot of ladies who come and train and go, “Oh yeah, I do boxercise,” or, “I do Tae Bo. I’m ready to defend myself.” We’re going, “Well, that’s great that you’re fit. Being fit and healthy and strong is excellent to manage our first risk, which is health, and will make it easier for you to defend yourself, but your context is all wrong.” If we haven’t thought about the way people might actually attack us, we’ve got no ability to apply the skills we have.

So, it’s a bit of a challenge, but the one thing I always urge people is no instructor, no book, no manual can ever tell a person when or when not to fight. It’s really a personal decision. The challenge we’ve got is, referencing back to how quickly violence can manifest, if you haven’t thought about it ahead of time, you’re unlikely to make the best possible decision when something actually happens. Our cognitive function shuts down and we respond with reflexive, instinctive response only. So, if I want to make the right call, I really do have to base it on thinking about this and programming a response through visualization or rehearsal ahead of time. I hope that makes sense.

Brett McKay: No, that makes sense. So, how does that work? Going back to this idea, 80% of the time we should spend avoiding the situation. So, we can do that with situational awareness. If you see something doesn’t look right, we get out of there because even if we’re wrong, at least we’re alive, we’re safe, but how do you decide how to respond with either run, hide, fight when the event actually happens? You couldn’t avoid it. The event actually happens.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say, is there proximity? So, it’s like, “If the guy is this close or this far away, I’m going to run away, but if he’s within this perimeter of me, I’m going to attack because that’s the only option I have.” Does that make sense, what I’m trying to ask?

Gav Schneider: Absolutely. You’re talking about what we refer to as the pre-phase, so just before the situation happens. I view this aspect as part of that 80% we discussed before. Everything that happens pre the incident actually kicking off is our pre-work, and that’s where that 80% should focus on.

So, this is the challenge. It’s all about context. So, we fear most what we don’t understand. If I’ve never been exposed to somebody closing range and demonstrating even verbal aggression, chances are I’m either going to respond with a fight, flight, or freeze response, right? I might just absolutely freeze and not know what to do. I might engage back very verbally aggressively, or I might just try and run.

The challenge is around trying to map the right response to the scenarios we face. This is where realistic training experience done repetitively is by far the most effective way to cover that gap you discussed, because if I don’t know at what point somebody can actually step to strike me, how do I know when I should be backing away? If I don’t know how quickly somebody can cover distance when they’re across the room, I might spend a lot of time being paranoid and missing out on lots of opportunities based on inaccurate perceptions when actually there’s no risk, no exposure, or even people who are threatening. We’re too far away.

So, part of the challenge with this one is I always urge people, even if you don’t want to be a serious martial artist, spend a few months at a self-defense school. It’s a life skill. That will teach you how to read distance. It will teach you when people can hurt you from where, and then you’ve at least got context.

So, for the rest of your life, even if you never go back and train again, you realize that, “Look, if I can keep a meter and a half of safe separation and I can see this person’s hands and they’re not exhibiting signs and symptoms of adrenal dump, then chances are I’m okay, but if these things change, then I need to act on it.”

The biggest problem is we miss these cues because A, we’ve never been taught to look for them, and it drives me crazy. I think this sort of training should be a life skill that should get taught to every child. There were programs that I was involved in in Israel where every school kid received four two hour training sessions just as part of their school curriculum to understand how to respond. We spend so much time trying to develop our kids’ skills, we’re missing teaching them the life skills that could make them healthier, safer, more productive adults.

On that piece, the big challenge is what do we do when it comes time to make a decision, the reality is it’s hard to make a decision under adrenal dump, so the more work I put in ahead of time, the more likely I am to make the right decision. The right decision is different for every single person.

If I’m the average, everyday person, it’s a comparative simple measure in theory. I would like to make sure that I come out of every possible bad situation with everything I went into it with. If I’m a first responder, sheepdog, law enforcement, security, or military person, I have to run to trouble. So, my context of how I come out of it, how I deal with it is quite different. It is a different discussion, but if we’re looking at the everyday person, how do we measure success?

It blows my mind often talking to young guys who get into fist fights. One of the guys will step up and he’ll go, “Oh, I won that fight, man. Did you see what happened? Yeah, I beat this guy down and all I got is a black eye.” You kind of look at them, and often when I have these discussions with them, I’ll say, “Well, just tell me, what were the aspects that led up to that situation?”

They’ll normally tell you a story of, “He said something,” or, “I said something,” or, “He looked at me,” or, “I looked at him. He swore at me. I swore at him, and then it looked like he was going to throw a punch or he did throw a punch, so I fought back.” There’s this trail of incidents. When you trail it back down, it usually was there was an ego-based reason and he missed the opportunity to avoid it, which means if he could’ve, he wouldn’t have even had a black eye in the first place.

So, actually, that’s a loss if you really think about it because he came out of the situation worse off than if he had avoided it. Easy to say, particularly when ego comes into play and social pressures are something that’s tough on young men. It’s an expectation in certain circles that you’ll defend your honor and backing away from a fight’s not a good idea, but if you look at the consequences of getting it wrong, avoidance is by far the best strategy.

Brett McKay: Well, Gav, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace else people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Gav Schneider: Yeah, thanks. So, my book, Can I See Your Hands, is available on Amazon or through the publisher, Universal Publishers. We also have an online training academy. If you just go to, we’ve got various online training programs that are aligned to the book. The shortest one is 30 minutes, which you can do in five minute blocks. You can do them on your cell phone. You can do them anywhere. We do run face-to-face seminars and programs all over the world.

From my perspective, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do. The way threats manifest in a complex world now are so different to the way they used to be. The old model of sheepdogs keeping us safe is just not practical the way it used to be with cyber crime and online crime and alienated people who resort to violence because they feel they have no other choice, that I really do feel very strongly that our goal is try and get the average person who may have viewed themselves as a sheep before, in other words, “Security and personal safety is not my problem,” to just get the basic knowledge they need to go, “In a worst case scenario, I know what to do.”

So, from our side, Brett, thank you very much for the opportunity. To the people who are listening, all the people who’ve read our books or do our programs, thank you very much for stepping up and being part of the solution as opposed to being a passive standby victim waiting for something to happen.

Brett McKay: Gav, thanks for coming on. It’s been a great conversation.

Gav Schneider: Thanks, Brett. Much appreciated.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Gav Schneider. He’s the author of the book, Can I See Your Hands. It’s available on You can also go to, where you can see Gav’s courses that he has on personal risk management and safety. He gave you a free month membership if you use code AOM at checkout. Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed the show, you’ve gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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