Understand That You Will Be Treated Differently

As an industry representative, you are often seen as the Goliath to the David of ordinary citizens and even of aggressive environmental advocates.

In Staking Out the Middle (Sandman, 2010), risk communication expert Peter Sandman explains that the public forgives the distortions and exaggerations of activists because they are seen as serving the public good. They are calibrated to be oversensitive, just like smoke alarms. Industry, on the other hand, is seen as being calibrated too far in the other direction; thus, reassurances are met with skepticism. To complete the smoke alarm analogy, false alarms are not very upsetting, but the failure to sound during a real emergency can be fatal.

Put another way by Berman and Company during a June 25,2014 presentation at the Western Energy Alliance Annual Meeting, activist groups "have no natural enemies" (Song, 2014). That cannot be said for many industries.

Communicating Your Value to Society is Important. The World Chlorine Council, a global network of trade associations and companies representing chlorine as an international outgrowth of the American Chemistry Council, consistently communicates about the societal benefits of chlorine products and engages in sustainability programs with the United Nations and other partners. Shown here is a snapshot of the cover for the organization's 2017 progress report, https://worldchlorine.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/ 10/WCC_Sus- tainable-Progress_Version-3-2017.pdf.

Accepting that the public has different expectations for industry than for citizen groups and professional activists will help you avoid wasting valuable time and energy on the element of unfairness. Activists get to play on fear and anger, and exaggerate while doing it. You cannot. In fact, you even will be judged harshly by the truths you leave out and the ones you gloss over. Thus, your communications, besides being respectful even under fire, must openly acknowledge whatever kernels of truth exist on the other side, even when they work against you. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to gain credibility.

That said, industry has a right, an obligation even, to counter mistruths. Otherwise, consistent lopsided stories take root into the public psyche. Consider the public campaign that many environmental activists raged against chlorine and chlorine products beginning in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In an opinion piece by Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, (Davis, 2009), the authors state "Taking an apocalyptic view of a naturally occurring element seemed to many to be an absurdity. But there was a dawning realization through the early 1990s that unless there was more communication, at many levels, industrial chlorine chemicals could be legislated out of existence." At all levels—local, regional, federal, and some cases, international—industry should be consistently sharing truthful information about its benefits to society and its host communities.

Recently, energy sector industries and the businesses that rely on them have engaged in a similar information campaign to counter the activist offensives on conventional energy sources. The campaign, managed under the advocacy organization known as the Environmental Policy Alliance and launched under the project title Big Green Radicals, featured a number of edgy ads on billboards along major highways.

Practice Sound Dialogue Skills

Regardless of whether you are communicating in crisis mode, advocating occupational precautions, or preparing for public participation on controversial permits, when you plan to address the emotions that can drive dialogue, you increase your chance of success.

In Crucial Conversations—Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (Patterson et al., 2012), the authors state ".. .the root cause of many—if not most—human problems lies in how people behave when others disagree with them about high-stakes, emotional issues." Those who find a way to master these high- stakes, crucial moments can dramatically improve the chances for positive outcomes.

While the authors do not explicitly address environmental and health risk communication, the book's theme directly applies to all individuals and companies genuinely seeking productive dialogues where all parties benefit.

This theme runs through another timeless bestselling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie, 1981). In the introduction to this book, Carnegie notes that research by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and later confirmed by the Carnegie Institute of Technology, revealed that even in such technical lines as engineering, about 15% of one's financial success is due to one's technical knowledge, and about 85% is due to one's personality and the ability to lead people. He then goes on to describe the various people skills that can dramatically improve the outcome of dialogues and interactions with others at all levels.

In matters of environmental and health risk, deference to the following five emotional motivations can help improve your dialogue: pride, adversity to change, humility (yours), empathy, credibility, and trust.


No one likes to be told they are wrong, and no one likes to take orders. Similarly, no one likes the feeling that others think they are smarter or more important.

If you tell people they are wrong, will that make them want to agree with you, or strike back? What if you prove, and they accept, beyond a reasonable doubt that they are wrong, will that make them want to admit their mistake and move on or will it cause them to lash out in other ways?

In How to Win Friends & Influence People, Carnegie offers quotes from philosophers as far back as Socrates and Galileo on the foolishness of proving others wrong to make your point. In Getting Past No (Ury, 1991), the author puts it another way—"Don't confuse getting even with getting what you want."

A number of research studies have provided biological evidence that explains our reactions to information with which we disagree. A study published in the Journal of Scientific Reports (Kaplan et al., 2016) explored the neural systems that govern resistance to changing beliefs. In the study, brain scans showed that participants with greater belief resistance had increased activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (associated with selective attention) and reduced activity in the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex (associated with higher order cognition like decision making). The study also found that participants who changed their mind more showed less bold signals in the insula and amygdala, areas associated with emotion and behavior.

Patterson et al. (2002) discuss the physical responses that result from this emotional stimulation—the activation of the fight or flight response that occurs when your adrenal glands kick into overdrive. "Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness."

Fortunately, you have the power to change the course of the interaction. The following tips will help you avoid triggering push-back from others' perceived affronts to pride and ego:

  • Resist the urge to fight fire with fire—While it is our gut instinct, pushing back only results in stronger force against us. Commit at the outset to be the one who shifts the energy in a positive direction.
  • Genuinely listen to people's concerns—When people feel that their concerns are not being heard, they dig their heels in further. They repeat their positions, and they get angrier. Always practice empathetic, or active, listening.
  • Focus on the problems, not the positions—By avoiding the temptation of taking an opposite position, you create an opportunity to explore the concerns that lie underneath. You may ask questions like "Can you help me understand why you want that?"
  • Allow people to save face—Showing people that they are wrong in a blatant manner may bring temporary satisfaction, but it will cost good will. "'Face' is much more than ego. It is shorthand for people's self-worth, their dignity, their sense of honor, their wish to act consistently with their principles and past sentiments—plus, of course, their desire to look good to others" (Ury, 1991).
  • Give people reasons to come to your side willingly—Once people understand they are not engaged in a battle of wills, they are more apt to consider mutual problem solving. Sharing of information and concerns under these conditions provides the opportunity to bridge the gap between their interests and yours.
  • Use flexible language—It is easy for us to inadvertently express "informed opinions" as fact, which can damage credibility and also leave us painted in a corner. It is also easy to trigger push back from individuals with more sensitive egos, making it more difficult for them to back down gracefully. Patterson et al. express the importance of talking tentatively. Talking tentatively means softening your language to signal that there is room for discussion and fact finding.

If you have been to contentious public meetings, you may have witnessed the moment that one or more of these practices helped turn the corner. If so, you would have heard phrases such as "Look, I'm not here to complain, but..." or "I'm not looking to shut you down, I just..


Compare the Responses

Below are two potential responses to a neighbor complaint about odor. The factual information is the same, but the approach and tone differ. Which do you think is more conducive to productive dialogue and relationship building?

A fence-line neighbor emails you about the bad odor she noticed yesterday morning. She exclaimed frustration because this was the second time in as many weeks.

Response Option 1: "We checked our meteorological data for yesterday and the wind was predominantly blowing in a direction opposite your house. Additionally, there were no changes in our normal operation. There's no reason to believe it was from our facility."

Response Option 2: "Thank you for alerting us. We checked our meteorological data for yesterday, and the wind appeared to be blowing in a direction opposite your house for much of the morning. Given this, and the fact that our logs indicated no change in operations, we will need to dig in a little deeper to figure out if we were contributing to the odor you experienced. Are you able to provide any more details, such as exact times and the type of smell?

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