Conversations in a Climate of Fear

Tom GibbonsChange, Leadership, Organization Development, PresenceLeave a Comment

What are the types of conversations that are the most valuable in organizations when a thread of fear seems to be wrapping itself around us and makes us feel like we don’t want to talk to anyone?

It feels like many of us are in this position right now, a climate of fear permeates so many organizational settings, either hiding in the corners or screaming from the rooftops.  And often it causes us to withdraw, feel victimized, place blame, feel very sad or angry.  It puts us in a place where words are hard to come by, at least those words that might be helpful, useful and purposeful.

Fear is an interesting thing, especially now.  We often talk of reactions to fear being fight or flight.  These reactions however are generated from parts of the brain that developed very early on, not only in humans but many other species as well.  They are reactions that apply when fear represents a clear and present danger to our safety, in the moment.  It is a visceral reaction and the reason to fear is right in front of us.

The fear that seems so present now is more of an intellectualized fear, not a bodily reaction.  It exists more as ‘what ifs’ than ‘what is’.  It’s a little more out into the future than the fear that stimulates fight or flight.  We’re not afraid for our safety, we’re afraid of things much more complex, much more intellectual and hard to put words to.  And this tends first to close down conversation, or creates conversations that no longer fit or do very little to acknowledge our reactions to this type of fear.

What we find, from our own experiences in our organization, as well as working with others is that the most valuable conversations where the climate of fear is present are conversations that start with the ‘what is’ rather than the ‘what if’.  Conversations that move us back from the future into the interactions of the present and emerge from that very present reality.


When really tough choices need to be made in these times where a climate of fear is present we find it valuable to pose questions that bring us back to what is happening right now.  Questions such as:


  • What do our present interactions tell us about what we are afraid of?
  • If this fear wasn’t present how might this conversation be different?
  • What do our present interactions tell us about what we’re trying to protect?
  • If someone you really admire was part of this conversation, would it change at all?  How?


Questions such as these bring us back into the present, help us take our present interactions seriously and seem to ground us in a way where we can move forward to thinking and conversing about the ‘what ifs’ from a place of a little more strength, a little more accountability and perhaps even power.  They do not necessarily dissipate the fear but they do seem to provide a place from which to more effectively move forward together.


So much of our time in organizations is spent thinking about the future or analyzing the past that we are no longer very good at talking about what is really happening with our present interactions.  Back in April of 2009, a few months after the economic collapse of late 2008, we wrote a post called Different Times, Different Conversations and we talked about how we needed to give ourselves some space to find the words for different conversations.  I think one of the things we’ve learned in our work with others and about ourselves since then is that this space is about the present interactions we are having right now.


Over the past number of years we have had quite a lot of these types of conversations, within our own organization and with people in other organizations.  Connect in with us if you would like to talk more about the facilitation of this type of process.  Because one thing we do know for sure about times when fear is present in organizations; we move through it most effectively when we use our greatest gift, our capacity to talk with each other.


Author – Tom

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