Risk Comm 101: Non-Verbal Communication, Risk Comparisons & Negativity

This is part four in this series on basic risk communication, adapted from a U.S. Coast Guard student handbook on the subject. In the last post, we discussed the phenomenon of “perception is reality,” some outrage factors and how to communicate competence and build or maintain your trust and credibility with stakeholders. Here we’ll talk about non-verbal communication, risk comparisons (they’re tricky!) and negativity in communication. Again, the text of the original document is evergreen, with some edits and updates as needed. Enjoy!

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say

The 1960 presidential debate between former U.S. Presidents Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy is sometimes cited as an example of non-verbal communication and its impact on perceptions. Some say that on television Nixon appeared to be sweaty and uncomfortable, in addition to sporting a five o’clock shadow, while Kennedy appeared clean cut, nicely tanned and confident. The result was that the 70 million people who watched the debate focused more on what they saw, not what they heard, and Kennedy was perceived the winner of that debate by a large margin.

In a high concern/low trust environment, your non-verbal communication – everything besides what you are saying – provides up to 50-75 percent of your message. In other words, your gestures, eye contact, posture, etc., are more noticeable, more memorable and more important than your words, and are noticed intensely by your stakeholders.

Non-Verbal Dos:

  • Lean in
  • Maintain level eye contact
  • Square up to your audience
  • Open your arms and hands
  • Mirror audience space and angle
  • Remove hats and sunglasses if outside

Risk communication apples and oranges

We mentioned in an earlier post in this series about risk perception that our values differ, and as risk communicators, we need to ensure we tailor our messages to our stakeholders’ emotions.

Many times, scientists and technical experts will use risk comparisons to try to minimize the perception of risk, or counter someone’s claim of uncertainty or concern. If a chemical plant was located near your home, how would you feel about this type of risk comparison from the plant manager?: “The risk of harmful emissions from this plant is lower than the risk of driving to the plant or having a cigarette during your break, so there’s no need to worry about it.” Great. Now you have to worry about how unsafe it is for you to drive your car, you might think, if you’re already upset about the plant.

You should remember that risk comparisons are just one piece of the risk communication puzzle – you need to ensure your stakeholders have a good balance of information so they can make a well-informed decision. Therefore, it would be more effective to offer this type of risk comparison: “Our best estimate is “a” concerning the plant’s emissions. Our cautious, worst-case estimate is “b.” The highest estimate we have heard from the EPA is “c.”

If you employ risk comparisons, here’s a guide to help you use them effectively[i]:

  • Don’t expect to be trusted; urge your stakeholders to seek out other sources of risk information
  • State why you are using risk comparisons to minimize risk
  • Only use risk comparisons to put risk into perspective, not to reduce concern
  • Give as much time to stakeholders’ concerns as you do to data
  • Risk comparisons don’t equal risk acceptability
  • Avoid concentration (“a drop of vermouth in a million gallon martini”) and probability (one negative to another negative) numbers, which vary widely in potency and trivialize or minimize the issue
  • Acknowledge your uncertainty – it’s alright to say “I don’t know”
  • Only compare like risks (e.g., chosen risks to chosen risks, not chosen risks to involuntary risks)
  • Here’s some effective risk comparison examples:
    1. “With our new procedures, by this time next year the risk will be cut in half.”
    2. “The risk from air toxin “x” is 40 percent less than it was before we installed the scrubbers last October.”
    3. “Our best estimate is “x”; however, EPA has calculated a worst-case estimate of “y.”

Turn that frown upside down

If you just found out that your home has been destroyed and all your possessions are gone, do you think you would be able to listen to someone telling you about last night’s basketball game? Probably not.

Dr. Covello and other researchers call this phenomenon “mental noise,” [ii] and it’s a significant communication barrier when speaking in high concern/low trust situations. In fact, Covello and other researchers have found that mental noise can reduce the ability to process communication by up to 80 percent. Therefore, risk communication messages must be carefully packaged and presented.

This is somewhat similar to cognitive dissonance. Have you ever tried to argue with a smoker about the dangers of cigarettes? The smoker knows cigarettes are unhealthy and can cause cancer but will rationalize the dangers because he enjoys smoking. This is also known as having a competing agenda.

Some effects of mental noise:

  • Denial
  • Trauma
  • Emotional distress

… and how risk communicators can overcome this barrier:

  • Be concise, clear and brief
  • Develop key messages specific to each stakeholder
  • Limit the number of messages (no more than three is a good guide)
  • Repeat your messages using the “TTT Method”:
    1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
    2. Tell them
    3. Tell them what you just told them

Another important communications tool that will help you overcome mental noise situations is to use active listening, or empathetic brainstorming (i.e., “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”). People that are upset will often vent their frustrations at you, even if you’re not the cause of their frustration.

You need to be able to allow people to vent (up to a point) and then summarize their concerns and repeat back to them to show you are keeping a mental record of their input.

Some examples…

  • “If I heard you correctly, what you said was…”
  • “Are you trying to tell me that…?”
  • “In other words, what you experienced was…”

Just remember, when you are paraphrasing someone who is upset, you need to be genuine and not just nod your head and provide lip service.

Turning negatives into positives

Another similar area of concern when we are working with those who have mental noise is the fact that people who are upset tend to think negatively. Risk communicators refer to this as negative dominance.

One way to counter this and provide a positive or neutral (that’s a win!) environment is by avoiding negative words such as “no, not, never, can’t, won’t, don’t, etc.,” and focus your messages based on what’s positive about the given situation. Center your efforts on the positive things your organization is doing. One way to do this is by utilizing organizational messages, which are responses to situations your organization is frequently involved in or creating messages for the issue at hand. This is NOT spin, but focusing on what your organization is doing to mitigate the situation.

A good way to remember how to turn negatives into positives is to remember this formula: N=3P, or, for each negative, you need to provide three positives.

For example:

Stakeholder: “You’re not doing anything to control your plant’s deadly emissions!”

Plant Manager: “(1) I understand you are concerned about emissions from the plant. I am too. (2) I have called for a thorough review of our emissions to ensure we are meeting industry standards and that we are providing a safe environment for you, the employee, as well as for the surrounding community, and (3) I’ll be personally involved throughout this process and inform you, the rest of the employees and the community once the results are in so we can ensure we live and work in a safe environment ….”

Another example, here, in the avoidance of negative terms is NEVER repeating the negatives from a question (i.e., in the above scenario, the word “deadly” from the stakeholder’s question).

That’s it for this installment. This one was kind of a hodge-podge of information, but this is basic risk communication – more of a jumping-off point than anything else, to get you thinking about the concepts and look for more information if it’s something you need for your job. The next post will be the last in this series – we’ll look at the 7-part communication model and more.


[i] Covello, C., Sandman, P., and Slovic, P., Risk Communication, Risk Statistics, and Risk Comparisons: A Manual For Plant Managers, Chemical Manufacturers Association, 1988, pg. 10-22

[ii] Covello, V., Hyde, R., Peters, R., Wojtecki, J. Risk Communication, the West Nile Virus Epidemic, and Bioterrorism: Responding to the Communication Challenges Posed by the Intentional or Unintentional Release of a Pathogen in an Urban Setting. In: Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. June 2001. pg. 382-391.

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