Set Your Mental Trigger

So, there I was, minding my own business.

I was happy as a clam, walking through the parking lot of a Mega-Mart store about 2,100 miles away from home while on assignment for S.W.A.T. I had just come from the shooting range, dusty, tired and utterly content, ready to pick up some snacks before heading back to the hotel for a long shower and a few adult beverages before bedtime. Of course, someone had to screw things up.

As another student and I walked from our rental car toward the front entrance, I noticed a rather scruffy man and woman engaged in an animated discussion near the shopping cart corral. At first, I thought they were simply messing around with each other, but then I got close enough to hear what they were saying.

Steering a course to pass on the opposite side of the traffic lane, my ears perked up when I heard the man call the woman a really bad name. She immediately fired back with a likewise remark, followed by a string of loud adjectives that were so crude they actually stunned a passing bird in mid-flight. Apparently the pair weren’t messing around.

Suddenly, the man grabbed the woman’s arm and she wrenched away violently. She took a few steps back, then changed her mind and stepped toward the man with her arm cocked in a threatening manner. I was fairly sure that she was going to slap him and that, at the very least, he would reply in kind. “Oh, wonderful,” I thought. I had simply wanted a bag of cheese puffs and now I was going to become embroiled in a violent domestic dispute thousands of miles from home with, judging by their general appearance and demeanor, two people who were no strangers to law enforcement.

I quickly took stock of the situation. Due to logistical complications, I was unarmed aside from my folding knife. My only immediate backup was my fellow student, a well-known member of the outdoor community who seemed like a solid guy, but was still unproven to me in a crisis.

Essentially, I would be alone in dealing with this domestic dispute that would undoubtedly end with the woman being punched by the man. At best, I could count on an hour filling out statements with the police; I didn’t want to contemplate the worst-case scenarios. All in all, there was every reason not to intervene, aside from one small problem—a nagging sense of duty.

So, standing in the parking lot without much enthusiasm, I reluctantly stopped to watch the drama unfold.

To my surprise, the woman suddenly thought better of slapping her Prince Charming and stomped away. The man stood for a moment, stunned at the reversal, then hurled a few vile epithets over his shoulder while striding briskly toward his truck. In a matter of seconds,the crisis was averted, the woman appeared to be in no danger, and I breathed a sigh of relief because my junk food foraging could proceed unimpeded.

Later, while standing in the checkout queue that was longer than airport security lines, the incident got my tiny brain whirring. The tactical aspects weren’t that difficult to resolve, but what intrigued me was the automatic process I had undertaken of setting certain conditions before taking action. While patiently waiting for the illegal immigrant ahead of me to fill out a third-party counter-check without identification, I realized we had yet again stumbled upon another nugget of tactical wisdom: the importance of properly setting your mental trigger.

Experience has taught that every potentially dangerous situation, aside from an already-launched attack, involves a decision-making process that ends with the determination on the moment or reason to take action. Like a computer program waiting for the correct set of parameters to occur before proceeding, our brain awaits that little voice inside to yell, “GO!” That little voice is your trigger.

In the parking lot incident, I had set two possible conditions for intervention. If I saw the woman struck or slapped, I would announce my presence, display my badge and order them to stop, while staying prepared for an attack. However, if the man actually began pummeling the woman, I would immediately execute a physical response that would hopefully stop the man cold before he could seriously injure the woman.

As it turned out, by setting triggers on these two likely possibilities, I didn’t overreact and rush into something that would have ruined my night. This illustrates the major benefits of setting those specific mental tipping points: it resolves the important decision (whether or not to act) and allows us to focus on formulating a response plan. In essence, the trickiest question of the entire encounter has already been answered, and you can focus on preparations for the coming battle.

This process should be like a calm, cold, rational, computer-programming “IF-THEN” statement. During a crisis, our mental dialogue should sound something like this: “If he reaches for that pistol on the passenger seat, then I will fire my weapon,” or “If that suspicious man in the parking lot begins walking toward me, then I will turn around and head back into the mall.”

While the entire process is somewhat intuitive, it is important that we place more emphasis on this particular concept as a distinct part of a combat operations process. Most people simply decide to act on the fly, but we need greater focus on the idea of coldly setting the parameters for action, much like a computer program. What we are ultimately doing is removing a large part of the secondguessing, distractions and uncertainty of a looming violent encounter. This frees our mind up for more important stuff— like staying alive.

As the old tactical dictum states: “When it’s time to think, think. When it’s time to act, act.” By focusing on properly setting your mental trigger, you can more easily separate the two.

Now, I’m going to think about attacking that bag of generic pork rinds I bought at the Mega-Mart….

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Brent Wheat

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