Risk communicators need to be trained to handle any situation on any issue in any setting in three overlapping communication arenas: 1) genuine negative emotions such as fear, anger, irritation, frustration, concern, worry 2) agendas such as personal, historical, political, economic, social, cultural, and 3) misperception of risk.  Each of these three communication arenas must be recognized both in the planning and in the challenging dialogues that take place in any risk communication issue.

 

In these three arenas of risk communication, there are numerous traps to avoid.   Many of these traps are not a problem in normal conversation, e.g., the first trap humor.  The traps are:

 

-        Humor-        Negatives-        Hedges

-        Guarantees/assurances

-        Jargon

-        Cost-benefit comparisons

-        Money

-        Talking too much-        “Pushing Back” at them-        Afraid to say “I don’t know”

-        Taking it personally

-        Defensiveness

-        Verbal attacks

-        Feeling like a victim

 

Humor

Humor is a wonderful form of communication in many situations.  An after dinner speaker frequently starts speeches with jokes or humorous anecdotes.  Unfortunately, humor doesn’t work in most risk communication situations.  Clearly, humor won’t work when you are dealing with stakeholders with genuine negative emotions such as anger, fear, worry, concern, irritation.  We certainly did not want any humor from President Bush or Mayor Giuliani on 9/11.  When we discuss humor in our workshops, we frequently get the question, “Aren’t there some situations in risk communication where humor is okay?”  As so often the case, in the field of risk communication, our answer is, “It depends.”  In our five levels of relationships with stakeholders, we would never recommend humor in the first three levels: 1) highly adversarial (emotions rule), 2) tense/skeptical, 3) straddling/but open to dialogue.  However, in the 4th level, partnership and 5th level supportive, there may be situations where humor is effective.  Even then, we recommend the humor be self effacing; aim it towards you, not the stakeholder.

 

Negatives

There is a lot of research in the field of risk communication showing that negative words and phrases dominate positive words and phrases.  Negative words and phrases are more vivid, more memorable and more emotionally arousing.  Look at the front page of most newspapers in the United States or watch the evening news on TV and you w/ill see that there is a lot more negative news than positive news.  There are many variations on the phrase, “negative news sells.”  Another example is gossip.  Gossip occurs in all human cultures and tends to dwell more on the negative side than the positive side.

 

What does this mean for you and your fellow risk communicators?  First, recognize that negatives dominate.  If you repeat a negative such as unexploded, death, cancer, destruction, lethal over and over yet have a positive message on how you are controlling that risk, the repetition of the negative may overwhelm the positives and the stakeholders’ perception of the risk goes the wrong way.  For example, if you start a discussion with “The chances of your community being destroyed and a few citizens possibly being killed by an explosion in our ‘XYZ’ facility are only 1 in a billion.  Let me tell you some of our safety, prevention and our emergency response programs to prevent that from happening.”  Many of the stakeholders will not hear your prevention program message.  Instead, they will be emotionally hooked on “wiped out,” “explosion,” and the numerator of “1” (In our workshops, we cover the numerator effect in “Numbers” when and how to use a numerator in our workshops.).

 

This does not mean in the example above that you should avoid being specific about what would happen, the risk.  We just suggest you not start with the negative aspects of the risk and not repeat those negative aspects.

 

There is an exception to the guidance above in use of negatives.  If your purpose of the communication is to change behavior that is harmful to the stakeholder, the use of repetitive negatives is effective.  Examples would be discussions on smoking cessation, dieting, safe sex, using seat belts, etc.  In this instance the dominance of negatives factor will help you accomplish your message mission.

 

Hedges

A hedge is indirectly what we call the numerator effect.  Use of the hedge escalates the perception of risk from very unlikely risk to much more likely.   Put yourself in this situation: you are on a very rough flight with an hour to land and you ask the pilot, “Are we going to get there safely?” and the pilot says something like, “Probably,”  “Hope so.”, “Could be.”   Those hedge words will have just increased your perception of the risk.  It becomes, “It will happen to me.”

 

 

 

 

Guarantee/Assurance

This is one of our 11 Generic Categories of Questions and Statements.  Examples of questions and statements such as, “I want you to guarantee me that…” “Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?” “Promise us this will never happen again.” “Why can’t you go to zero…?”

 

What we suggest avoiding is starting out with something to the effect, “There are no guarantees in life,” or “we’ll never get to zero.”  Instead start out by explaining what you are doing to address their concern.  Describe your activities and/or commitment, then if they continue to push for a yes or no on the guarantee aspect of the questions, you should respond with something like, “No, I can’t guarantee that 100%, but we are doing a lot.  Let me give you another example of what we are doing…”

 

 Jargon

The jargon trap in risk communication sometimes has a double impact.  Not only does the stakeholder not understand the word or term you used, but they may also think you are trying to confuse them or show how much knowledge you have.  Although that is not your intent, it may be perceived that way.  Also, jargon words and phrases are not just scientific or technical, e.g., di-hexyl pepperoni pizza.  It can also be relative terms such as exceed, over, under, etc.  Is “exceeding the limits set by a regulator” good or bad?  Jargon can also be words that are common to you but not to the stakeholder such as perhaps ordnance or groundwater.

 

Cost/Benefit Comparisons

The problem with cost/benefit discussions is it’s usually your organization’s costs and the stakeholders’ benefit.  In other words, there is a disconnect between your organization and the stakeholder in the cost/benefit relationship.  Stakeholders may feel that there is no amount of money that should be spent for their families their safety or their health.  We are not suggesting that cost/benefit discussions should be avoided.  To the contrary, if your stakeholders want to discuss it, then you should be prepared even if you know that they won’t like the answer.  It’s a must to be open and honest and not devious.

 

Money

Money can be a trap on some issues with certain stakeholders because it leads you into the cost/benefit trap.  It’s your money and their benefit.  If you say, “We’ve spent $2M on XYZ.”  You may be asked, “Why did you stop there?” or “Why didn’t you spend more?”  Also, when you quote the amount of money your organization spent, it can be received by some stakeholders that you are bragging or showing what a burden it was on your organization.  This is not your intent, but again, it can be received this way.  However, you should not avoid talking about money if you are asked.

 

“Push Backs”

A “push back” is the perception by stakeholders that you are putting the responsibility on the stakeholder to prove their point or to resolve the issue.  This is not your intent, but it can be received that way by the stakeholder in the three risk communication arenas of negative emotions, agendas and perception of risk.

 

The fascinating thing about push backs is that they are statements that are quite normal in less tense, less skeptical situations.  Therefore, it’s an easy trap to fall into.  For example, in a challenging dialogue, you might say, “Where did you get that information/idea?”  They may receive this statement as you are challenging them or putting them down which is not your intent.  Another example, you might start a conversation by saying, “What you need to know is…”  The response back from the stakeholder might be, “Oh, you think you know everything?” or “Wait, we’ve got something YOU need to know.”  A better start might be, “We have some information here that you might be interested in or that you requested.”

 

There are hundreds of statements that could be potential push back statements in risk communication situations, but not normal communication situations.  The best way to avoid this trap is to flow the comment towards yourself and away from the stakeholder.

 

 

Talking Too Much

Abraham Lincoln said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  That humorous saying is not literally why we believe that talking too much is a trap in risk communication, but it is a good reminder that you can get in more trouble by talking rather than listening.  The area where this trap applies is mostly one of the three arenas of risk communication, negative emotions.  This is where big eyes, big ears and a small mouth are important (We cover this in our non verbal communication training.).  Actually, there are times when you DO want to talk a lot.  If you are in the arena of perception of risk, discussing facts and the stakeholders are listening to you – keep talking for awhile.

 

Afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

This is not a common trap because most of risk communicators will say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out/get someone to help you.”  However, we have come across a few communicators who almost feel guilty if they don’t have the answer and will spin the response so they tend to embellish or duck the fact that they don’t know.  This of course comes across as dishonest and the communicator then may lose some trust and credibility with the stakeholders.

 

Taking it Personally/ Being Defensive/Verbally Attacking/Feeling Like a Victim

These four traps are interrelated and occur when a risk communicator experiences a negative emotion towards the stakeholder.  If I, as a risk communicator, suddenly get angry with a stakeholder of if I’m irritated before I even start the discussion because I’ve had a bad day or if I get extremely nervous because I’m not prepared, I will fail.

 

This set of interrelated traps may be the most important traps of all because once you begin experiencing negative emotions over a sustained period of time, other risk communication skills that are required for that situation tend to erode.  If you or I are angry, irritated, very nervous, bored or frustrated, we can’t stay on point and concentrate in the challenging situations that are occurring.  Not only that, but the stakeholders observe the negative emotions and begin to wonder about us as well.  It can become a downward spiraling dynamic.

 

In our workshops, we frequently get different versions of this, “I agree with what you’re saying here, so how do I avoid these feelings?  Give me a ‘magic pill’ to avoid these traps.”  The only magic pill that we have found personally and the one we recommend is to do everything you can to “leave yourself outside.”  By “leaving yourself outside,” we mean, do not think about yourself – your history, your experiences, who you are.  Instead focus on one thing: your job at that moment as a communicator.  Keep reminding yourself that you are doing the best you can as a communicator and that’s what is important.  It’s like giving yourself mental pats on the back.  There are some aspects of non verbal communication self awareness that can help you as well, which we discuss in our non verbal article and training.

 

 

These are the major traps we’ve experienced and observed in risk communication.  We certainly don’t expect everyone to avoid all of them all of the time, but being aware of them can significantly increase your chances of success in the challenging field of risk communication.

 


 
 
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