Strength-Based Communication Best Practice # 2: Use Person-First Language

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In last week’s post, we covered the strength-based messaging best practice of following individual preferences when being specific — meaning avoiding broad-brush identifiers that over-generalize and stereotype in favor of more specific identifiers that provide more accurate, personal information.

Today, I’m going to talk about another key tenet of strength-based messaging, person-first language. Person-first language centers personhood. Keeping in line with what we talked about last week, this type of communication uplifts those your nonprofit exists to serve through messages that feel true and empowering to them. 

The leader of a youth-serving organization I recently worked with elevated an important point about strength-based messaging related to person-first language. He said if we’re portraying youth as disadvantaged and at-risk, they begin to believe those things and define themselves by those things. However, if we’re telling them that everyone needs support to reach their goals, and with that support, the sky’s the limit, that’s what they will believe and aspire to. 

If we're portraying youth as disadvantaged and at-risk, they begin to believe those things and define themselves by those things. If we're telling them that everyone needs support to reach their goals, that's what they will believe. Click To Tweet

Person-first language helps us by ensuring we’re not labeling people. It is also one of the most straightforward practices of strength-based messaging. Let’s look at some examples of messages that fail to use person-first language:

  • Homeless person
  • Low-income families
  • Needy family
  • Distressed community
  • At-risk youth

What’s the issue with these phrases? They all define people or communities by their circumstances or temporary conditions. More importantly, they fail to recognize strength and individual or community agency — things we all have as human beings. They also oversimplify incredibly complex circumstances.

Let’s take a look at how we might rewrite each of the phrases to make them person-first:

  • Homeless person → person experiencing homelessness. 

This shift in language ensures this person is not defined by one thing, homelessness. It’s a temporary condition.

  • Low-income families → 3 out of 5 people we serve live in households currently below the poverty line.

For examples like this, I always recommend changing references from family to household. The word family is very personal. Then couple this change with a fact rather than using broad generalizations.

  • Needy family → Household facing food insecurity. 

Again, with this example, change the reference from family to household and describe the actual need.

  • Distressed community → communities most impacted by COVID-19 school closures.

When I read something like “distressed community,” I’m not sure what the distress is referring to because it’s overly general. Typically language like this indicates systemic inequities are at play. Can you describe those or get to the heart of what the issue is you’re trying to convey?

  • At-risk youth → 3 in 10 young people don’t graduate high school on time. The youth attending our programs are 40 percent more likely to graduate on time.

The statement “at-risk” begs the question, what is the risk you are describing? Can you be clear about it or use facts or statistics? It’s even better when you can couple it with the solution your nonprofit provides.

Hopefully, these examples and rewrites help you to think about how you might communicate in a more strength-based, person-first way. A final note on this best practice, when possible, let individuals describe challenges in their own words.

Next up on strength-based messaging best practices – avoid saviorism and extreme exceptionalism.

  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. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #1: Use Individual Preferences and Be Specific
  4. This post: Strength-Based Communication Best Practice # 2: Use Person-First Language

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