Building good judgement

Grant Rayner
Apr 7, 2020 · 9 min read

How to develop good judgement so that you’re able to avoid precarious situations while travelling in higher-risk locations.

The morning hustle and bustle in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Good judgement is the foundation of good decisions.

We build frameworks for decision-making throughout our lives. These are based on our immediate environments and our lifestyles, for example at our workplaces or in the areas around where we live. These frameworks don’t necessarily transpose to the new environments we experience when travelling in complex and higher-risk locations.

One poor decision at the outset of an incident can make a situation immediately worse and, in some cases, unrecoverable. As a regular traveller, you may already think you have good judgement. But do you?

How can you develop your judgement and decision-making capabilities so that you’re able to respond effectively to incidents that occur while travelling?

In this article I’ll provide some practical advice on how you can consciously develop good judgement so that you’re able to avoid potentially precarious situations while travelling in higher-risk locations.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. This article is part of a series called “The Basics”, where I’ll explore some of the fundamental concepts of personal security while travelling. I hope you find it useful.

Set universal ground rules

One of the most effective approaches I’ve found to build effective judgement and decision-making in the field is to pare down the things I actually need to make decisions about. A simple way to achieve this is to develop a set of universal principles and ground rules. These are the things you just won’t do (or will always do) in a given situation.

I have quite a few ground rules when operating in higher-risk environments. For example:

  • I won’t get into a vehicle with someone I don’t know (aside from taxis, Uber, Careem, rickshaws, et cetera).
  • Before leaving my accommodation, I will always tell someone where I’m going, who I’m meeting, and when I expect to be back. This sets a baseline for response.
  • I carry a sum of cash with me everywhere.
  • I carry a phone and a backup battery with me everywhere.
  • I won’t meet anyone in a location I don’t know (or won’t be able to get to know between now and the meeting).

I have quite a few other principles and ground rules that I apply that are a bit more specific, but this gives you a sense of the types of basic ground you might be able to put into practice yourself.

I apply these rules everywhere without exception. They help to reduce the scope of my decision-making. They also prevent me from screwing up by making poor choices when placed under pressure in the heat of the moment.

Set local ground rules

Once you are in a new location, you can gradually build out a set of local ground rules. These summarise what you’ve learned on the ground, and can be refined and built on over time as you learn more about your environment.

Local rules may include:

  • Don’t use a certain type of public transport (or do use other specific types).
  • Don’t go into certain areas.
  • Don’t go out after a certain time.
  • Don’t associate with a certain group or faction.
  • Don’t spend more than a certain amount of time in a particular area.

You can also implement some local rules in response to short-term issues, such as civil unrest, then retract them later. You may also relax some rules as you build familiarity with your operating environment.

Ground rules are not designed to constrain. Rather, they are designed to make decision-making easier and reduce unforced errors.

The back alleys of Damascus, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Establish priorities

Your own personal safety must always come first. Your project should be a distant second. People often feel pressured by the demands of their projects to take unacceptable risks. Don’t do that — always consider your own safety first.

Don’t expect that anyone else will look out for you, particularly if they are not on the ground with you. If you’re pushed to do something that you’re not comfortable doing based on the knowledge you’ve built up of your operating environment, push back.

Make decisions binary

To further simplify decision-making, try to distill each situational decision into two potential options. Agree to a meeting or don’t (you can work out an alternate proposal separately). Continue walking along a road, or turn back. Decide to pay a bribe, or don’t (if you decide to, the amount you choose to pay is a different decision). Of course, the art to this is to clearly know what the decisions are you actually need to make.

This approach is particularly useful when you are facing a set of bad options.

Once a decision is binary, it’s easier to move forward — you just select the least bad option.

Familiarity makes for better judgement

Your judgement will be sub-optimal when you’re in a location or situation that’s entirely novel and unfamiliar. To get around this, you should implement a system of solid ground rules, combined with a plan to deliberately and systematically increase your familiarity with your operating environment. The faster you can get a feel for things, the better your judgement is likely to be.

Remember that during the period of time you’re building your familiarity with your operating environment, you’ll be more vulnerable to threats, so you’ll need to keep your wits about you. A conservative set of local ground rules will help here.

The narrow laneways of El Mina in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2019.

Alcohol makes for poorer judgement

If I had a dollar for every travel emergency I’ve responded to that was directly related to alcohol, I could have retired years back on a hydrogen powered yacht.

I’m not going to tell you not to drink, but I will say that you should always drink moderately and, most importantly, only in the company of people you trust. I also propose that you don’t drink alone.

End of sermon.

Don’t trust your instincts

We all have a set of innate instincts that guide us when things appear to be less safe. There’s one problem with this: your instincts have been developed based on your experiences in those areas where you spend most of your time. This could be the area around your home or workplace, or the places you visit on your weekends. You’ve learned to recognise patterns of safety and danger that are only applicable in those locations. These instincts are unlikely to serve you as well in Beirut or Cox’s Bazaar.

You should definitely listen to your instincts, however at the same time remember that your instincts won’t be firing properly until you’ve been in a location for a period of time. Again, the more experiences you can deliberately pack into that first few days or weeks to build your familiarity with your environment, the better.

Don’t rush into things

Sometimes it’s ok to see how situations develop before rushing to a solution. Humans are natural problem solvers, and we automatically rush to engineer solutions, even when problems don’t exist. You might find that it’s ok to let things play out, at least for a little while.

No decision can be a good decision

In fact, you don’t always need to make a decision. Sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing.

Conduct experiments

Don’t be afraid to try different things as a way to build your experience and familiarity with your environment and your understanding of local social dynamics. When you’re heading out, you can plan different experiments and note the outcomes. This is also a great way to learn about social boundaries. These experiments will help to inform your decision-making processes.

Keeping the streets clean in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2019.

Advice can’t replace first hand experience

We all seek advice from others when we enter new environments. While gathering information is a good approach, it can never replace the built up intuition you will gain from experiencing something yourself.

If you are asking around for advice, be mindful regarding what you actually take on board. Each person you speak to will have their own biases and own set of experiences. People also have varying levels of risk tolerance, which will be reflected in the advice they provide.

My approach is generally to ask different people the same question, polling different genders and age groups. I also make sure I check with locals and foreigners. It’s easy to gain an affinity for the first person that takes the time to help you out when you’re in a new and strange environment. I urge you not to do this, and instead deliberately cultivate a range of different sources.

Get intimate with your own biases

We all have biases. These are developed through experiences we’ve had throughout our lives, our media diet, and the influence of our friends and family. Biases are learned — you’re not born with them. When it comes to operating successfully in higher-risk environments, you need to learn to manage them lest they manage you.

Whenever you’re faced with a situation and a judgement rushes into your mind, take a moment to analyse it. Is it based on the facts of the situation, and your experience in this environment, or is it a reflection of your biases?

My advice here is to dump as many biases as you can and consider every situation on its merits. The person smiling at you warmly may not be your friend. The guy with the gun glaring at you may not be a threat, but may just be interested in who you are and why you’re there. Often you just don’t know, and you need to learn to be ok with that level of ambiguity.

High fashion in downtown Aleppo, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Take a moment to reflect

As you settle down in the evening with your room temperature lime juice, it’s good to reflect on what you got up to during the day, and how things went. What issues did you confront? Could you have resolved them differently? How do you think you could avoid similar issues in the future? What additional experience do you need to develop?

This isn’t a time to beat yourself up. Rather it’s a period of sensemaking so that you’re able to better process your environment and adapt to it.

Decision-making is hard at the best of times. In a higher-risk environment, the stakes are higher, and a poor decision can get you killed. This may sound overly-dramatic, but it’s a reality that I’ve seen first-hand. Developing good judgement isn’t easy, but it’s an essential requirement to be able to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. Experience is a crucial aspect of developing good judgement, but experience takes time to develop. Adopt a beginner’s mind, and never get comfortable with the level of knowledge and experience you’ve attained so far.

The techniques I’ve outlined above provide you with different tools to develop your decision-making skills.

Try them on for size. I think you’ll find they’re useful.

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

For additional information and insights, read The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments and browse through our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.

S9 The Basics

Fundamental skills for operating in higher-risk environments.