The Power of Context

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The Power of Context

In conversations outside the ones we have with ourselves, setting appropriate context always has a positive impact on the outcome of the discussion. I’m especially prone to naively thinking that everyone around me is up to speed on what I’ve been thinking before I speak it out loud. Several years ago one of my mentors noticed this and counseled me to consider the power of setting more context. I still fall flat on my face quite often by jumping into a new topic without any background, only later realizing that I’ve just set in motion a series of misunderstandings. But I’m learning how to set the stage more frequently.

Think of the last time you had a disagreement, an uncomfortable conversation or an outright argument with someone. What were the first things you said? Did you take into consideration the circumstances in which your thoughts were formed? Like assessing the climate in a room, you often have to create a contrast to something else. For example, saying, “It’s hot in here” is more relevant when it’s compared to where you just came from. It may not feel too warm to others. This is setting a context for your comments.

In the past several years I’ve grown tremendously. In the middle of my experience I found it difficult to describe what was going on internally, so to some, my growth was confusing. To others who may have gone through similar development, it was fascinating and because they understood it, they supported me–they had a context for what was going on. Having the presence to share more of the circumstances of my growth or creating a reference point for those who may not have any context would have been very helpful and alleviated much of the confusion.

It works the other way too. If you’re confused, don’t understand or disagree with something another person says, consider the context they might be using and get curious about it before you react. Say something like, “Wow, that’s quite a statement… what circumstances allowed for you to say that with such conviction?” Of course, you’ll need to be genuine in your tone, without sarcasm or judgment – often a tricky path.

Still, I urge you to give it a try. Before you say something to co-workers, loved ones or even an unhelpful customer service person on the phone, build understanding by setting more context first.  It will create less confusion and misunderstanding… and in my experience that’s a really good thing to aim for.