“The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker

The Gift of Fear

Fear is a gift that can save our lives, according to security and violent behavior expert Gavin De Becker. In his book, “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence” (1997), De Becker insists that we are all experts at predicting violent behavior, and shows us that violence has patterns and warning signs – and that fear can save our lives. “Precautions are constructive, whereas remaining in a state of fear is destructive” (page 279).

“The Gift of Fear” is a compelling and empowering book about trusting our intuition to keep us safe and predict violence. It’s written mainly for women, since women are more often victims of violence. It’s filled with conversations, cases, scenarios, and insights into human behavior. It gives us strong, confident ways to respond to threats.

De Becker warns that “We tend to give our full attention to risks that are beyond our control (air crashes, nuclear-plant disasters) while ignoring those we feel in charge of (dying from smoking, poor diet, car accidents), even though the latter are far more likely to harm us” (page 32). He points out, “Why does America have thousands of suicide prevention centers and not one homicide prevention center?” (page 33).

Instead, we need to start listening to our fear. We need to believe that we or someone we care for will be a victim at some time. We need to realize that we are responsible for our own safety and that we must trust our intuition/gut feeling.

De Becker outlines 7 basic “survival signals” to watch for when dealing with strangers. By identifies these techniques, we can learn to evaluate the potential for danger in every situation.

1. Forced teaming (they project a shared purpose or experience, such as “both of us”). Response: refuse the partnership (“I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t want it”).
2. Charm and niceness. Response: remember that niceness does not equal goodness.
3. Too many details. Response: think about context (would a stranger share these details?).
4. Typecasting (they make criticism that can be disproved by doing what they want, such as “Don’t be too proud to accept help”). Response: silence.
5. Loan sharking (they offer to help to create a sense of obligation). Response: there is no debt.
6. Unsolicited promises (they make a promise you didn’t ask for). Response: skepticism.
7. Discounting “no” (they over-ride your objections). Response: “I said ‘No.’”

De Becker also offers practical advice for responding to violence and threats of violence:
* When receiving threats of violence (meant to cause anxiety and uncertainty): Do not show fear. Keep calm. Answer the question: “Am I in immediate danger?”
* When receiving threats of extortion: Disclose the harmful information yourself. Make them state the threat explicitly by saying, “I don’t understand what you’re getting at” or “What do you mean by that?”
* When dealing with persistent, unwanted attention: Ignore it. Do not engage.
* When dealing with a confrontational, problem employee: Fire them as soon as possible. Executives need to let managers know that they should put safety first and communicate their concerns, instead of worrying that they are over-reacting or can’t manage their people.
* When firing a problem employee: Treat them with dignity, make the termination complete, do not negotiate, only discuss the future (do not rehash the past), be direct, cite general rather than specific issues, time it right (at the end of the day on the last day of the week). If they make threats, give them a way out, like “I understand you are upset, but the things you are talking about are not your style” or “We all say things when we react emotionally. Let’s just forget about it. I know you’ll feel better tomorrow.”
* When you are leaving an abusive relationship: Take actions that make you unavailable to your pursuer. Go to an at-risk women’s shelter. Get away safely.
* When dealing with a stalker/unwanted suitor: “No” is a complete sentence. Do not negotiate. Do not explain. Give one explicit rejection, like “I don’t want to be in a relationship with you” and then stop all contact.
* When dealing with assassins and stalkers who are determined to kill you:  Limit the likelihood of an unwanted encounter and take reasonable precautions.
* Reporting an act of violence: The media, including bloggers, should focus on law enforcement and downplay the criminal’s ability and glamour. Be warned that after a widely publicized attack, the risk of other attacks goes up dramatically.

Woven through the chapters is the idea that women are socialized to be victims – we are taught to compromise, to be peace-makers, to nurture, to avoid hurting others’ feelings, and to be less certain than men. De Becker also suggests that all high school should offer a class called “Getting Rid of Mr. Wrong,” which would teach young women that it’s all right to explicitly reject a man; and teach young men how to hear “no.”

This isn’t a handbook for victims of abuse; it is meant to teach regular people, who haven’t experienced violent situations, to turn fear into awareness and vigilance. One of the most important lessons I learned is that “No” is a complete sentence. It taught me that I have more control over interactions with strangers than I thought.

Though this book was written over 15 years ago, the strategies for evaluating and responding danger are just as timely. Find out more about Gavin De Becker on his website at http://gavindebecker.com.

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