It’s not (just) what you say. It’s how, when, why and to whom you say it.

In public relations, we spend a lot of time thinking about messages. Frequently, the majority of brainpower gets spent figuring out what should be said. Unfortunately, folks often forget to consider how it is being said, to whom it is said, and the context in which the conversation occurs.

We often have a tendency to view all people through the same lens we use for ourselves. If we’re logical, we tend think everybody should think logically. If we’re more of a feeling person or relationally oriented, we think everybody should be that way. If we like physical fitness, we think everybody should enjoy waking up early for a brisk run. If we are Jayhawks, we have no idea how anybody with a shred of self-respect could voluntarily attend Mizzou (this last one might actually be true). When we try to put ourselves in the shoes of people who think in a way that is different from our own worldview, we often do so in a way that is more like a caricature than a sincere attempt to understand and empathize with a different point of view.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re going to be effective in building relationships with others, you have to try really hard to understand the way other people think about and experience the world. If you don’t take that into consideration, your messages can end up falling flat. A common example of this is when we make arguments that we view as unimpeachably good, and others find unredeemably bad.

In a situation like that, both sides might use the exact same words and examples to prove their points, but each means it in a very different way.

Last night’s episode of The Daily Show has an awesome (albeit hyperbolic) example of how this can play out.

Of course, in most situations the differences we have to address aren’t nearly this obvious. But that’s the point. If it was always this obvious, these biases wouldn’t be so sneaky and we could instantly recognize the problems with our messages and recalibrate our thinking. But most of the time, the differences are small and our biases are insidious.

It takes a lot of discipline and sincere effort to analyze an issue and its key audiences from all sides. Only then can you set about the task of finding common ground and developing messages that will help you succeed in building mutually beneficial relationships with your various publics.