Most self-defense experts agree that situational awareness is the most important aspect of threat avoidance. First of all, self-defense is not about winning a fight, but rather keeping yourself safe. This means that you must let go of your ego and desire to win in order to be good at self-defense. A lot of traditional martial arts spend a large amount of time focusing on self-control and eliminating the ego. You will never completely defeat the ego, so you will have to face and defeat it constantly so that it does not control you. Traditional martial arts focus on conquering the self so that its practitioners don't fall prey to their own egos and emotions. When you conquer the ego, it frees you to avoid conflicts instead of trapping yourself inside of one. When you refuse to allow your ego to control you, the "monkey-mind" part of your brain will be short-circuited so that you can stay calm and react appropriately to danger.
Now that we know that avoiding a fight is the best form of self-defense, how do we use that knowledge? The first step is to be aware of your environment. Self-defense instructors often teach students to be aware of their surroundings at all times, which is extremely unrealistic. This can create "hyper-vigilance", which simply cannot be done all the time without going crazy. Life is just too chaotic for us to be constantly looking over our shoulders while juggling the challenges life throws at us.
Thankfully, our subconscious minds are already very good at threat detection if we would only allow it to work and to trust it. Hopefully after reading this the reader can begin to harness this ability. First, let's focus on learning to scan for threats and when to do it.
When should we be scanning for threats? The answer is all the time. Don't confuse this with active scanning for threats. Our minds are a powerful tool designed to find things that stand out in our normal environments. Your mind is always detecting things that are out of place. It is constantly cataloging things that are normal and we are not even aware of it. It is already built in. Our minds have created a baseline for our surroundings, and even what normal behavior looks like with other people. This mechanism is what gives us that "bad feeling" we get when something is wrong. We may not consciously be aware of what is wrong, but our subconscious mind does know that something is off.
When our instincts kick in and you feel things are not right, this is one of the cues to switch to active scanning. Another signal to switch to active scanning would be if you are in a vulnerable position (such as alone while walking to your car) and possible attackers are around. Most likely if there is ill intent, your internal alarm system will go off, which means you should scan for threats and quickly exit the situation.
How do you detect intent to do harm? Your subconscious will be your first line of detection. It knows when someone is behaving abnormally. Maybe they are looking at you for too long. Maybe their body language is tipping you off to aggressive intentions. Anyone that is behaving strangely and makes you uneasy, should be pegged as a potential threat. What is the next step if you find yourself in this situation? The short answer is leave. Of course, leaving may not be an option which is why self-defense techniques exist in the first place.
In summary, situational awareness is key in making proper tactical decisions when it comes to your safety. Work on conquering the ego and pride so that it will not cloud your judgement and put you in a pointless conflict. Trust your gut feelings. Your subconscious is very good at detecting when something is off. Most people that are assaulted could tell something was wrong, but did nothing to avoid the situation. Often they were more afraid of being rude than to avoid the threat. Don't feel bad about being rude. Any good person will understand. If you are uncomfortable, speak up and get out. If it offends anyone, or it upsets them they are either really bad friends or bad guys with some bad intentions. Either way it is far better to avoid bad situations than to take the risk of getting hurt. As the old Karate saying goes, "The best block is to not be there!"