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No. 5 – Empathy and Caring Are Vital

November 17, 2010

Most people with concerns for radiation issues, such as LLRW disposal siting, base their concerns on a “feeling” evaluation of perceptions. Consequently, health physicists using their normal logical, analytical, “thinking” approach in attempting to understand or to respond to such concerns are doomed to failure. Is there any hope for us as health physicists, when our whole outlook on the world is based on rational thinking? The answer is yes, but not without a major change in our normal communication style.

Dr. Vincent Covello, a well-known communication expert, says that our first response to a tough question should be an expression of empathy and concern. He says that our responses are judged for trust and credibility on the basis of: empathy and caring -50%, openness and honesty – 20%, dedication and commitment – 1 5%, and competence and expertise – 1 5%. This insight is similar to what I presented in an article in this Newsletter (in 1988) titled “The 10/90 Rule for Credibility.” This says that our credibility is judged only 1 0% on what we say and 90% on how we say it.

With this insight in mind, consider how you prepared for your last presentation on a health physics issue. If you are like most of us, you spent at least 90% of your time choosing the words you would use for a logical analytical presentation. You probably spent less than 10% of your time on the dynamics of presenting your words. Most of us have always believed that we are judged on the words we use. In reality, however, most of our listeners are judging us by our tone of voice, our facial expressions, and our body language. Furthermore, these evaluations are done within the first 30 seconds. Our listeners are primarily looking for indications of empathy and caring for their needs. This is one of the ways that television news reporters appear so credible. They do not need to know the technology of health physics to present a frightening story on a radiation issue. All they need to do is to appeal to the common fears, which most people associate with radiation. Reporters also know how to present body language, which conveys sincerity and caring. In this manner, TV audiences are lead to conclude that the reporter is the credible expert, rather than the technically elite health physicist.

We can be more credible by learning to communicate with empathy and feeling. Although this approach is exceedingly difficult to achieve, we can acquire such skills if we are willing to commit the time and energy. We have to decide if the goal is worth the effort.

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