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No. 58 – Hearing Feelings – 5

February 1, 2012

No contaminated materials should be released for recycle and all previously released materials should be recalled!!” These were the words of a person protesting several years ago at a NRC workshop on criteria for release of contaminated materials. Protesters were claiming that the recycling of contaminated metals will result in radioactive forks, baby carriages, and braces for children’s teeth. These activists were playing on peoples’ fears of radiation to build public opposition. How did the public respond?

These protesters knew that feelings are the most powerful of all motivators. Whatever the facts may be, risk decisions are more often a matter of feelings rather than logic. This is especially true when the decisions involve risks with great uncertainty, such as low dose radiation effects. Consequently, a logical presentation of the facts may not lead to changes in feelings. The facts that support the feeling decisions will be heard and the facts that do not will not be heard or believed.

Interestingly, the protesters at the NRC workshop also said that they felt they were wasting their time in that meeting when the technical people had already made up their minds. They all concluded that their efforts would be better spent communicating with the public, where their views (feelings) would be appreciated. This approach follows the guidance of WAND (Women Against Nuclear Destruction) which says that women should not attempt to argue in the domain of facts, figures, and technojargon, but rather they should use the power of their emotions to speak out with feeling and conviction on radiation issues.

Is There Any Hope for Risk Communication?

One answer is to use Active Listening to open doors for dialogue. By this approach, you respond only with your understanding of the speaker’s feelings and message. This approach allows you quickly and accurately to get to the real issues of concern. You do not respond with an evaluation, opinion, advice, analysis, or questions. Such responses come from “your own stuff” so you can take control of the communication. Leaving the initiative with the other person is not easy, especially when you believe they are misconstruing the facts. Also, as HPs, our lives are about giving answers and we want to immediately respond with “our” answers.

If we want others to hear our good scientific information, we first have to listen to their feelings. Active Listening is our best hope for connection with the concerned public.

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