Soldiers, law enforcement officers, emergency responders, and others whose professions involve responding to or mitigating catastrophic events tend to think about “bad things” more often than the average person because they either deal with life-and-death issues regularly or have received training to do so. The term “bad things” in this article refers to high-impact threats to the well-being of a large number of people in a wide area – for example, any natural disaster or deliberate attack with the potential to cause cascading infrastructure failure. When receiving bad news, there are different ways in which less concerned people can unrealistically minimize threats, which include but are not limited to:
Those who believe that bad news happens all the time and, as a result, they may tune out the media.
Those inexperienced with disasters and, therefore, do not believe until it is too late that they could be affected.
Those who believe that, if the situation deteriorates, the government will take care of them.
Common Barriers to Communication
Each of the above behaviors or attitudes can cause the people who embrace them to be unprepared for disasters. Communicating about high-impact threats to people who do not want to hear about them can be a challenge. However, there are common-sense approaches that can improve the odds of successful communication and perhaps lead to positive action. The benefits of communicating about bad things accrue to both parties. Becoming more self-sufficient enables citizens to better endure disasters while experiencing less stress. Emergency responders benefit because a well-prepared citizenry means reduced demand for emergency services during a disaster.
When confronted with a new problem or threat for the first time, some people may become defensive. At an EMPact America conference in September 2009, Peter Huessey, senior defense consultant of the National Defense University Foundation, described four types of barriers people erect when confronted with new information: (a) “Not invented here” (distrustful attitude); (b) “How often has that happened?” (sarcastic attitude); (c) “What are you selling?” (skeptical attitude); and (d) “How come I haven’t heard of this before?” (defensive attitude).
These barriers may be conveyed by words or body language and include an underlying attitude behind the behavior. There are effective techniques for addressing these types of resistance. Depending on the situation (group presentation, tabletop exercise, or one-on-one discussion), one or more of the following approaches may be helpful in breaking through the other party’s preconceived notions that underlie their defensiveness.
Tell a Story
Personal stories about problems and how they affect presenters and listeners often are more effective than lectures for communicating a concept about which the person may not be an expert, such as a politician discussing the possibility of an extended power outage. Conveying that a friend’s wife would die without her diabetes medication more powerfully illustrates the problem of an extended power failure than lecturing about maintaining sufficient reserve supplies. Personal stories combined with sincere feelings help listeners relate to the presenter, thus reducing the chance of confrontation.
Allaying fears about the presenter’s motives can improve the relationship between presenter and participants by reducing suspicion of a hidden agenda. If the target audience does not already know the presenter well, providing them with information about the presenter’s background, training, and organizational affiliation boosts credibility, as does telling the truth, preparing thoroughly, and attributing all research material to relevant sources.
In addition, audiences often relate well to presenters who explain from whom they learned about a particular problem, display an appropriate level of humility, such as admitting when they do not have answers, and refraining from telling people that everything “is under control” or “will be all right” when no such assurance is possible. Sometimes listeners feel embarrassed when they think they know less than others and, as a result, may act defensively. Presenters can help listeners overcome this hurdle by explaining they once did not know about the threat being discussed, and sharing where they learned of it.
An obvious example of the wrong time to initiate the subject of catastrophic threats is at a cocktail party, where people reasonably expect to relax and unwind. The chance of having a successful conversation about bad things increases when saying the right thing to the right people at the right time. Three points to consider are:
Timing – Initiate conversations when the audience sends clear signals that it is receptive, not when the presenter feels like talking.
Research – Understanding the audience can pay big dividends by helping a presenter tailor an appropriate message. Presenting a disaster scenario that fits the listener’s worldview, for example, can reduce the problem of listeners “tuning out” the presenter.
Discernment – Sometimes presenters face unexpectedly difficult listeners. A shrewd presenter asks questions to discern the listener’s motives, and adjust his or her approach accordingly – including disengaging from people that the presenter’s information will not help.
There is a wealth of published information about the causes of, preparation for, and recovery from nearly any disaster imaginable. Reports are available from government, nonprofit, university, think-tank, corporate, and other sources. Some carefully researched novels based on a variety of disasters from financial system meltdown to electromagnetic pulse attack can be powerful triggers of the imagination. Leaving trustworthy reading material behind after an exercise or presentation can reinforce the message.
Ask for Action
After successful communication, the next step is to ask for action, such as developing an emergency plan, writing to elected representatives, or improving neighborhood relationships. The earlier this goal is defined when planning any interaction or presentation with the target audience, the more likely the goal will be achieved. The primary goal of such presentations is to help people imagine what a disaster would mean for them and encourage them to respond by taking small steps toward becoming more self-sufficient. As their preparedness grows, they will be in better shape when disaster strikes and less of a burden on emergency-response systems that could well be overstressed during the next “bad thing.”