'It's Situational' is the New 'Tool for your Toolbox'

I’m often surprised at how quickly buzzwords and soundbites make their way through the training world. I suspect this is simply a reflection of the way modern society as a whole operates, but when it comes to defensive training those sayings too often substitute for real thought.

Take, for instance, the old phrase “it’s just another tool for your toolbox.” That one has been around for quite some time now and is a favorite of many instructors. It’s used to justify the teaching of dubious techniques or concepts on the off-chance that they might be of use, someday. This “someday, maybe” idea substitutes for a hard-nosed assessment as to whether they’re really deserving of the time spent in learning and practicing them. You can teach anything, it seems, if you simply say that it’s something you “might need someday”.

The problem with the “tool for the toolbox” metaphor is that it substitutes for real thought about the plausibility of what’s being taught. Not everything has equal plausibility, and by studying what happens in real defensive incidents we can get some idea of what tools are really needed. If we accept everything as being equally plausible, and the skills to deal with them as being part of a big training toolbox, sooner or later we’ll be spending time training skills of lower priority instead of the skills we’re more likely to need.

It’s also used as a defense against serious inquiry. You can justify anything, no matter how far out in left field it might be, by saying “hey, it’s just another tool for your toolbox!” Who doesn’t want a big new toolbox filled with shiny tools? After spending all that money for training courses you certainly want something to show for it, and having a “toolbox” fills that need quite well. What you usually end up, though, with is a toolbox filled with low-quality implements that you’ll never use. Then it’s just a waste of time, money, and storage space — and unused tools rust quickly!

I’m not the only one who’s been criticizing this approach to teaching relevant defensive skills, and over the last couple of years I’m thankfully seeing it used less and less. It’s still out there, mind you; bad training ideas never die, they just seem to fade into the backwaters where instructors don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world.

Unfortunately it’s being replaced with a new and equally useless term: “it’s situational.” Sounds profound, doesn’t it? After all, isn’t EVERYTHING really situational?

Now I’m not saying that nothing is situational, and I’m not talking about the acknowledgement that tasks should drive skills; what I am talking about is its use as a dismissive term, said with conviction and intended to derail rational discussion — just like “tool for the toolbox” did. After all, who can argue with the idea that situations change and therefore everything else does too?

I’ve heard it used a half-dozen times in the last month or so, always attached to a training idea or skill that really doesn’t have much use in the world of private sector self defense. In this context, “it’s situational” implies that there is a specific circumstance out there, somewhere, to which the technique or the concept is perfectly suited, even if we don’t know how plausible that situation is or if any particular technique/concept is the only answer. “It’s situational” sweeps both concerns right under the rug.

It’s that first part which is most often misunderstood and therefore ignored. “Plausible” refers to those things that are reasonable to expect, because there is some historical precedence (or combination of circumstances) which makes them so. Lots of things are merely possible, in the sense that the laws of physics don’t prevent them, but a much smaller subset of those things are plausible — let alone likely.

You can, however, concoct fantasy scenarios — situations — where even the least plausible things happen. If you’re trying to justify a particular favorite technique you can always make up a scenario of unlikely happenstances that would allow or even require that technique. That doesn’t mean it’s at all reasonable, nor that it’s the only answer.

That’s because, even if the situation you or your instructor come up with happens to be plausible, there is often more than one way to handle it. For instance, a lot of scenarios can be more easily handled by simply turning around and walking (or running) away. Playing on the desire of students to seek a gun-centric, martial-arts centric, or any other-centric solution that is situationally appropriate might result in a perfectly plausible scenario with a perfectly plausible solution, but saying “I’m sorry, let me buy your dinner” might be plausible too. In fact, it may be the better choice. We tend to ignore THOSE situational solutions!

This is a common activity on a lot of the gun forums and the more argumentative segments of social media: make up a contrived incident to prove/disprove the efficacy or need for a specific technique or approach, a contrivance which accepts no other alternatives. It’s only when you stop and look at the things which have to happen to make that scenario occur does it start to fall apart, and sometimes it’s the very base assumptions of the scenario which have to be questioned. (The “if you only owned one gun and…” challenge is the perfect example of a fanciful scenario whose base assumptions have to be questioned.)

This is the root of the “it’s situational” failure: it’s possible to imagine any number of situations which make the argument true, but it’s a lot harder to make up plausible scenarios which do — and, very often, impossible to find the kind of statistical support which makes the leap from “plausible” to “likely”. If you’re planning for your own self defense, or the defense of your home and family, you need to do more than imagine; since your time, money and energy are all limited you need to make good decisions about how to prepare. Training and equipping yourself for imaginative incidents is likely to leave you unprepared for the real things that actually do happen.

This is a caution not just for students of defensive technique, but for their instructors. Those who do scenario training (also called Reality-Based Training, or ‘RBT’) need to think carefully about this too. I’ve seen too many RBT scenarios that were fanciful in the extreme; either composed of a series of unlikely coincidences, or designed to have no actual “winning” solution. At best these waste student’s time and money, and at worst can leave students fearful or confused about how to handle similar scenarios — which, thankfully, have little chance of ever actually happening because the concept is so far-fetched. Still, the damage is done and all in the name of being “situational”.

Ultimately, “it’s situational” is usually a cop-out. It’s essentially saying “I can’t prove that this has any realistic value, so I’ll invoke an undefined and unpredictable future event where it could be construed as being uniquely valuable and appropriate.” One can then simply repeat “well, I said it was situational” at any further questioning. The idea changes scope as necessary to make itself true; no matter what objections are raised, there is always some other unforeseeable situation to which it might apply!

Whenever anyone tells you a technique or concept is “situational”, it’s worth asking “what plausible situation would that be?” Then you can evaluate for yourself whether it makes any sense for your life and environment.

Grant Cunningham
Author, Teacher, Consultant

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One Response to “'It's Situational' is the New 'Tool for your Toolbox'”

  1. E. Grimm

    Excellent article!