Great ground rules for conversations between scientists and citizens

The Rubbertown Community Advisory Committee uses these ground rules at its monthly meetings to ensure productive conversations.

Over the last three years, I have talked about asthma, air pollution, and digital health to at least 50 different groups. Most recently I shared the Institute’s work at the February meeting of the St. Margaret Mary Elementary school board. Next month I’ll be talking with the Building Industry Association of Greater Louisville. I also have attended scientific and medical presentations and public meetings. One frequent problem that pops up subject matter experts talk with a general audience is communication. Typically a technical expert and a citizen don’t have a shared language. Each group has to make an effort to connect and actually converse.

In February, I spoke at the monthly meeting of the Rubbertown Community Advisory Committee. The group works to develop mutual trust between chemical companies and residents and to provide two-way communication on community and industry concerns. The table tent in the picture above sets the ground rules for the conversations at these meetings. These rules address many of the problems I have experienced at conversations between average citizens and scientists, researchers and engineers. In my experience, people in both groups are well-meaning, capable and engaged. Researchers and technical experts care about doing a thorough and thoughtful job when analyzing environmental conditions and related health risks. Community residents have thoughtful questions about complex topics and completely justified concerns about their homes and their health.

The breakdown comes when the two groups meet without clear ground rules like the ones the Rubbertown CAC uses. When scientists use technical language or jargon, this shuts down the conversation. It’s easy to get intimidated when you don’t understand a word and just as easy to slip into acronym shorthand when you use it all day with colleagues.

I know the rules work because I saw several of them in action. The bold rules in the list below are the ones that people in the meeting used to clarify a point or gently remind a technical expert about how to interact with people who are not scientists.

  1. Silence your pager and cell phone
  2. Minimize side conversations
  3. Stay on task
  4. Translate acronyms and jargon
  5. Trust the process
  6. Agree to disagree agreeably
  7. Remember that no idea is silly
  8. Be unafraid to ask questions
  9. Listen
  10. Share the air (don’t dominate the conversation)
  11. Separate the idea from the person

In my experience, subject matter experts and scientists would find it easier to connect with residents if they remember #5, #7 and #10.
Meetings in general would be better if everyone followed the first three rules.

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