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

“That’s so you!” I love when people say this to me, good or bad. It means that they really know me, for better or worse. Everyone wants to be recognized for who they really are. People, businesses and organizations that “get” us truly understand our uniqueness. Communication, in this arena, is very impactful and is most likely to make a difference. But what happens when others clearly “don’t get” us? Two dissimilar illustrations of this reality hit home with me recently.

First, I helped to develop and then facilitate a leadership class. Part of the class focused on each participant’s strengths, defined through an exercise designed to draw this out. Faces lit up as each was “recognized” for the individual that they are. The positive energy derived from this exercise was palpable. By comparing what was similar and different between individuals, relationships were formed.

In a different setting, I was asked to help provide communication tips for team members from a variety of industries who are simply overloaded with the communication requirements being placed upon them. Most felt that communication was being artificially stifled and that differences and stereotypes were being reinforced. Many expressed fear. Several described their work as constant tension between some people “winning” and some people “losing”. This attitude isn’t likely to result in more inclusion among the team members. In working to ensure that our differences are recognized and appreciated, have we left others behind?

When trying to persuade others to think differently, to act differently, it isn’t realistic to message as if we are engaged in a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is a situation in which one person or group can “win” only by causing others to “lose”. The result? Communication that isn’t effective, and in some cases is actually damaging to the goals identified.

Communicators know that in order to really engage someone else, it is incumbent on us to share something of ourself to establish common ground. When we recognize ourselves in others, even if it is a small thing, we are then able to empathize and identify more quickly with them. Our communication is then based on a relationship that can be built upon from there.

When communication originates with assumptions about others, and who they are, it is doomed to failure. When the target is missed, when recipients of your message don’t identify themselves in the way you define them, relationships can’t be built. Established relationships may erode. Communication is most effective when we work to understand others rather than trying to get them to understand us first.

To do this we need to be more aware of nuances that create similarities and differences. For example, I am a wife and mother. I fall into a certain age set. I enjoy the outdoors. I love sports. I own my own business. Seem like enough to market to me? Maybe, but if you try to market to me based on my age, I’m likely to shut you out. Talk to me about traditional “domestic” issues and I’m gone. Identity politics? Count me out. Each of us is unique. We are all similar in some areas, but unalike in others. Does this make me wrong and you right? Of course not!

To stay relevant as communicators we must reject stereotypes that don’t represent real people and are in many cases insulting. We need to train ourselves to look past labels to get to what really makes people tick. Focusing on differences may cause us to lose focus on commonalities. And, focusing on what we have in common has always moved mountains. Shouldn’t we start there?

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 LinkedIn.

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