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No. 11 – Responding to Radiation Fears

January 5, 2011

Several years ago a new family moved into my neighborhood. As I jogged past their house a few days later, I saw the man washing his car. So, I stopped to say hello and welcome to the area. We began talking about traffic and commuting and we discovered that we both worked in Arlington, VA. He then asked whom I worked for? I said that I worked for EP A’s Office of Radiation Programs. As soon as I said the word “radiation” the man moved backward 5 or 6 steps. He looked down at the ground, shook his head, and said, “Radiation, I don’t want anything to do with that!”

How Would You Respond to this Man?
Would you try to tell him that radiation is all around us and there is no way to avoid radiation? Would you try to tell him he doesn’t have to worry about radiation?
The word “radiation” obviously triggered a fear reaction. As I reflected on this incident, I noted that the man responded as if I had walked up to him and said, “Welcome to the neighborhood, here is a package of radioactive waste.” When the man backed up, he reacted as if I was radioactive. He reacted to his fear of radiation.

How Did I Respond?
I chose a response called “active listening.” This means I responded to the feeling related to the topic. I said, “Radiation is scary, isn’t it?” The man said, “Y es, it is. you can’t see it or smell it. And, you can’t tell if you are being exposed.” By responding to the man’s feelings of fear, I signaled that his feelings were OK and gave him permission to say what he really felt. This approach opened the door to a dialogue about radiation, which might not have been possible if I did not first recognize and respond to the man’s feelings. I did not try to change the man’s feelings, or imply that somehow his feelings were wrong, misguided, or the result of ignorance.

As I teach classes in radiation safety, I am coming more and more to realize that we cannot talk to anyone about radiation without first addressing their fears. Everyone has ideas, thoughts, or images about radiation. Whatever we attempt to tell them about radiation is filtered through those ideas and images. By active listening, we can invite people to identify their fears, and let them know that we understand and that their feelings are OK. They can then hear our wisdom about radiation safety and not feel put down for their fears. Until we address and affirm people’s fears about radiation, we cannot expect them to listen our views.

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