Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

What are the white rocks called? The question puzzled me.

For several summers I worked at the tourist information facility located at the highest point on Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco. Interstate 80, known as the Lincoln Highway, reaches an elevation of 8,642 feet at the Lincoln Monument between Cheyenne and Laramie. For many years I could be found there handing out maps and answering questions about the area.

However, this particular question I didn’t understand – what white rocks? We were surrounded by rocks. The man repeated himself, with greater urgency. “What are those white rocks clear over there on the mountains?” I, wondering what he could be referring to, went to the window for a clearer look. Still not sure what white rocks he was talking about, I went outside for a better view.

I suddenly had an inkling that he might be referring to the snowfields on the distant peaks, but surely he would know that was snow – right? Wrong. It turns out that the man was talking about the snow.

The lesson is that we all have different frames of reference that impact how we perceive the world. Growing up in the mountains, I certainly knew what snow was and therefore couldn’t initially understand his question. My curious friend was from a large city back East. He had never seen snow on a mountain in the middle of summer, so couldn’t see that it wasn’t a rock.

Effective communication depends upon making a connection with others. I call this the Intersection of Commonalities. Failing to understand that we all have different perspectives leads to poor communication in the long run. Listening carefully and asking probing questions is one way to better understand where others are coming from – look for what is common not what is different.

Identifying commonalities between your ideal customer or client and what you are providing will start you on the road to success. Learning to ask the right questions of your customers and clients will enable you to better provide what they are seeking. If you get stuck with a one-way relationship – we provide, you buy – then the chances of keeping your customer become limited.

Keep in mind that asking the wrong questions will lead you to the wrong conclusions. Questions designed to ensure that you arrive at a pre-determined destination are meaningless. Questions that probe and work to understand the perceptions, perspectives and actual needs of those that you serve may be uncomfortable at times, but it’s the only way to figure some things out.

The five W questions of journalism apply equally as well to those in communication fields such as advertising and public relations – Who, What, When, Where and Why. Who are your customers/clients? What are you providing? When do people need or desire it? Where will they look for it and perhaps most importantly, Why do they want it? Many businesses and organizations focus on the first four W’s, but many don’t delve in to the Why.

The Why should be at the Intersection of Commonalities between what you are providing and what people want or desire. If this isn’t the case, more exploration, listening and questioning may be in order.

Why does this matter? It’s simple – if you’re selling snow, but people only see white rocks, your message won’t connect.

Be vigilant in listening. Ask questions that will provide useful information. Don’t make assumptions about where people are coming from. Look for opportunities to create Intersections of Commonality. That is effective communication.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
She may be reached at 303-651-6612; scornay@comm-concepts.com; www.comm-concepts.com; Facebook.com/Communication Concepts; Twitter @CommConceptsPR; or Linked In.

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