Could you survive interrogation?

A spy tries to survive interrogation? Crossroads Foundation Photos, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


He was afraid. The room was dark. The voices harsh. They suspected he was a spy. But could he hold his nerve?

Some years ago, Channel 4 ran a reality TV show in the UK – Spies – where a small group of ordinary citizens were trained in espionage tradecraft and tested to see if they’d hold up as potential MI6 agents.

This month’s blog brings six vital techniques taught to the would-be spies so they could survive interrogation. And they turn out to be remarkably useful in ordinary life for both physical and verbal self-defence.

1. Keep it simple

Do no more than is necessary.

Only answer the question you’re asked. Everything you add gives ammunition to the other side. The more you say, the more chance there is of getting caught out.

In both physical and verbal confrontations, it’s easy to overcomplicate matters. Simplicity is the key. Having said that, simplicity is hard.

This applies equally to any verbal attack or argument in daily life. It’s tempting to put in an extra dig, a self-justification or a criticism. Don’t. It just adds fuel to the fire. In this way, I’ve seen people snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Similarly, in physical self-defence, it’s tempting to add an extra punch or a kick, to overstretch a joint or inflict pain (accidentally on purpose). Again, don’t. You may inadvertently provide the attacker with a way to counter. Worse, you may do real damage and end up in court.

Remember, you are only legally allowed to do what is necessary to make yourself safe.

Stay centred and just deal with what’s in front of you.

2. Establish rapport

Establish rapport with the interrogator – you want him (or her) to feel warm towards you.

The hypnotherapist Milton Erikson used to say that anything is possible if you have strong rapport.

You can learn complex techniques for establishing rapport. They’ll involve anything from body language to eye-movements. But the truth is that all rapport comes down to focusing on the other person.

Listen. When under verbal attack, one effective strategy is to draw the other person out. Find out their real reasons for attacking you, and if possible move towards a goal that you can both agree on. Put yourself in their place.

In physical Aikido, you often do precisely that – literally: turning alongside your attacker to face the same way. It’s a surprisingly powerful move.

3. Don’t disagree

Don’t fight back, be sarcastic or an any way antagonise.

This is the corollary of establishing rapport. Any attempt to hit back only gives your opponent more targets to aim at.

In verbal Aikido, we talk about avoiding JADE – don’t Justify, Argue, Defend or Excuse. All four can be very tempting, but they risk prolonging the attack. JADE feeds the attacker’s energy.

In physical Aikido, similarly, the temptation to fight back risks making things worse. Aikido isn’t fighting, but nor is it giving in. If you fight your attacker’s force, you’re lost. But if you stay connected – blend with the attacker’s force – you can have all his power at your disposal.

4. Be consistent

To survive interrogation, would-be successful spies should stick hard to their cover story (legend). Have an answer ready that fits consistently.

Does this apply in daily life? Well, yes and no. Certainly, when under verbal attack, constantly changing your story isn’t a good look. It makes you appear untruthful.

Having said that, of course, if the other person is persuasive, there is nothing wrong with accepting you might have been wrong. Giving way on a small matter often allows you to reach positive agreement on the larger issues.

Similarly, in physical Aikido, you need to be consistent in your approach. If you start defending yourself you can’t give up half way. However, there are times when your attacker blocks a technique. At this point, inexperienced Aikidokas will frequently try to force it to work.

Better to find a way round the block, trying different moves, rather than kick at a brick wall.

5. Reveal vulnerabilities

Reveal vulnerabilities, the trainee spies were taught. It helps to get other people in rapport.

Most of us try to hide our weaknesses. Obviously, you need to take care which vulnerabilities you reveal – It’s probably not a good idea to tell your interrogator that you are afraid of heights.

However, in spy school as in daily life, you can gain a great deal by sharing a small, relatable issue.

Under verbal attack, it’s also important to accept valid criticism. Trying to dodge blame can make things worse. Nobody likes fessing up to a mistake, but it can be a surprisingly powerful move, reducing your antagonist’s room to continue the attack.

With a physical attack, the equivalent to dodging blame is fighting your opponent’s strength. It’s far better to retreat if necessary, drawing your opponent in, before blending and taking over.

In some cases, you can go further and present a vulnerability in the form of a target. An attacker who makes rapid feints can be intimidating, as you don’t know which will turn out to be a real blow.

To deal with this, you can try presenting him with an apparent opening. For example, deliberately stand so that you appear vulnerable to a punch to the stomach. If he takes the bait, which he often will, then you’re ready to snap the trap shut, using whatever Aikido technique is suitable.

6. Pay attention to detail

Pay attention to the smallest details.

All too often spies are caught through missing the smallest detail. In verbal self-defence detail matters too.

For example, if an attacker says they are “angry”, don’t risk annoying them further by suggesting they’re feeling “irritable.” That wasn’t what they said. Worse still, don’t mind-read and assume that they’re angry when they haven’t used the word at all.

Listen carefully to the precise words that your attacker uses. Each detail can be useful to you, while getting a detail wrong can inflame the situation.

In physical Aikido, the precise detail of where you stand or put your hands can mean the difference between failure and success. The smallest movement of a foot can put you in a dangerous position or a safe one. While shifting your hand a centimetre can turn a blocked technique into a powerful throw.

Which tips to survive interrogation will you use in daily life?

Six valuable tips. Where do you feel that your weaknesses lie? And which do you think you need to work on? Tell me in the comments below.

And maybe I’ll see you on the Verbal or Physical dojo mat one day. Or undercover in a foreign city, digging out secrets.

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