CIA/MI6 Soft Skills – Training Like Bond and Bourne

By on June 18, 2018

The Bioneer is not just about becoming stronger. It’s about becoming stronger, smarter, faster and more cunning. It’s about being ‘ready for anything’.

Few people are as well trained or as well-rounded in this way as members of the MI6, CIA, KGB, or Secret Services. In my video/article on ‘Zombie Apocalypse Training’, I said that Jason Bourne would probably be the best person to have on your side in that scenario due to his wide range of practical skills.

Jason Bourne isn’t real, but the character is nevertheless based on real-life operatives who have been through incredibly awesome training in order to develop skills and abilities that are almost superhuman. These often involve ‘soft skills’ such as the ability to manipulate, to blend in, and to quickly identify a threat and respond to it in an appropriate manner.

Situational Awareness

And for most of us, these are the kinds of skills that are likely to be more useful, more of the time. Whether that means responding to a real-life crisis to get ourselves and our loved ones out safely, or whether it means being a suave operator in business in order to climb the executive ladder.

We can certainly learn a thing or two from Jason Bourne and James Bond. So here are some examples of cool training methods that real-life intelligence officers used to develop these kinds of skills.

Developing Soft Skills

First: what is the life of an MI6 agent really like? Disclaimer: I am not a member of CI6, CIA or any other type of secret agent! This information is based on research: I’ve read books and articles, spoken to friends, and watched interviews on the subject.

Predictably, secret agents aren’t really involved in taking down secret volcano bases with lasers pointed at the Earth. In fact, their job involves relatively little actual conflict. Instead, they are tasked with identifying and coaxing ‘informants’ into providing information willingly about the country or organization in question. They need to do this while also not being caught out.

This explains why those ‘soft skills’ such as persuasion and the ability to blend in are so important – far more so than learning parkour or hand-to-hand combat.

So how might you train someone to go on a ‘charm offensive’ in this manner?

I’ve been reading a book called The Big Breach by Richard Thomlinson, which is the true account of an ex MI6 agent. In this book, Tomlinson details several exercises used to hone these types of skills. My favorite is one called ‘Perfect Stranger’.

In ‘Perfect Stranger’, the aim is simple: you are dropped off on your own at a random pub (located in Portsmouth, England in the example given in the book) and tasked with getting the name, contact details, and passport number of someone there. How you go about this is entirely up to you, but of course the challenge lies in the fact that most people aren’t happy to give out such personal details freely to strangers.

Take a moment and think about how you might go about doing this.

The solution that Thomlinson came up with was to offer two girls the opportunity to take a ride on his imaginary boat the next day – but said that he’d need their passport details for the coast guard. Another agent in the book apparently used a survey. When I played along with this mental exercise the first time, I decided I would pretend to be a talent agent of some sort – preying on narcissism seems a good strategy to me.

I haven’t actually tried this however, and of course it’s one thing to come up with an idea and quite another to actually effectively execute that idea. Most of us are naturally inclined toward honesty and struggle to lie convincingly – or even strike up conversation with strangers!

I rather suspect that scoring high on the psychopath scale would be an asset for a spy – just as we know it is for business executives.

Now, there’s no reason that you can’t go about trying this exercise yourself. But I hazard that you would be better served to start with something much smaller and to build up to that kind of thing. Most of us are almost crippled by social pressures and we find it very hard to break social norms and etiquette.

But with practice and training, you can liberate yourself from these tendencies and be okay with being awkward, being rude, being forthright, and being dishonest. While I don’t recommend you use these powers for evil, there is a great deal of benefit in learning to overcome social pressure for negotiation in business, for meeting new people, and more.

So, practice being strange! Tim Ferriss recommends lying down in a public space and ignoring the overwhelming social pressure to get up. I’ve often suggested buying something in a shop (somewhere you won’t visit often) and using a strange voice, or creating a fabricated back-story when talking to the checkout assistant. All of this can be described as practicing your ‘social engineering’.

Actually, the book The Game, by Neil Strauss, details how many pickup artists will use similar techniques in order to develop the confidence to approach members of the opposite sex. That means striking up conversation with complete strangers (even calling random numbers!), or asking people for their number with no prelude. I tried this at university – asking the next person who walked past me if I could have their number – and it actually worked!

I very recently uploaded a video/post on CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy. Many of the techniques I discussed there can similarly be used to develop more confidence and to stay calm in a scenario that would normally get your heart rate racing.

Blending In

Another trick that Tomlinson had to learn while in MI6, was how to blend in. More specifically, he had to learn how to check his six: to make sure he wasn’t being followed but without looking suspicious by constantly looking behind himself and appearing shifty.

To do this, he would engage in a practice called ‘dry-cleaning’. One technique used here is to engage in a ‘cover activity’ that would naturally involve a lot of looking around, stopping and checking. A good example is pretending that you are no a shopping trip for instance.

Another trick is to plot a route specifically to provide yourself with opportunities to spot followers and observers. A good route home for instance might involve a lot of looping back on yourself, or taking lifts and escalators that can act as ‘surveillance traps’.

Another important skill is being able to create a believable cover story in order to disguise your true identity and objectives. Members of MI6 are not allowed to tell friends and family their real occupations – Tomlinson had to tell people that he was a

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness means being constantly aware of your surroundings. Learning to identify potential threats early on, and taking note of important aspects of your environment such as weapons and escape routes.

There is a fantastic article over at the Art of Manliness that describes this skill in more detail and provides a whole bunch of different ways to develop it. An important aspect is the OODA loop, which stands for ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act’ and was outlined by John Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist.


Observation is achieved by smartly positioning yourself in a room so as to be able to observe as much of the space as possible. That might mean choosing the corner seat in a restaurant for instance so that no one can sneak up behind you.

I would also like to refer you to my posts and videos on wide-angle vision or ‘splatter vision’ at this point. Here, you engage your peripheral vision in order to take in a wider spectrum of information while staying calmly alert.

Being more mindful of your surroundings is also important – and not easy. I’m someone who has a tendency to be in my own head, dreaming up ideas and plans rather than focussing on what’s actually going on around me. To rectify this, I gamify my attention by challenging myself to look out for specific things in my environment: counting the number people I see wearing blue for instance.


The ‘orient’ component here is knowing what to look for – and how to orient yourself as a result. To do this, try to establish a ‘baseline’ of normal behavior and things that you expect to encounter in that environment. What is the ‘average’ person in this room or space doing? From there, you can then look for outliers – people who are acting differently or strangely.

Of course, we must be aware that not everyone who is acting differently is going to be dangerous – but they may warrant a little extra scrutiny in order to rule them out.

When inspecting someone more closely, an understanding of bodylanguage may be useful. This means looking for clusters of behaviors that might together point to a specific motivation. The angle of someone’s food can tell us who they are interested in for instance – but it may also just be a comfortable position. I will come back to this because in future I’d like to do a whole video and article on bodylanguage. Let me know if that’s something you’d like to see.

Memorizing important details might also be useful. Again, this is something I might come back to in future but for now I recommend checking out my video on Sherlock Holmes training.

Decide and Act

Finally, the ‘Decide’ and ‘Act’ stages are what determine how you will respond to what you see. At what point do you make the decision to leave a potentially dangerous environment? At what point do you decide to call the police?

The most important thing is to have a plan. As soon as you spot something that might go wrong, think of a way that you could mitigate or evade the situation.

Another tip is to consider that we often will not act soon enough. There are countless reasons for this, explained in many different psychology textbooks. Things like social pressure and diffusion of responsibility cause us to often stay quiet and still until it is too late. If in doubt: act.

More Models

There are also many more models for understanding and teaching situational awareness. One for instance focusses on the use of four different ‘states’: objects, frames, implications, and event horizons. This model places more emphasis on not just the object of interest, but also the context (frames), and how the situation might develop and progress.

A similar approach is ‘Endsley’s model’ which discusses three stages or steps, those being perception, comprehension, and projection. Again, the ‘highest level’ of SA here is considered the ability to project future actions of the elements in the environment. That is the ultimate ‘end goal’ of developing greater awareness.

To practice, try situating yourself in a good vantage spot in a café or on the train and watching the people around you. As well as looking out for potential people of interest (people who are acting unusually), try to guess ‘what will happen next’.

There are criticisms of these models of course, and many competing options. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia page is actually a very good resource for further reading.

In future, I plan on discussing a related topic: body language. Let me know in the comments down below if that’s something you’re interest in.


Richard Tomlinson states in The Big Breach, that MI6 agents actually aren’t required to engage in hand-to-hand combat or firefights very often. Their job is to blend in, after all. Nevertheless, they still receive a basic amount of combat and survival training. MI6 collects intel, but it is the job of other organizations to act on that intel.

And it would seem that there is a similar lack of emphasis on this kind of hand-to-hand training in the CIA. However, what they do have is the Special Activities Division’s Special Operations Group (which has the disappointing acronym of SAD/SOG – though the name has been recently changed to Special Activities Center), which carries out strategic covert operations. These members are generally recruited from the special operations forces and joint special operations command, though some do come from within the CIA. The CIA hires these individuals as Paramilitary Operations Officers and Specialized Skills Officers, and they undergo a Clandestine Service Trainee program to learn their additional skills.

Still, there are definitely abilities that we can learn from across these organizations that could be useful in real life survival situations. John Hanson is an ex-CIA operative who now teaches many of these skills at

In general, the types of self defence training that are preferred by these types of groups seem to be focussed on practical, urban, and adaptive applications. In other words, they teach how to fight against a knife in close quarters, how to turn every day objects into weapons, and how to fight dirty when necessary.

In one TV show for instance, Jason Hanson demonstrated how he trains nurses to fight off attackers using a flashlight – showing how it could be used to crack open a coconut and therefore, most likely, a human skull.

I made a video a while ago on how to be more resourceful by overcoming ‘functional fixedness’. That is a little more recommended watching for you. But as a general tip, there are many innocuous objets that you can carry which can be used as powerful weapons in the right circumstances. Even a phone can be used for breaking out of locks and holds.

Systema is similarly a style of martial art used by Russian KGB and counter intelligence. This teaches how to take a punch, how to get out of the line of sight of weapons, and disarm opponents.

I hazard that wing chun techniques could also be useful: for generating power over a short distance for instance and dealing with attacks in an energy efficient manner. A well-trained kung fu practitioner would theoretically be able to use their skills to fight off an attacker sat next to them on the subway.

These are the focuses of any fighting style aimed at these kinds of special operatives: practicality, opportunity, swift conflict resolution, context, and fighting dirty. As a personal note though, I would also emphasize the importance of the psychological aspect: of being able to stay calm and level headed and make the best decision to not only ensure your survival, but also to maintain the integrity of your mission.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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