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An FBI agents guide to Mental Toughness

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FBI, Mental Toughness

In this article I interview LaRae Quy an undercover and counterintelligence FBI agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. Government. LaRae is an author, coach and expert on Mental Toughness.

We talk:

This article is an excerpt from the upcoming Life Lessons podcast.

I cannot reasonably condense LaRae’s stories about murderers and spies so this article will simply focus on the techniques and tips themselves.

Let’s begin:

The secret to successful interrogations

Michael Frank: What are some of the biggest lies and myths about the FBI? And what shocked or surprised you the most when you joined?

LaRae Quy: Well like everybody else, I watched TV and movies and I saw these FBI agents beating people up into submission and interrogating them with all these techniques to get the truth.

I took an interrogation seminar and I expected for the lid to be opened so I could peek into all the great ways that we could force and coerce people into confessing. And you know what? This guy who led the interrogation seminar, I mean he had a face that looked like it was chiseled from a piece of wood. It wasn’t a warm and fuzzy face, but he stood there and he said I’m going to tell you something:

“The secret to getting any answer you want is to develop a rapport, and if you can’t do that, you’ll never be a good interviewer let alone a good interrogator”

He said that’s the first place to start. You’ve got to build rapport. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a terrorist or a spy or a bank robber or a murderer, you’ve got to develop rapport. That is the first step.

That was an eye opener for me because I just assumed that the movies and the books were right, and that confessions could be beaten out of people, but they can’t. That’s the biggest joke of all. People confess because they need to unburden themselves, because you ask the right question, in the right way, at the right time.

In order to develop rapport with people you have to get to know them, and you have to get into their mindset and get to know what makes them tick, and you’ve got to understand why they believe what they believe, and what happened to them in their life that led them to this conclusion. And when you get that far, you develop a rapport with them.

And I tell you that probably more than anything has affected my outlook on people in general. So before I judge anybody too harshly, I try to put myself in their shoes to understand a little bit more about where they’re coming from.

What is Mental Toughness?

Michael Frank: Okay let’s talk about mental toughness and I’d like to begin with a definition of terms. How do you define mental toughness? What is it?

LaRae Quy: I define mental toughness as managing your thoughts, emotions, and behavior in ways that will set you up for success.

How to build Mental Toughness

Michael Frank: How do we actually go about developing mental toughness? What should we do specifically?

LaRae Quy: Most people think mental toughness is about bulldozing their way through obstacles and roadblocks. It’s not.

The first place to start with building mental toughness is developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence. You need to know, and be able to predict, how you’re going to respond under stress, and you need to be able to control that response and make sure that you respond in a way that you want, instead of just reacting emotionally from a place of anger or jealousy or whatever emotion is going through you.

You need to know how you’re going to respond when confronted in a stressful situation. Does your voice go high? Does it go low? Do you get quiet? Do you act inappropriately? Do you say the wrong thing? You need to know and be able to predict your response when an unknown situation throws itself in your face. That is the most important thing. You need to build self-awareness.

How to build self-awareness

Michael Frank: How does one go about building self-awareness?

LaRae Quy: Everybody should have a petri dish. A petri dish is a safe place where you can experiment and get more experience and find out how you respond to different emotions as they arise in different situations.

You don’t want to wait until you’re in front of your boss or a colleague or a client to discover how you respond to stress and pressure or whatever emotion the situation is going to evoke in you.

Michael Frank: I always had a terrifying fear of public speaking. I hated public speaking with a passion. So for me a petri dish might be joining Toastmasters, a place where I could fail safely and get experience and learn new skills, and how how my body reacted to stress and pressure, but not in a high pressure situation. Toastmasters might be my petri dish.

LaRae Quy: Exactly. Identify those times and situations where you might experience discomfort. And it’s the negative emotions that are likely to get carried away when you’re in a situation with a colleague or a boss or in traffic. And it’s important to be able to keep those negative emotions under control.

Introspection, honesty, and self-analysis

Michael Frank: In addition to experimenting in the Petri dish is anything else that we should be doing to build our self-awareness and emotional intelligence?

LaRae Quy: Well, I think just being very honest with yourself, and this is where a bit of introspection becomes important.

The Petri dish I give as an example, but I gotta tell you that those experiences won’t help you unless you stop to analyze them. I mean everybody needs to reflect upon the significance of their own stories and their own experiences, because they make them who they are.

And if those experiences didn’t necessarily produce something that you’re proud of, or if there is something you wish you’d done differently, fine. Just face it, label it for what it is, don’t dwell on it, but admit it and learn from it. Look at it and say, okay, this is what I could do differently next time, but don’t get bogged down in self-criticism and pity.

Going outside of your comfort zone

Michael Frank: How do you go about controlling your focus and staying calm during a high pressure situation, whether it’s a presentation, examination, or a life and death hostage negotiation?

LaRae Quy: Well I’ll give you an example. Growing up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, I never learned how to swim. One of the requirements to get through the FBI academy was to jump off a high diving board into an Olympic sized pool with an M-16 and then swim to the other side. I remember getting to the top of the diving board knowing I couldn’t swim, and to make matters worse I discovered in that moment that I was afraid of heights. It was truly an “oh crap” moment. And so I stood there and I watched as even experienced swimmers came up gagging.

The only four letter word I never heard in my 24 years in the FBI was “can’t”. That was the only four letter word I never heard. And I really wanted to say I “can’t” make this jump. I can’t do it. I can’t swim. But I needed to roll with the punches. I needed to be resilient. I needed to step into the unknown. And that’s the whole purpose of the academy. They give you this mindset that you can throw me into any squad, anywhere, anytime, and I will land on my feet.

So instinctively I just started just ticking off reasons in my mind why I wouldn’t drown:

  • My coach was there and he was an excellent swimmer
  • The FBI wouldn’t want the lawsuit that my parents would launch against them if I drowned
  • I’d never heard of an FBI agent trainee drowning
  • I had a life vest if I wanted one
  • I knew that the FBI was something I really wanted to do. It was important to me. This was my path. This was my future.

And so I took a deep breath and I jumped and I immediately sunk to the bottom because I was just all nerves, but then I came back up and I was still holding the gun because that was part of the requirement, and then I more or less crawled on the bottom to the other side of the pool, but I made it. And so I graduated from the academy. But it was one of those things where I really had to focus on being positive. You just do what you have to do.

Michael Frank: Yeah I think the longer you wait, the worse it gets. I’ve skydived before, but I’ve never bungee jumped, however I always thought that if I did I definitely wouldn’t want to wait until they counted down:

3…

2…

1…

Instead I would jump as soon as they said three, I wouldn’t want time to think

LaRae Quy: Yeah you don’t want time to second guess.

Optimism vs Positive thinking

Michael Frank: One thing I find interesting is that you speak about the difference between optimism and positive thinking and you say that they are not the same. What’s the difference between optimism and positive thinking?

LaRae Quy: Oh, there is so much difference. Thank you for asking that question. Positive thinkers are not necessarily happy – or optimistic. Instead positive thinkers are resilient, and that means they’re blunt realists, they will look misery right in the eye, and they will confront the most brutal facts of the day without expecting things to change, and they will adapt to their circumstances without ever losing hope.

In a nutshell: Positive thinkers believe that they will prevail in their circumstances, rather than believing their circumstances will change.

Admiral James Stockdale was captured during the Vietnam War, and he was a prisoner of war for seven and a half years, and he was tortured routinely. And when he was finally released the author James Collin asked him, who didn’t make it out alive?

And he said, oh, that’s easy, it was the optimists. They were the ones who said, oh, keep up your spirits, Christmas will be here and we’ll be out by Christmas. Christmas came and went. Then they’d say keep your spirits, we’ll be out by Easter. And then Easter came and went. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And eventually they just died of a broken heart.

Positive thinkers are mentally tough and they make it through the day without expecting their circumstances to change, whereas optimists really do think things will change and get better. But they do not. I mean that’s just reality and I have to say that FBI arrests are not made hoping things will go well. In fact, we make all of our arrests by anticipating what can go wrong. We’re positive thinkers, but we’re also intelligent thinkers, and we prepare for all of that along the way. It doesn’t mean we’re negative people, it just means we’re realists.

Michael Frank: It sounds very much like the way that UFC fighters train. They train for the absolute worst case scenario that can happen, because they know that if they can handle the worst case scenario, they can handle anything. The good will take care of itself.

LaRae Quy: That’s exactly right. And it’s smart to think that way. Whatever situation you find yourself in ask yourself: How could this go bad? And what should I do if it does? And how can I respond if it goes like this or this or this? And by the time you get done with that, if the response goes well, you’re like, oh my gosh, this is a piece of cake.

Visualization

Michael Frank: At the FBI did you spend a lot of time mentally and physically rehearsing how situations might go down?

LaRae Quy: Well in training we would go through scenarios where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. We did mock interviews, and we had lawyers coming in and cross examining and interrogating us, so that we would know what to expect in a worst case scenario from the toughest people.

You needed to know how you responded to being challenged and cross examined, and they did this deliberately so that we would know how to respond appropriately and be able to predict our response.

Michael Frank: It comes back to what you said about self-awareness. I love your quote too:

“Ignorance of your competition makes you vulnerable. Ignorance of yourself makes you stupid” – LaRae Quy

LaRae Quy: It is very, very true. I mean visualize how you will react when you’re criticized by a colleague or by your boss. Predict your performance in the morning meeting. Be prepared for the hard questions that your boss is likely to throw at you. Rehearse your responses to situations or conversations that might come up. That’s just being smart.

I have to say too that visualizing is not fantasy or wishful thinking and there is a big difference between the two. Your brain is not stupid. Your fantasies will actually lessen your chance for success because your brain can tell the difference, and it looks at a fantasy as a threat. So visualize – but visualize realistically.

Never give up

Michael Frank: Are there any other key lessons that you learned from the FBI that you’d like to share?

LaRae Quy: Let me just say this. No FBI agent gets a case where the solution is obvious, where you know exactly who to speak to and where to go. So that means you need to attack the case from every angle in order to find a way to solve it. And what that does is produce determination, perseverance and grit.

It’s not like you just look at a case and say, Oh, here’s the answer! Here’s how we’re gonna solve this case! No. These cases are complicated and sophisticated and they can often take years to resolve. Because of that you learn to never give up. You work your case smartly and you attack it from as many different angles as possible until you can find that soft underbelly, because I don’t think there’s anything worse than to have a crime, a federal crime, and YOU are unable to solve it. That’s just one of those things you just don’t allow to happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LaRae Quy was an undercover and counterintelligence FBI agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. Government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. 

As a former FBI agent, she speaks and consults on how to develop mental toughness to create breakthroughs in business and life. She offers no-nonsense FBI practices to help others develop the mental strength to manage their emotions, behavior, and thinking so they can set themselves up for success.

Her clients are diverse but they share the same desire to empower themselves to  build the mental strength needed to keep moving toward their goals and calling in life. Their shared belief is that they have the power within themselves to achieve greater personal accomplishments. 

She is the author of Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths and Secrets of a Strong Mind.

She has also completed graduate studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Discover more about LaRae Quy at www.LaRaeQuy.com

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