Secrets of a Counterintelligence Agent: How to Increase Your Situational Awareness

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One of the things we constantly got in trouble for in the Army was lack of attention to detail. Missing a spot on your inspection boots (back when we used to have to shine our boots), an incorrect alignment of ribbons on your uniform, or forgetting a detail in the instructions you were given for the day could get you extra physical exercise or duty – or sometimes worse.

The reason they harped on attention to detail so much is that it’s one of the ways to train your brain to develop situational awareness.

Noticing the fine details of the terrain could help you track an enemy and realizing only one of the buildings on the block is clear of frost could tell you which one he’s hiding out in. Seeing the tripwire along the path to the door could save your life. Those details are out there to be seen but most people just never notice them. I’m going to explain a bit of how this works as well as how you can play a game called Kim’s Game that is not only fun, it’s a very effective way to develop your attention to detail as well as your situational awareness.

The Problem with Cooper’s Colors

One of the problems with how this is taught is that we’re all told to ‘stay in the yellow’, which comes from Colonel Jeff Cooper’s awareness color chart. White means you aren’t paying attention to anything, yellow means you’re actively paying attention to your surroundings, orange means you have some suspicion that something’s not right and are getting ready to react, and red means you’re actively responding to some situation. Some schools add black to the list, which is sometimes defined as when you’re immobilized by fear and sometimes defined as when you’re dealing with the aftermath of a situation.

The brain just doesn’t really work that way. The way it’s taught is that you can go through life in white indefinitely because it doesn’t require any mental energy but that leaves you vulnerable to the world. They teach that you should stay in yellow, basically meaning constant vigilance. Yellow can be held for an extended time but it does require some mental energy to keep up.

The first problem with that is that your brain will shift out of yellow and into white on its own. How many times a day do you check your cell phone or drift off into a daydream or a memory or start thinking of what you’re going to eat tonight? Each time you do that, your brain goes on autopilot (white). Remember how we talked about ambush knife attacks? Increasing your situational awareness can help you respond faster to a potential attack.

Developing situational awareness through practicing attention to detail

I think being able to shift to yellow is certainly important but if that’s your only plan, you’re missing out on the most powerful part of your brain – your subconscious.

Training yourself to see minute details is part of the equation but if you’re not actively paying attention to look for those details, you’ll miss them – until you’ve practiced so much that just like driving, noticing details becomes second nature and automatic. The key is to not only train that gray muscle in your head to be able to notice things, but it’s also to do it so often and so consistently that your subconscious keeps a part of your brain on the lookout for those details. Train your brain to default to noticing and remembering details and it’ll start doing it without you needing to focus on it.

Developing situational awareness only got more intense when I became a Counterintelligence Agent. Everything from doing surveillance, counter-surveillance, HUMINT source operations, investigation, interrogation, and more involves intense attention to detail and situational awareness. We spent a great deal of time developing this skill.

It’s important to develop the skill to notice details as well as the skill to remember those details later. Eventually, you need your brain to do this automatically. It takes quite a while to get to this point but it is possible. You also lose this skill if you don’t keep up the practice.

So how exactly do you develop this situational awareness?

One of the best ways we learned how to do this is through a game called Kim’s Game. This game is taught to agents of many agencies as well as Special Operations personnel, snipers, recon, and many others. The name comes from a game mentioned in the novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling in 1901. In the story, an orphan is trained how to be a spy by playing this game.

This game can be played in many different ways (and by the way, kids absolutely love this game if you’re creative with the rules). In the book, it starts with a tray full of jewels, as this quote attests:

Look on them as long as thou wilt, stranger. Count and, if need be, handle. One look is enough for me. When thou hast counted and handled and art sure that thou canst remember them all, I cover them with this paper, and thou must tell over the tally to Lurgan Sahib. I will write mine.

So the language there is a bit wonky but what it’s saying is that the guy put down a tray of jewels on the table and when they’re uncovered, Kim had to try to remember how many of each type of jewel and as many details as possible.

This way to play the game can be played with any group of objects. Even a handful of random coins could work. It’s a basic thing but it starts your mind working on focusing on details you wouldn’t normally notice.

One of the ways we would use this skill is for what you’d think of as casing a place. We’d walk into a coffee shop, grab a coffee, and once back in the car, we’d quiz the new agents on all the details of the shop. How many tables were there? Where were the cameras? Describe each customer. What were the names of all the baristas? What is the relationship of the two people sitting at the back table?

Some of these items would be just basic memorization but what about that last question? That one is one that you’d have to shift into the yellow for that answer. Are they both wearing rings? What’s their body language say about their conversation? Are they really in a relationship or are they actually foreign agents on surveillance, pretending to be in a relationship as a part of their cover?

Adapting Kim’s Game to your life

Something similar could be adapted to help you survive while traveling or in some dangerous scenario. Even though in your life you probably won’t really be looking for foreign agents, it is helpful to practice reading people’s body language and details to figure out how they know each other or what they’re talking about. The more your brain practices seeing demeanor, the more likely it is to notice when something isn’t right – and will let you know about it even if you’re not actively thinking about it. If you’ve trained your brain that it’s important to notice when things aren’t right, you don’t have to be in the yellow to notice.

There’s a simple adaptation to this game that you can play with your kids (or just by yourself) that can keep them busy on a road trip, and you can change the rules or the details as you see fit – and you should change them occasionally anyway. As you’re driving along, tell your kids that the game is on and that in three minutes, they’ll have to close their eyes and start writing. During these three minutes, they need to notice each car in the area as well as their license plates and any useful detail. Once the time is up, they can’t look outside anymore and have to write a list of every detail they can and compete to see who noticed and remembered the most.

Once they get good at that, change it so that instead of having three minutes to memorize everything, they’ll now start at some random point in the next 5-10 minutes. Once they’re better at that, expand that to the next half hour or so, and eventually don’t give them any warning. The more you play this game, the less priming you’ll need to notice and remember details of what’s going on in your surroundings.

Once you get the gist of it and have some practice with it, figure out some more applicable ways you can use this skill for personal protection or whatever scenario you think it’ll be helpful. Instead of training your brain just to notice license plates, see how many concealed weapons you can find in your day or pay attention to details of who you see throughout the day and try to figure out what they do for a living. Take a walk through the woods and see how many little footprints you can notice or any signs of an animal or person walking through an area. This skill is as much about noticing details as it is remembering them.

Eventually (with a lot of practice), you’ll see that your brain starts remembering these details on autopilot and you now have a useful skill that may someday save your life, or at least get you free drinks at a bar. Even the games that seemingly have no application to saving your life will help you by just exercising the brain so it can more easily notice and remember details.

How do you increase situational awareness?

Can you think of any creative ways you could play a similar game that are either fun or could help you develop survival skills? Do you play these kinds of games with your kids? Share your ideas in the comments.

About Graywolf

Graywolf is a former Counterintelligence Agent and US Army combat veteran. His experience as an agent, soldier and government contractor on assignments around the world gives him a unique perspective on the world and how to deal with it. His website is Graywolf Survival.



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  • Thank you for the article Greywolf.

    Being a couch potato watching You Tube travel videos, I like to see each one though and then try to reconstruct the route by drawing a map what streets, with names, were traveled, forward and backwards, which direction the sun was and other details. I’ll download a map of the area and compare the two. Having a three-dimensional map is a further aid.

    Also, if I notice a person of interest in the video, I’ll go backwards in the video to the point where they first appeared. It could be a half block or more on a crowded street. Next step would be doing the same for people of “no interest”, the proverbial gray man.

    Actionkid105 and others on You Tube have videos continuously, no break, walking around neighborhoods for twenty minutes to over an hour.

    Or, ‘travel’ a street in Google Maps by using the little man icon. The same street or avenue will look different depending if you’re walking on a sidewalk or down the middle of the street. It’s also good as a pre-planner if you will be visiting a place.

    “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City” by Eric Sanderson is a book that illustrates the beginning stages of how the island Manhattan developed from the interaction of the natural terrain and the people . The ‘grid’ street layout is a real estate invention. The size of a town was the distance a person walked to their agricultural field of work. Each one required a different way of seeing t he world.

    On the opposite end of the attention scale try to notice the overall general ambient atmosphere of the location as if you were painting the scene and were initially placing in the masses of primary color. If it was noontime with the sun overhead and the light was yellow. What tone, tint or shade of yellow? Question is if it would be better first to visualize the scene in in black & white, then greys, and then in color? Break each question in a binary fashion, yes or no, then repeat the process. Sorta of OODA. That might seem esoteric, but ‘Vision’ is an acquired skill continuously learned as we age.

    Repeat, vision is an AQUIRED SKILL.

    Babies at first see vague areas of greys. Animals can see outside our light spectrum, ie. rats can see ultraviolent light, go figure.

    Add to this, different cultures learn to see in their own way, same as they acquire their language or mindset. (East Europe grew up with the Isaac Newton belief that color is derived from white light, while outside that sphere people use Wolfgang (the author of Faust) Goethe’s light scheme that colors derive from black. Something to consider if and when during the SHTF your opponents/allies are of a different culture.

    Peripheral vision can be developed also by say, riding a bicycle or motorcycle because you have to for safety.

    Try drawing a simple object, say a plant. Doesn’t matter if you think or were told you couldn’t. Then compare the drawing to the object honestly. Is the angle of the branch coming off the stem thirty degrees or really forty-five? Be honest. Even if the drawing took an hour to draw, erase it and do it over if not. Congratulations, you made a major break thought in the way you see. (Kinda like seeing thru MSN.)

    Another exercise is to casually look through a book of a painter’s life work from beginning to end. When finished put the book down and walk around the house. For a few moments you’re “see” the way the painter saw, which took the painter a lifetime to develop. Consider it a gift passed on to you.

    Seeing takes work. A lot of work.

  • I have a daughter who had a lot of medical issues when she was young. We had to make a lot of visits to a hospital and other medical facilities that were not in the best area of the city where we lived. I trained myself to always scan the area before we’d get out of the car and to stay alert when walking through the parking lot. I also played “What if . . ” with my daughter as she was old enough to understand. Out of the blue, I’d ask her questions like “What if you wandered away from mom in a store and couldn’t find me? Who would you ask for help and how would you know they were a safe person?” or “What if we were walking toward a store and someone grabbed you and tried to take you? What should you do?” We also had a code word for if I had to send anyone else to pick her up at school. Once when I was at a conference in a city that is known for gangs, a group of us were waiting for a city bus outside our hotel. Everyone was talking and not paying a lot of attention, when I noticed that we were gradually being surrounded by young men. I got everyone’s attention and said I was sick and we had to go back into the hotel right away. They all thought it was weird until we got inside and I explained — we all had purses and many of the women had on their name badges from the conference, which identified us as tourists. The hotel called the police, who did a drive-by and all the young men at the bus stop disappeared — then we took our badges off and waited inside the hotel until we could see the next bus coming. It was one of those moments when all my years of playing the “What if . . .” game with my daughter and learning to stay aware of my surroundings really paid off. I recently had reason to fly in and out of a huge airport, where there were many young military waiting to fly home for Thanksgiving. It was absolutely amazing to me to watch them all on their phones and totally checked out of their surroundings. Most were in uniform and would have been prime targets for a bad situation. Of course, at least 90% of the civilians were also on their phones or other devices. I kept thinking, “No wonder a mass shooter can kill so many people before anyone reacts — no one is paying any attention to what is going on around them.” I see that as a huge problem these days — people walk down the street looking at their phones, shop while on their phones, have obnoxious conversations and arguments on their phones while in public. I’ve even seen young people sitting across the table from each other, obviously on a date, both looking at their phones. Almost none of them have any awareness of their surroundings or any kind of dangerous situation that might be brewing!

  • This is a great article, number one is Alertness. But all I see is people are totally not alert and the addiction to these phones today and while driving.
    To keep the combat mineset read the book Principles of Personal Defense by Jeff Cooper. There are seven Principles to read and learn to live this.

  • Honestly the first thing a whole lot of folks need to do is get their heads out of their phones and other devices! :-0
    Can’t be aware of your surroundings unless you are at least looking at them. This whole thing is a lot like actively listening when folks are talking to you. We all know who we tend to tune out and then can’t remember a thing that they said!
    I believe your brain is just like your muscles, use it or lose it!
    I just like to actively look around whenever I am. I love to watch people and do that a lot as well. When I am out in nature I like to simply try to “see” critters. I have learned that bird noise can tell you a lot about what is going on too. When you listen you get to know the normal sounds and can tell when something is amiss real quickly! Those Robins are great at that! Nature can teach us a lot but one has to be willing to silence the phone 🙂
    Kim’s game sounds awesome! I love those memory games. We used to play “Go Fish” as children and that was a pretty good memory thing.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom Graywolf. I really enjoy your articles. Would love to have a mentor such as yourself for a friend.

  • Excellent article as usual, Greywolf! Thanks so much for sharing your training with us.

    I don’t do anything that detailed, although it would be a good idea to start. What I tend to do is mentally play “Threat or No Threat” with people and situations. That kid in the red hoodie…is he a purse snatcher? That blonde woman talking to herself in the cookie aisle…is she on a Bluetooth, or having some sort of mental health episode? The two men having an argument near the end of the building…is this going to erupt into violence? The group of people with the picket signs…are they going to start a riot?
    For me, the focus is more on avoiding trouble and potentially physically dangerous situations…if I see a traffic stop, I try to avoid going past it in case shots are fired.
    I’ve been criticized for being paranoid, but (knock wood) I’ve never been involved in a crime scene or a violent episode and I hope to keep it that way.

  • There is also the old black and white movie, Kim, starring Errol Flynn based on Kipling’s book. Worth watching.

    Hopefully preppers train their young in every way they can. Children are the future and there are a great many things against their survival. We’ve got to stand up for them, protect them, provide for them, train them. I don’t mind preaching to the choir on this. Preppers are a resolved bunch already. But we must pay it forward or it really is doom and gloom.

    The children in our lives have got to be a priority! One of Daisy’s latest articles and other things in the news show how much our culture has lost it’s moorings based on how little it values a child’s life. I could really go on a rant here.

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