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No. 25 – A Hidden Demon in Communications

April 27, 2011

Health physicists usually would rather not be seen as “radiation police,” but as supportive members of a team sharing a common goal for the best interests of the program. Part of your job on this team is to provide helpful information on radiation safety. When offering such helpful information, have you ever found your best intentions and efforts met with resistance and anger? When someone responds in anger at your efforts to be helpful, a demon has entered the communication.

The hidden demon begins to come out when anxiety enters the picture, either in you or the other person, or probably in both. For example, you may have some anxiety about the consequences of failure to implement your license, or NRC, requirements for radiation safety. The other person may have anxiety about interference with his work or the amount of time and paperwork required of him. Such anxieties will interfere with the ability to listen and to appreciate what is said by either of you.

Whenever anxiety enters the communication, threat or the perception of threat will surely follow. When the demon of threat raises his ominous head, you will find that instead of receiving careful, thoughtful, responses, you will get automatic reactions. Usually the reaction is one of anger. Instead of the normal communication of stimulus-response and stimulus-response, when anxiety is present the pattern becomes stimulus-anxiety-threat-reaction.

When elements of threat are introduced, responses are replaced by reactions. Each reaction leads to another reaction and the communication fails. For example, suppose you are trying to explain to a researcher that radionuclide security requires him to have his radioactive materials under surveillance or secured from unauthorized access. The researcher responds by saying he cannot keep his doors locked all the time, because he has ongoing experiments that involve equipment in several rooms.

You then explain that radionuclide security is an NRC requirement. The researcher reacts in anger and says this is a stupid rule. You then tell him that if his doors are not locked, he will be suspended from use of radionuclides. By this time you are both angry and the communication is no longer friendly or helpful. The researcher knows the rules and he can either submit or rebel. You can enforce the rules by threats of suspension, but you are no longer seen as a helpful member of the team. The demon has won!

Next week we will look at where the anxiety and threat come from.

  1. Jean Staton permalink

    I am involved in Industrial X-ray and this comes up a lot; my standard answer is “just humor me”. I may not see the reason for that specific area but it is a mandate that we have to live with, like it or not.

    • One of the questions that I like to ask workers is, “Are we doing anything in the name of radiation safety that does not make sense?” Of course the answer is “Yes, lots of things.” I then ask, “Why do you think we we are so conservative in the practice of radiation safety?” the answer to this question is that people are afraid.

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