Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #1: Use Individual Preferences and Be Specific

This week, our series on strength-based communication continues with our first of several posts highlighting best practices any organization can benefit from following. The best practices we’ll cover over the next few weeks include:

  • Follow individual preferences and be specific
  • Use person-first language
  • Avoid saviorism and extreme exceptionalism
  • Emphasize strengths over needs (and place challenges in the context of systems)
  • Avoid coded language

Today, let’s dive into that first best practice: follow individual preferences and be specific. 

A strength-based approach requires describing people the way they prefer to be described. It sounds simple, and yet, as communicators, we make mistakes in this area all the time. We assume we know how someone should be described based on how they look, act, or sound, or on other superficial characteristics, and as a result, we end up misrepresenting the (often complex, intersectional) identities of those our organizations serve. We must work to understand, and then align with individual preferences any time we need to communicate about a person’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, or any other type of identity.

A strength-based approach requires describing people the way they prefer to be described. It sounds simple, and yet, as communicators, we make mistakes in this area all the time. Click To Tweet

Following this best practice requires just two straightforward steps:

  1. Ask every individual you are communicating about how they prefer to be described
  2. Follow their individual preferences in your communications

That second step should be followed whether or not the individual’s preferences match guidance you’ve received elsewhere, such as in your organization’s style guide, the AP Stylebook, or from others with similar identities. Individual preference trumps all.

However, there may be cases where, despite your best efforts, you cannot determine or align with individual preferences. This may happen when an individual is not able to communicate their preferences, or when you’re communicating about a larger group of individuals who do not share the exact same preferences for identity-based language.

In these cases, it is critical to be as specific as possible. That means avoiding broad brush identifiers that over-generalize and stereotype in favor of more specific identifiers that provide more accurate, personal information. For example, avoid using the term “Asian American” when discussing a group of Americans who are all of Korean descent. Instead, if you’re unable to obtain individual preferences, be more specific and use a term like “Korean American.” 

Fortunately, guidance about following individual preferences and being as specific as possible has now made its way into mainstream style guides, such as the AP Stylebook, which is widely used by journalists. For example, here are a few of their guidelines that mention following individual preferences and being specific:

African American No hyphen (a change in 2019 for this and other dual heritage terms). Acceptable for an American Black person of African descent. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow a person’s preference.

people of color, racial minority The terms people of color and racial minority/minorities are generally acceptable terms to describe people of races other than white in the United States. Avoid using POC. When talking about just one group, be specific: Chinese Americans or members of the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida, for example. Be mindful that some Native Americans say the terms people of color and racial minority fall short by not encompassing their sovereign status. Avoid referring to an individual as a minority unless in a quotation.

disabilities The terms disabilities and disabled include a broad range of physical and mental conditions both visible and invisible. People’s perceptions of disabilities vary widely. Use care and precision when writing about disabilities and people with disabilities, considering the impact of specific words and the preferences of the people you are writing about.

Avoid writing that implies ableism: the belief that typical abilities — those of people who aren’t disabled — are superior. Ableism is a concept similar to racism, sexism and ageism in that it includes stereotypes, generalizations and demeaning views and language. It is a form of discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.

Do not describe an individual as having a disability unless it is clearly pertinent to the story. For example: Merritt, who is blind and walks with the help of a guide dog, said she is pleased with the city’s walkway improvements. But not: Zhang, who has paraplegia, is a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Be specific about the type of disability, or symptoms. For example: The woman said the airline kicked her family off a plane after her 3-year-old, who has autism, refused to wear a mask. She said her son became upset because he does not like to have his face touched.

When possible, ask people how they want to be described. Some people view their disability as central to their identity, and use identity-first language such as an autistic woman or an autistic. Others prefer person-first language such as a woman with autism or a woman who has autism.

You can find more of their guidance for race-related identifiers here, and for other sorts of identifiers by searching the main style guide. While their guidelines can be a great starting point to help your organization make decisions, be sure to tailor them to the preferences of the people and communities you work with.

Next week, we’ll be back with a post on the second strength-based communication best practice: use person-first language. Until then, here are all the posts (to date) in this series on strength-based communication:

  1. The Latest Research and Trends in Strength-Based Communication
  2. The Equity Assessment: What Your Organization Needs to Do BEFORE Establishing Its Approach to Strength-Based Communication
  3. This post: Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #1: Use Individual Preferences and Be Specific
  4. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice # 2: Use Person-First Language
  5. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #3: Avoid Saviorism and Extreme Exceptionalism
  6. Strength-Based Messaging Best Practice Number 4: Emphasize Strengths Over Needs

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