20 years ago, a great book came out called The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.  This book tells how to use fear to recognize the bad guy, and not be a victim.

It was featured on Oprah,  and my wife told me about it. So I bought the book and read it.  I then made each of my then teenage daughters read it, and I even turned it into a fireside presentation for the YSA ward and gave it several times.

The book talks about “Survival Signals” that help protect us from violence.   I have taken my notes from the fireside to summarize the survival signals.

  1. Forced Teaming (we’re-in-the-same-boat attitude).

The bad guy will use words like:

  1. We are some team
  2. How are we going to handle this
  3. Now we’ve done it

Defense: I did not ask for your help, and I do not want it. (This has a cost of appearing rude, but it is a small cost comparing the alternative)

  1. Charm and Niceness: To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction

Tell yourself “this person is trying to charm me” as opposed to “This person is charming”. This will let you see what is behind the charm. Most of the time it will not be sinister, but other times you’ll be glad you looked.

  1. Too Many Details

People that want to deceive you will give you too many details. When people are telling the truth, they don’t feel doubted, and don’t feel the need for additional details. When people lie, however, even if it sound credible to you, it don’t sound credible to them, so they keep talking.

Too many details is used to confuse you. The defense is to remain conscious of the context in which the details are offered. Remind yourself of the relationship of the people around you. For example, when approached by a stranger while walking a city street at night, never lose sight of the context: he is a stranger that approached you!

  1. Typecasting

A man labels a woman in some slightly critical way, hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove his opinion wrong.  Examples: “You’re probably too snobbish to talk to a person like me”  or “You don’t look like somebody who reads the newspaper”

The defense is silence, say nothing

  1. Loan Sharking

The person will want to be allowed to help you because that will place you in his debt, and that fact that you owe a person something makes it hard to ask him to leave you alone.

Defense: Remember the facts, “he approached me, and I didn’t ask for any help”

  1. The Unsolicited Promise

I won’t hurt you, I promise

I won’t stay long, I promise

I’m a good guy, I promise

The unsolicited promise is one of the most reliable signals of trouble because it is nearly always of questionable motives. Meet all unsolicited promises with skepticism.  Ask yourself “why does this person need to convince me?”

Defense:  When you hear “I promise”, say to yourself “You’re right, I am hesitant about trusting you, and maybe with good reason. Thank you for pointing that out”.

  1. Discounting the word No

Declining to hear “NO” is a signal that somebody is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it. With strangers, NEVER EVER relent on the word “no” because it sets the stage for more efforts to control you. If you let someone talk you out of the word “no”, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says “You are in charge”.  Don’t negotiate by saying “let me try first, then maybe you can help”

Defense: Remember “No” is a complete sentence!


The book was full of stories about real life attacks on people, and their recounting what lead up to the attack, and how almost every one of the above items was repeated.

Another good suggestion he gave was when you need help, search out somebody, don’t wait for somebody to approach you.  The chances of you selecting a psychopath are very low, but the chances of him selecting you are much higher.

The one story that really stood out to me is when the author was flying on an airplane, sitting next to a teenage girl. The guy sitting across the aisle was exhibiting all signs of somebody just let out of jail (the way he walked, dressed, mannerisms) .  The ex-con then started chatting up a young lady next to him, using most of the techniques listed above.  When the ex-con got up to use the restroom, the author told the young lady “he’s going to offer you a ride from the airport, and he is not a good guy”  He later saw the ex-con talking to the girl in baggage claim. Though he couldn’t hear them, the conversation was apparent. She was shaking her head and saying no, and he wasn’t accepting it. She held firm, and he finally walked off with an angry gesture, not the “nice” guy he’d been up till then.

Even though the book is somewhat dated (written pre-cell phones), it still has lots of good advice that everybody could benefit from. Lastly I’ll leave you with this quote from the book

Can you imagine an animal reacting to the gift of fear the way some people do, with annoyance and disdain instead of attention? No animal in the wild suddenly overcome with fear would spend any of its mental energy thinking, “It’s probably nothing.”