Conversations to Promote Peace in Times of Fear 2/4: Fear, Protectionism, and Compassion

Many people reacted to the bombing in Paris with fear. They identify with the French, and they think—this could happen where I live. Fear triggers a protectionist stance. We’re under attack and we’ve got to circle the wagons.

Fear is dangerous. It overtakes compassion, logic, and values- and facts-based decision making. The person who is feared suffers. The person who fears suffers as well. It’s been difficult for me to see people I like and trust reacting with fear, making statement and taking stances that are so uncharacteristic for them.

Someone who is reacting with fear may initially seem similar to someone who is reacting with intolerance. There are subtle differences, though, and these differences inform what sort of conversations you can have.

Yesterday I talked about setting boundaries with people who are intolerant. Today, let’s talk about responding to fear with compassion.

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Here are a few things I’ve noticed about people who react with fear:

  • The person is often someone who’s had limited exposure to other worldviews and cultures. However, they are not hostile towards people who are different (as opposed to someone who is intolerant and sees all difference as threatening).
  • The person may tend to minimize cultural difference, i.e. think that “basically we are all the same.” As a result, they assume that other have had choices and opportunities similar to their own. (Read more about minimization of cultural difference here.)
  • They want to help but feel it’s too dangerous.
  • Even when speaking with someone with whom they disagree, they care about the relationship. They will use respectful language, make statements that reinforce the relationship, and avoid offensive language.
  • They have some ability to tolerate different points of view and will make an effort to do so. They are able to have friendships with people who think differently than they do.
  • The overall tone is fearful rather than angry.
  • They are concerned about risks to safety rather than risks to privilege.
  • They may have a trauma history or have been in combat, i.e. they may be triggered.
  • They are usually silent regarding social justice issues except when feeling threatened. They are able to tolerate higher levels of threat than someone who is intolerant.

If you think this describes your friend or family member, please remember that this person is basically good and is very afraid. Discussions about facts, history, politics, religion, etc. can wait. It’s better to talk about what’s really going on—what it’s like to be afraid and that we’re not abandoning each other just because we have different views.

Responding to fear with compassion sounds like this: Yes, what happened is so frightening. It would be terrible if that happened here, and it’s hard to know how to be safe. Hopefully, as a nation and a world, we won’t act out of fear and lose our values.

Please try it.

Promoting peace is bigger than helping people who are directly impacted by the conflict. It’s also taking care of each other. By responding with deep and sincere compassion, fear loses its foothold. Only then can we talk about balanced and fact-based approaches to global problems.


Further Reading:

Carmichael, S. (2010, October 12). Difficult Conversations: 9 Common Mistakes [web article]. Retrieved from

Russell, J. The Essentials of Compassionate Communication. Retrieved from


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