Watch Your Language

Watch Your Language If You Want To Change Behavior

 

Watch Your Language

 

Robert Conn, M.D., presented this year at Transform about how he learned to look through a new lens at language and how it affects our ability to effect change. Dr. Conn is a former children's heart surgeon who put down his scalpel to launch SMARTRISK, an organization dedicated to preventing injuries and saving lives (and keeping people out of the hospital).

During his residency, as Dr. Conn tells it, his attention was turned to accident prevention during a transplant rotation and, specifically, his time on the harvest team. "I quickly became aware that all our donors were formerly healthy and now brain dead because of accidents," he said. "After a time, I could no longer stomach it."

After his residency, he returned to Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, where he couldn't shake those thoughts about accident prevention. In the U.S. alone, he notes, "one person dies from unintentional injury every three minutes." Somewhere along the line, he was challenged to do something about it, which he jokes may have simply been a nice way to tell him to shut up. What came from that was the beginnings of SMARTRISK.

Dr. Conn's vision was to never preach, to never use the word "don't," and to never talk about "safety" to teenagers, who are the most vulnerable age group for suffering injury due to risk-taking activities, but to communicate that they can take risks in the smartest ways possible and enjoy their lives to the fullest.

He shared some things he's learned about trying to shift a paradigm:

  • The power of language. For example, he said, accident is a term that includes the ideas of being unavoidable and an act of fate. That's language, he says, that "helps us cope" but also "makes us go into denial." With planes, he noted, "we call them crashes," and then fully investigate why they happened rather than thinking they couldn't be avoided.
  • We need to reframe the issue. "Safety sucks," he said, bluntly. Better to talk about risk and managing risk. That gets people thinking about what they're preserving rather than what they have to do — thinking about choices instead of rules. "Everything else in life is benefit focused except in the world of safety," he said, noting that health club ads feature healthy, happy people not images of damaged hearts.
  • Make the target audience the messenger. Dr. Conn said one of the first things he did was develop "a road show with a nicely distilled message." But parents talked about the role of peer pressure in their teens' choices. So Dr. Conn and his team took that idea and turned it around, making teens the messengers and empowering them to create events that made messages about taking calculated risks fun and exciting. They found that by involving teens from various psychographic groups, "you could change the entire school culture."

Dr. Conn closed with several examples of how strong the influence of language and framing an issue is, and why it is a major challenge in shifting public thinking. When John Candy died from a heart attack at age 44, "over the next year, a lot of funds were raised to cure heart disease," he said. "When Princess Diana died, a lot was made about the paparazzi" but little was done or said about the importance of wearing a seat belt. "Nothing was raised or spent on injury prevention," he said. "That illustrates how firmly fixed the idea of these things being an accident is fixed in our thinking."

His takeaways:  Pay attention to the language you use, reframe the issue to get the proper focus, and find a way to make the messenger the target audience.

 

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