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OH F*CK! and other F-word threat responses

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

When something bad happens to me, a verbal or nonverbal string of 'OH-F*CK's is usually my immediate go to. Maybe you're the same. Or you have other go-to colourful phrases. Threat mode initiated. And now comes your response.

When people are in ‘threat mode’ their reactions and behaviours can be summarised with a lot of F words: fight, flight, freeze, flock and feign.

Let's take a look at how we might see these F-word responses at work and what we can do about it.


Luckily, it's not often we see physical fighting at work. But we likely have encountered lots of verbal sparring. Maybe even verbal brawls.

In a hard conversation, the FIGHT response can look like:

  • controlling: steering conversation, cutting you off, interrupting

  • labelling: putting you or others in a box, making broad statements (such as “they’re always like that”)

  • attacking: making it personal, emotional outbursts, threats

If someone is in FIGHT mode, you can:

  • pause the situation. Take a timeout and come back when cooler heads prevail.

  • set boundaries. No low blows and no fishing expeditions bringing up everything and the kitchen sink. Be clear on what the talk is focused on and what's productively adding into the chat. Make sure you have space in the conversation to get your point across.

  • acknowledge their feelings. You can acknowledge the other person's point of view or feelings without agreeing with them. Sometimes the person yelling just wants to make sure they're heard. So let them know they have been.


If you're having a difficult conversations with someone or there's tension within a workplace, FLIGHT response happens when someone is:

  • avoiding changing the subject, avoiding answers, avoiding you physically

  • withdrawing: going silent, one word answers, ‘shutting down’

  • masking: responding with humour, sarcasm, minimising the problem by repeatedly denying anything is wrong.

If someone is in FLIGHT mode, you can:

  • be clear on the positive intention. If someone is avoiding you or a situation, it's fair to say they're worried. What assurances can you give? What positive outcomes are you hoping to achieve?

  • pause the situation, but not indefinitely. Give them time to process. Set a timeframe and timeline to continue the conversation.

  • be clear on what the problem is and the impact it's having. It's the STAR model of interviewing in another perspective. What was the situation, what tasks or behaviours were the problem, what actions can people take to resolve this, what result or impact are you working towards?


This is what we call the deer-in-the-headlights. Nothing comes out or happens. It's literally being unable to move or act against a threat.

The deer on the road is frozen by the immediate physical threat of the car, and at work people can be frozen from the status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness threats surrounding them.

The person may be:

  • physically frozen in place. Feeling stiff, heavy, cold, numb. Especially true if the speaker is in an aggressive, attacking, fight mode.

  • silent. or being unable to have conversations that need to happen.

  • overcome with a sense of dread. The dread paralyses you mentally and makes you quite anxious.

When someone is in FREEZE mode, you can:

  • pause the situation, but not indefinitely. Give them time to process. Set a timeframe and timeline to continue the conversation.

  • ask open questions. Use open ended coaching questions to bring the person into the conversation. Try some of these questions.

  • change the location. Physically move where you are having the conversation to a different place. This environmental change can provide processing time for us.


Feigning can also be known as ‘covering’. Covering is downplaying or hiding certain aspects of yourself so you don’t appear different. These can be physical or mental aspects of yourself. It’s a defence mechanism to avoid exclusion.

People cover aspects of themselves in multiple ways:

  • Appearance: change how they look and behave to blend in with the mainstream.

  • Affiliation: avoid behaviours widely associated with their identity, culture or group.

  • Advocacy: avoid engaging in advocacy on behalf of their group.

  • Association: avoid associating with other individuals in their own group (or participate in criticism of a group they belong to, thus disassociating).

We get the best out of people when they can proudly be themselves. Covering is the opposite of that.

When people are FEIGNING, we can:

  • try to consider why they feel like they can't bring their full selves or opinions. Is there something happening in the work culture or context? What's making people feel uncomfortable? Are inappropriate comments and jokes not called out?

  • celebrate the diversity they bring. Have individual and group activities which explores the diversity we all bring. (We like the ICES model of diversity) Celebrate and recognise what's important to people.

  • show our authentic selves. Lead by example. Be open about who you are and how that shows up at work.


We mimic the close, the powerful, the many. (Atomic Habits, James Clear)

As it sounds, flocking means we take cover amongst the group. Flocking is natural - we're social creatures and feel more protected in a group.

The challenge is when we're flocking as a response to threats.

The FLOCK threat response happens when someone is:

  • not sharing their thoughts. Even when they disagree or have a different perspective with others, they stay silent.

  • unwilling to share first. They wait to see what others say first.

When people are in FLOCK mode you can:

  • change how you capture their thoughts. Provide anonymous or private ways to share their thoughts and experiences.

  • purposefully invite diverse opinions. Ask people to play devil's advocate, wear a different thinking hat, or challenge the status quo. If we explicitly state this is what we're looking for, we can lead the flock to uncover different opinions in a less threatening way.


As I was writing this I heard about Fawning. Fawning is the people-pleasing, won't say what they really think, flatters others to avoid conflict, won't stand up for themselves. Probably a good way to reconsider how we view the 'suck-ups' and brown nosers. Is this actually a response to threats?


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