The Most Important Skill the CIA Taught Me

The Most Important Skill the CIA Taught Me
The Most Important Skill the CIA Taught Me

I spent six years with the CIA and had a great time while I was there. I was fortunate enough to get training in almost every self-defense skill you can think of, ranging from shooting to evasive driving. And as important as these skills are, there was something else that was far more important that I learned.

It’s a skill I use every day and it’s why the other day when I was running at 6 am and came across a large black bag in the middle of the sidewalk, I quickly crossed the street to get away from the bag. The skill I’m referring to is “situational awareness.” (Regarding the black bag, it could have been a suspect package, so yes, I’m still a little paranoid.)

You see, these days almost nobody pays attention to their surroundings. If you walk down the street 99% of people will have their heads buried in their iPads or iPhones or whatever the ‘hot’ gadget of the month is. The good news for you is, if you do the exact opposite of these people and walk around with your head up and your hands empty, being aware of your surroundings, then you will greatly lessen the chance of becoming a victim.

For instance…

Criminals are often interviewed in prison and shown pictures of people on the streets and asked who they’d target. It’s no surprise the people they often choose have their heads down, are talking on a cell phone, or look less-confident than the average person. So like I just mentioned, if you are concentrating on walking down the street, while everyone else around you has a phone to their ear, who do you think the criminal is going to target? Probably not you.

In fact, I make it a habit to never talk on my phone when I’m walking down the street or any other location, away from home, and thankfully my fiancée now does the same. You see, right now she goes to school in Baltimore City. And quite frankly, the city is a dump.

The murder rate in Baltimore is one of the highest in the nation and since I spend a lot of time there I’m always on “high alert.” Just the other day, my fiancée and I were walking to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. As we were walking, I noticed a man cross the street several times in front of me acting very suspicious, and he finally ended up crossing the street and standing next to me as we were waiting for the light to change.

Once the light changed…

He began to walk stride for stride with me. For those of you familiar with Jeff Cooper’s color code, I immediately went into condition “orange.” (Criminals who are about to attack you on the street will either make prolonged eye contact with you or walk with you stride for stride.)

Well, after a few steps, I immediately stopped walking, turned to the guy and asked him what time it was. I gave him the “stare” and watched his hands the entire time as he looked at his wrist and told me the time. (He then proceeded to cross the street and walk away from me.)

So why did I ask him the time? Well, when it comes to situational awareness you have to trust your instinct. And I know without a doubt that he was getting ready to do something. So I turned to him, raised my hands so I could strike if I needed to, and watched his hands to make sure he didn’t go for anything. I let him know that I was onto him and I put him on the “defensive” by making him react to me.

Of course, this situation could have been handled a thousand different ways, but the important thing to remember is to trust your instinct and not simply think “it’ll never happen to me, I’m probably just overreacting.”

Whether you ask someone what time it is, like I did, or run the other way, or any number of things, just do something, because you never know when not listening to your gut or not paying attention to your surroundings is going to get you mugged or attacked or worse.

Perhaps best of all, paying attention to your surroundings will help keep you out of situations where you might be forced to use your gun to defend your life, which we know is the last thing any one of us wants to do. So if you’re not doing it already, put away the gadgets and start paying attention.

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Jason Hanson is a former CIA Officer and author of The Covert Guide to Concealed Carry. He is also the creator of the Ultimate Concealed Carry Experience, which allows you to take your concealed carry training without leaving home. For full details about this training, please visit Concealed Carry Academy. You can also follow him on Google+ and Twitter.
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Excellent article- very practical and useful… thanks for sharing your experience!

Rick Goodman

Great article on SA. I always walk with my head on a swivel and have done SDR’s (Surveillance Detection Routes) just for fun – much to the chagrin of my wife. :o)

Its funny sometimes just to people watch in public areas and to observe just how many are absolutely clueless about thier surroundings.


Great Article.

I have always believed as instructors in self defense/firearms training etc. that the first lesson is Awareness.

If you are not aware you cannot move to Diffuse or Defend yourself if need be and that example was perfect.

Diffusion was used and the threat went away but you were also ready to Defend if need be.

Now if I could only get my wife and family members to follow that…funny how I can get paid to teach others the same info but those I love and care about the most get it free and it falls on deaf ears.

Anyway this was spot on and I like how it was not the usual scenario of evading as that is sometimes not an option when an attacker is in that close a proximity.

Turning around and confronting “are you following me” etc. is also something that some would do but it escalates the situation where Defending becomes prevalent as opposed to the Diffusion response of asking a question.

Asking a question is a HUGE distraction and will most often put your would be attacker of guard long enough to find a reason to leave you alone.

Bad guys are always looking for perfect targets and therefore reasons why they should/should not pick you.

Confusing them or catching them off guard in a non confrontation way as described above is priceless.


Larry G

well, you thought a black bag was “suspect” and so you may have been wrong about the guy crossing the street. sounds like you’re trying to sell books.