How to Communicate Covertly in an Emergency

Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,

A day in the life of Halle Berry is a great example of how to use nonverbal cues to communicate in an emergency. Ah, to be a celebrity.

Halle was traveling, being presented with an award at a film festival, doing media interviews and scheduled for a nightclub appearance — all in one day. As a protection agent, the situation was in constant flux, and we were there to protect her in every way possible.

Nonverbal codes helped Halle let us know if she felt stressed out or in danger. One concern expressed by Halle’s publicist was that she had an extremely tight schedule. If we didn’t stick to it, several of her obligations would have to be cut short on time.

According to her publicist, Halle was “so nice that she wouldn’t say no to anyone who requested to talk to her, take a photo or sign an autograph.” So I offered to be the bad guy. I have no problem intervening in situations when needed.

Even though I was also helping to manage Halle’s itinerary, my primary objective was to protect her. Nonverbal communication served to accomplish both tasks.

A Show of Hands

If Halle felt uncomfortable, she would make a fist with her thumb extended and scratch her eyebrow. This was my cue to make this person in front of her go away — immediately. If we were running out of time, Halle’s publicist would fold a piece of paper with the agenda on it in half. This was my cue to interrupt and remove Halley from the event.

This is not uncommon. Protection agents, spies and undercover operatives regularly use nonverbal communication during covert operations and protection details.

Every client has slightly different requests and preferences, but all of them want to feel safe and crave some degree of comfort as they go about their day. Celebrity clients are often placed in awkward social situations, and as their protector and facilitator, I’m significantly more effective if I can communicate with them nonverbally.

The reciprocal is also true. If the client can use body language to communicate with me — especially in potentially threatening environments — I am much more successful in completing my mission objectives safely and fluidly.

A Bird(ie) in the Hand

Take golfer Lee Trevino. One event I worked for him had so many attendees expecting to meet and greet him, but Lee didn’t have time to interact with every single guest. In true golf fashion, we arranged a code playing off of the golf warning “FORE.”

If Lee got stuck talking to someone for too long, he simply put his arm straight down with four fingers. That was our heads-up to move the guest along.

Nonverbal codes even work with clients who don’t interact with us directly. On several occasions, I’ve worked with Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin companies. He doesn’t particularly like to have “security guys” around him. So we adapted and arranged his security in layers.

A female agent stays close, looking like an assistant, and other agents are deployed close by. The female agent needs only to signal silently to the other agents if there is a need for intervention.

You might think these are just fun, inside stories about celebrity life. But you can apply this nonverbal signaling approach to situations in your life as well.

Your Life Is in Your Hands

If you’re in a situation and don’t feel safe, you can use it to communicate calmly and quietly with your friends or family members. Or if you find yourself in a dangerous situation and you’re not at liberty to speak openly about your concerns.

Your child can also use it to tell you that he or she doesn’t feel safe or is in danger. Or you can alert your significant other if you’re annoyed at a party and just want to get away from the people in the room.

This technique will significantly increase your ability to stay safe in a variety of circumstances. I strongly recommend that you work out code words and nonverbal emergency signals in advance with your family.

Whether it’s a hand sign, a body gesture, a certain stance or a noticeable facial expression — you can escape danger without saying a word.

[Editor’s note: For more information about Global Protection and Intelligence, visit, or you can reach Tom at]

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.