It's In The Context

By Chris Chittenden

Efficiency is one of the key words used in business today. There is a continual and it would seem irresistible push to streamline processes and cut out anything that is seen as superfluous.

One of the results of this drive for efficiency is that some of us also feel compelled to live our lives as efficiently as possible. Unconsciously, we cut out anything that is not related to our end goals. One of the resultant casualties is the conversations we have with others and ironically this creates inefficiency in our life.

When people inadvertently make conversations more efficient, it appears the first thing they do is make them shorter. By doing so they tend to leave out the context and as a result make more assumptions about what the other person knows about the conversational topic.

This approach ignores one of the keys to having effective conversations. Establishing a context or frame within which to have that conversation provides us with an important background. This is because within any given conversation between two people, those two people are creating some meaning to the words that are being said. Whenever we establish some meaning we do it within the context of what we already know. In other words, the context is what goes with the words spoken in order to make sense of those words. For example, if I were to say to you "Could you please bring me a bucket of water", you would see this as an ordinary everyday request and respond accordingly. However if I was to put a context around that request, "There is fire in the bedroom, could you bring me a bucket if water", it would almost certainly generate a different meaning to the request and probably a greater sense of urgency about bringing the water.

The point is that there is always a context in which others make sense of what we say to them regardless of whether we attempt to establish that context or not. This is not a trivial matter. We each have the opportunity to better design our conversations and part of that design lies in seeking to establish the context in which the conversation can be most effective.

Context is also one of the keys to establishing our identity. One of the ways in which we use language is to publicly declare something will happen. When we do this, we create a context in which people observe us in relation to that declaration. If what we declare comes to be then we enhance our identity with those people, if it does not our identity might suffer.

If you are in a leadership role or you someone seeking to fill a leadership role, this is one of the most powerful means that you have to enhance your leadership identity. By making public declarations to create a context and then turning those declarations into reality, you increase your personal authority. People begin to see you as someone who makes things happen and are likely give you more authority for future declarations.

The creation of context is also pivotal to motivating others. Organisations spend a lot of time developing mission statements, visions, strategic plans and so on in an attempt to create a context within which people will work. Unfortunately, often all that effort has very little impact as the employees see those initiatives as just words and do not listen to them as a context for their work.

The context is also of vital importance when we make requests or offers to others. If people are aware of the context in which something needs to be done then they are far more likely to accept your request or offer.

When people strive to have more efficient conversations, the first thing that seems to fall by the wayside is the context. We suggest that when conversations don't go the way you would have liked, you have a look at the context you have created and see whether this might present opportunities for better design in the future.

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© 2000 Chris Chittenden