Small Wars Journal

Making the Most of Spontaneous Civil Engagement: An Introduction to the Engaged Awareness Cycle

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 9:47am

Making the Most of Spontaneous Civil Engagement: An Introduction to the Engaged Awareness Cycle

Andrew J. Bibb

Civil Affairs (CA) Soldiers, by virtue of their being selected for acceptance into the CA branch, are expected to make the most of every opportunity to improve upon existing relationships and seek to create new opportunities for cooperation in support of U.S. objectives. Consequently, U.S. Army CA doctrine requires that CA Soldiers to be proficient in two tactical tasks: Civil Reconnaissance (CR) and Civil Engagement (CE). The first of these, CR, is always “targeted, planned, and coordinated"[1] and generally not to be conducted in a hasty manner.

Conversely, CE may be spontaneous as well as deliberate. Army CA doctrine defines CE as “a deliberate or spontaneous activity or interaction between Civil Affairs forces and nonmilitary individuals or entities, designed to build relationships; reduce or eliminate civil interference and causes of instability; gather, confirm, or deny information; foster legitimacy, or promote cooperation and unified action."[2] It “should be planned in accordance with information requirements, but it can also occur as a result of chance interactions within a dynamic operational environment."[3]

The CA branch of the Army is the proponent for CE as a tactical task, but CA forces are not the only ones who conduct some form of CE regularly. Infantrymen, Cavalry Scouts, Chaplains and their enlisted counterparts, Special Operations Forces, and many others often find themselves interacting with civilians during deployments. These interactions are opportunities to promote U.S. national objectives, foster goodwill, and gather useful information to support the commander’s intent.

Unfortunately, as LTC Krakar, a Civil Affairs officer assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command in 2015, acknowledges:

The U.S. Army lacks sufficient doctrine and training on how conventional forces should productively engage with, or talk to, local populations across the range of military operations...The result is units that are unable to effectively interact in the human domain and unable to understand and influence their area of operations.[4]

The 2019 revision of Field Manual (FM) 3-57: Civil Affairs Operations constitutes a step forward in rectifying this doctrinal deficiency. The specifics of how to conduct CE practically and successfully, however, still require refinement, especially for non-CA forces who do not necessarily receive this kind of training in their respective initial entry training or basic courses.

This is especially problematic when it comes to spontaneous CE. If an engagement is planned even an inexperienced engager can make the most of it through preparation, such as consulting area studies and cultural profiles, rehearsing talking points, and reviewing information requirements. Spontaneous CE, however, allows for no such luxuries. In these interactions the engager is expected to make the most out of an entirely unknown, and often chaotic, situation.

The Engaged Awareness Cycle

To facilitate the successful execution of spontaneous CE among both CA and non-CA forces, I propose the Engaged Awareness Cycle (EAC) as an effective and manageable method to take advantage of ad hoc engagements. The EAC provides servicemembers with a mental framework that is structured enough to direct the engager’s thoughts and actions effectively, but flexible enough to adapt to any and every spontaneous interaction with civilians (or, for that matter, other military personnel).

The EAC is a process that occurs in the mind of the engager over the course of the interaction. It is not a template for conversation, but rather a series of cognitive steps that may, and likely should, repeat itself many times over in the course of an engagement. These steps, outlined below in Figure 1, guide the engager from the point of having little-to-no awareness of a given situation to achieving a firm enough grip on the reality of the situation to make decisions and take action that is specifically focused toward a desired end state.


Figure 1. The Engaged Awareness Cycle (EAC), Created by Andrew J. Bibb[5]

The EAC and its attendant concepts may seem basic, but to apply them deliberately in a spontaneous context is to create order out of chaos. The EAC makes intentional what a person’s brain attempts to do automatically, which is to assign purpose and direction to a given interaction. Intentionally employing the EAC harnesses this natural tendency and makes it manageable. Instead of hoping for accidental progress, it empowers the engager to take an active role and move the conversation toward a desired end.

The EAC is so named because it is impossible to have awareness without understanding, and one may understand a given situation but without corresponding action that understanding is useless. The power to influence is found in the combination of these three in tandem and oriented toward a given goal. For example, an addict may become aware that his use of a given substance is negatively affecting his life. This awareness, however, is useless unless it is coupled with an understanding of the factors that drive such addiction, or at a minimum, the realization that he requires help beyond what he can do for himself. The power of this understanding, when achieved, lies dormant until the addict decides to do something about it. He can never take productive action until he achieves a sufficient degree of understanding, and this understanding is impossible to achieve until he becomes aware of the problem and its potential solutions. It is when the addict combines these three that he takes his first step down the path to freedom and sobriety.[6]

The “Why”: Information, Relationships, and Influence

Before exploring how the Engaged Awareness Cycle works, it is important to understand why the process is so critical to successful Civil Engagement. CA as a branch (and, by extension, CE as a tactical task) exists at an essential level for the following core reasons:

1. Gather and Integrate Relevant Civil Information

2. Build and Cultivate Meaningful Relationships

- 1 & 2a. Convert Information and Relationships into Influence

The EAC provides a way for the engager to maximize opportunities within an engagement to gather and communicate the maximum amount of relevant information, build a given relationship on a bedrock of shared understanding, and increase his or her influence as a consequence.

Relevant civil information, from both a practical and doctrinal standpoint, is critical to the success of any military operation. Spontaneous CE is an opportunity for the engager to answer outstanding questions, thereby facilitating the commander’s situational awareness and decision-making process. Information gathered from a successful engagement “adds to the understanding of civil considerations and ultimately become inputs to the commander’s COP [Common Operational Picture]."[7] In short, the goal is to “acquire and improve awareness in interpersonal exchanges"[8] for the benefit of our commander, organization(s), and national objectives.

Army CA doctrine recognizes that “relationships and coordination between various civil entities can enhance or enable successful mission accomplishment."[9] The civil component of the battlefield is no different than any other realm in that it is impossible to get anything done without networking and taking advantage of opportunities for cooperation. The building and cultivating of these relationships depend on being informed about a given individual, group, or situation, but it also provides an avenue for increasing the flow of relevant information.

Given that during spontaneous CE there is little to no time to prepare a specific plan or desired outcome beforehand, the engager should generally be “focused on gathering information rather than disseminating information."[10] This is true of many engagements, but even more so when the engagement is unplanned. This protects the engager from speaking out of turn and puts the emphasis on building awareness before trying to influence a given situation rather than the other way around.

Under the EAC, influence is subsidiary to both information and relationships because we “cannot influence a world we do not understand! We cannot influence geographical areas, countries, people, and categories if we do not acknowledge and appreciate their frames of reference, their culture, belief systems, values, needs, and motivations."[11] This level of understanding and the corresponding potential for influence come only through gathering relevant information and cultivating relationships.

The three steps of the EAC are so interlinked that much of the time it may seem that they are occurring simultaneously. However, they are discussed here in order of their natural progression for the sake of clarity. Paying close attention leads to gains in understanding, which in turn creates opportunities to seize the initiative through appropriate and timely action.

Pay Close Attention

Paying close attention to people, places, things, and ideas starts the process of building one’s awareness of whatever is being paid attention to. In identifying things “with careful attention and language, you bring them forward as viable, obedient objects, detaching them from their underlying near-universal interconnectedness. You simplify them. You make them specific and useful and reduce their complexity."[12] When we pay attention we order our perception of the world around us and the reality in which we find ourselves, which then allows us to make sense of things, assign meaning to them, and interact with them effectively.

We must acknowledge, however, that awareness begins with the self. In the context of spontaneous CE, paying attention to our own biases, motivations, and presuppositions allows us to examine them critically and, within the context of a specific engagement, evaluate which of these are helpful or harmful to the conversation:

[The] many deeply held beliefs we carry within ourselves, whether they are explicit in the form of religious convictions or unconsciously absorbed from the value systems embedded in how we were brought up, affect in many more ways than we are aware of the lenses through which we experience the world around us. This is particularly so for experiencing the ‘otherness’ in international relations across political and cultural boundaries or among opposing interest groups.[13]

Awareness of our own assumptions does not require that we abandon our principles to communicate across cultural lines. It does, however, enable us to navigate those differences in a way that is both tactful and principled, acknowledging that “different perceptions of the same situation” may occur “when processed through different schemas and underlying assumptions."[14]

Paying attention to our emotions, which are linked to and driven by our beliefs at a very deep level, has a similar effect. This “awareness of one’s own emotions and of the other’s emotional experience impacts how one subsequently acts.'[15] We are able to regulate our emotions only after we are aware of them. Clinical studies suggest “that self-awareness of one’s own emotions may well go hand in hand with perceiving accurately what one’s counterpart is emotionally experiencing nurturing cooperation processes.'[16]

The need to pay attention to the others involved in the conversation, especially the primary subject of the engagement, may seem like a given but the degree to which this needs to happen is often unappreciated. Paying close attention to the other party involves more than just listening for the sake of coming up with a response. It is about listening and watching with the goal of understanding the perceptions, presuppositions, motivations, wants, and needs of the other parties involved.[17] 

This “deep listening” is essential to both successful communication and mutual respect.[18] It builds trust and establishes a baseline for conduct “that demonstrates awareness of the other side’s concerns.” To “ignore, misconstrue, or deny and deprecate” those concerns “is likely to be experienced by the other side as disrespectful, insulting, and even humiliating."[19] In a spontaneous CE scenario, this failure to appreciate the other side’s perspective can derail what would otherwise be a unique opportunity to gather information, enhance the relationship, and grow in influence. CE “is often personality based and loaded with organizational biases,"[20] so building and maintaining awareness of what the interested parties care about is essential.

Paying close attention sensitizes the engager to changes in attitudes and emotions throughout the course of the conversation.[21] For instance, if the engager unwittingly says or does something that offends the other party he or she may be able to recover if the misstep is recognized immediately and accounted for going forward. If the engager repeats the offense, however, recovery may not be an option. Depending on the culture, much of this change in attitude and emotion is expressed through nonverbal cues.[22] A prior familiarity with the specifics of a given culture’s nonverbal communication techniques facilitates engaged awareness, but the engager can make up a lot of ground by paying attention to the other party’s posture and body language in the moment.

The engager may go a long way towards facilitating productive conversation by also paying attention to the environment in which the engagement is taking place. From seating arrangements to disruptive noises, assessing his or her environment allows the engager to modify that environment, within reason, to facilitate conversation. This may be as simple as closing a window or moving some chairs around, but whatever is done should be for the purpose of facilitating the primary parties’ ownership of the conversation.

In summary, paying close attention accomplishes at least three things in spontaneous CE:

  • It builds awareness of the engager’s presuppositions and assumptions and those of the other parties, allowing him or her to account for these differences while continually assessing conversation.
  • It communicates respect for the other parties and commands it in return.
  • It maintains the engager’s sensitivity to changes in attitudes, moods, and interest levels over the course of the conversation.[23]

The greatest benefit of paying close attention, however, is that it enables the engager to gain a sufficient understanding of the people, problems, and circumstances in question. The following two steps are shorter because the bulk of the work in an engagement is done in the “pay close attention” phase. Steps two and three are simply a matter of putting the resulting awareness to good use.

Gain Sufficient Understanding

What constitutes “sufficient” understanding is largely subjective. It varies broadly between spontaneous engagements and depends on the complexity of the topics under discussion, the people involved, and the circumstances under which the engagement is occurring. It is up to the engager to assess when this point is reached and how much may be accomplished given that degree of understanding. That being said, sufficient understanding may generally be defined as the point at which an opportunity to take action toward a given purpose manifests itself.

Gaining sufficient understanding may be seen as an extension of paying close attention because understanding grows out of awareness, which grows out of attention having been paid. Understanding, however, makes awareness actionable. The engager who understands the dynamics and factors involved in an engagement is able to begin to guide the conversation towards his or her desired end state. In a conversation that seems directionless and unproductive, gaining sufficient understanding allows the engager to propose an impromptu agenda and give purpose and structure to the conversation.

In addition to the conversation, an understanding of one’s environment may help to establish common ground from which to launch a meaningful dialogue. Whether the conversation takes place in a home, office, market, military facility, or any other venue, chances are that there is something about the environment that indicates something about the engaged party’s interests, concerns, or motivations. If nothing else, the environment provides an immediate shared experience between the parties that can act as a catalyst for further discussion.

Sufficient understanding also enables the engager to incorporate the wants, needs, concerns, and motivations of the other interested parties into his or her analysis and decisions. Through understanding these “one has more of an opportunity of thinking creatively about solutions that will be responsive to the needs of both sides."[24] Not incorporating the others’ concerns virtually guarantees failure, “but understanding or even acknowledging” those deeply held interests “can lead to a breakthrough."[25] It can establish common ground from which to work through to a solution.

Sufficient understanding allows the engager to make sense of the various factors influencing the conversation and the other parties, showing that he or she grasps the reality of the situation rather than superimposing his or her own flawed interpretation of those factors. Concerning diplomats on the international stage, Angelo Codevilla observes that their “words will persuade competent foreign officials insofar as they represent a compelling reality...because reality drives events, diplomacy is about truth, precisely conveyed. Attempting to misrepresent reality casts doubts on your strengths and highlights your weaknesses."[26] The same can be said of those conducting spontaneous CE. A commitment to truth is essential to establishing trust, and that is only possible given a sufficient understanding of the situation and parties involved.

Seize the Initiative

Most information has a shelf-life, and most conversations have a cap on their potential for productive dialogue. Seizing the initiative is about taking advantage of conversational opportunities when they present themselves. The awareness and understanding achieved in a given interaction may open a brief window of opportunity to broach a sensitive topic, redirect the conversation, drive home a point, make a request, or a myriad of other options. One of those options may include simply securing a second meeting through which to continue building the relationship, and in advance of which the engager will have time to prepare more thoroughly.

Throughout the conversation, using the awareness and understanding built during the first two steps of the EAC, the engager should answer, and continually refine their answer to, the question, “What do I want to walk away from this engagement having accomplished?” A sufficient understanding will allow the engager to determine if there is any opportunity at all, or if their time is better spent pursuing other courses of action. If the engager believes the interaction to be potentially advantageous, however, he or she must be able to define what that benefit looks like and be prepared to pursue it when the conditions are appropriate.

Seizing the initiative in spontaneous CE should always be tied to one or more of the three ends discussed earlier: relevant information, beneficial relationships, and meaningful influence. Conversation for the sake of conversation is not a bad thing, but it is not CE. Awareness and understanding create opportunities to realize those three ends, but the engager must be prepared to recognize and pursue them when those opportunities present themselves.


A contributing author to the Handbook of International Negotiation: Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Diplomatic Perspectives, which heavily influenced the writing of this article, asserts, “With the increase of bitter ethno-political conflicts, there is a pressing need for well-trained professionals who are equipped to work in war zones and understand the local culture and situation.”[27] The expertise necessary to operate in this environment includes the ability to make sense of an unforeseen engagement, establish what may be accomplished within the confines of that interaction, and manifest positive results out of a chaotic situation. It is my hope that the Engaged Awareness Cycle serves as a tool to empower Civil Affairs forces and servicemembers across the U.S. military to do so effectively.


[1] FM 3-57: Civil Affairs Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2019), 1-4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James N. Krakar, "The Civil Engagement Spectrum: A Tool for the Human Domain," Military Review 95, no. 5 (2015) 20,

[5] The Engaged Awareness Cycle (EAC) was created by Andrew J. Bibb and finalized in its current form as of February 24, 2020.

[6] The author has found this to be true based on his own personal experience.

[7] FM 3-57: Civil Affairs Operations, 2-4.

[8] Mauro Galluccio, ed., Handbook of International Negotiation: Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Diplomatic Perspectives (Cham: Springer, 2015) 234,

[9] FM 3-57: Civil Affairs Operations, 2-4.

[10] Angelo M. Codevilla, A Student’s Guide to International Relations (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010) 58.

[11] Galluccio, Handbook of International Negotiation: Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Diplomatic Perspectives, 417.

[12] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018), 276.

[13] Galluccio, Handbook of International Negotiation: Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Diplomatic Perspectives, 160.

[14] Ibid., 319.

[15] Ibid., 178.

[16] Ibid., 179.

[17] Ibid., 94, 99.

[18] Ibid., 93.

[19] Ibid., 119.

[20] Assad A. Raza, "Civil Affairs: The U.S. Army's Civil Engagement Force," Small Wars Journal (Jun 11, 2019),

[21] Galluccio, Handbook of International Negotiation: Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Diplomatic Perspectives, 100.

[22] Ibid., 99.

[23] Ibid., 220.

[24] Ibid., 219.

[25] Ibid., 320.

[26] Angelo M. Codevilla, A Student’s Guide to International Relations (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010), 53.

[27] Galluccio, Handbook of International Negotiation: Interpersonal, Intercultural, and Diplomatic Perspectives, 241.

Categories: civil affairs - US Army

About the Author(s)

Captain Andrew Joseph Bibb, U.S. Army, currently serves as a Civil Affairs Team Leader in the 83d Civil Affairs Battalion at Fort Bragg, NC. He holds a B.S. in Government: Politics & Policy and an M.A. in Public Policy from Liberty University. Before becoming a Civil Affairs Officer, CPT Bibb served as an Infantryman with the 3rd Battalion (Ranger) 75th Infantry and the 3rd Infantry Division. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as operational deployments to Bahrain, Latvia, and Germany. His Small Wars Journal article “Civil Affairs, Winston Churchill, and the Power of Paying Attention” was featured by the US Senate in the Congressional Record Vol. 165, No. 131.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:21am

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