Far too frequently I get an email or voicemail that leaves me scratching my head and a bit frustrated. The common thread? No context.
Just last week I got a short email from a somewhat familiar name asking for a meeting. The email pretty much read, “I would like to talk. Let me know when is a good time.” While I appreciated the brevity, unless you’re one of my very best friends I need to know why you want to talk before agreeing to schedule a time.
The week before that email I got a long and winding message from someone I did not know asking about “my group” and giving details on a person I did not know. The sender gave no effort to introduce herself or let me know what the heck she was even talking about. I assumed it was junk mail, but it wasn’t. I ignored the message and only later learned that she was trying to find out if a class I teach at church was a good fit for her adult son.
Maybe this kind of thing happens to you, too. I don’t know about you, but I really dislike this kind of communication. I dislike it because I so very much like context.
Context is the big picture, the setting in which something occurs. And context matters. A lot.
Sometimes context is obvious. For example, immediately after our kids’ basketball game I could say, “Your son was a beast,” and you’d know exactly what I was talking about and be thankful for the compliment. But if I wait and say that exact same thing to you three days later while we’re both standing in line at the grocery store, you’d wonder what the heck I was talking about. I’d need to give context: “That was a great game Monday; your son was a beast.” (By the way, calling a basketball player a “beast” is a compliment).
Context helps everyone in the conversation connect the dots in the same way. It keeps us all on the same page and looking at things in similar ways and for a common purpose. Without context, we create misunderstanding, confusion, and sometimes even conflict.
One of the places I often see context missing is in meetings. Very often people in meetings dive right into a discussion without first giving the headline or purpose for that portion of the conversation.
When I worked in technology I had a colleague who did this all the time. He’d say, “Look at spreadsheet X,” and then he’d start reading data or noting where information was missing from a cell. But he never told anybody else WHY we were looking at the spreadsheet. Without knowing the context, we couldn’t effectively engage the process. So we ignored the entire discussion. I would ask someone later, “Why were we looking at the spreadsheet?” and nobody knew.
Another place context helps is when you leave out a key piece of contextual information. For example, consider name-dropping. I don’t mean the names of famous people (Billy Graham told me to never name drop), but dropping the name of someone into a conversation when the other person does not know the person. For example, if I barely know you and in the course of the conversation you mention “Jennifer,” I don’t have any way of knowing that Jennifer is your wife (or boss, or neighbor, or daughter, or Jennifer Anniston). By dropping the name of someone without giving the context of who that person is, you’ve created a great deal of confusion. Plus, doing that is rude.
To be clear, giving context does not mean providing all the background details or events leading up to this moment (in fact, others will wonder what’s the context of all those details!). Instead, it just means giving a short description of why you’re talking about whatever it is you’re talking about.
Providing context is one of the most important elements of clear communication. And giving context is a learnable skill. Here are three ways you can improve your ability to provide context:
Take a dose of empathy. Lack of context is often a symptom of lack of empathy. Put yourself into the shoes of the person or group you’re talking with and ask yourself, “How clear is it to them why I am saying this or why we are going to talk about this topic?” Don’t assume they’ve already connected the dots the way you have.
Title your chapters. Think about context like a clear chapter heading that shortly summarizes what is about to happen. Next time you’re in a conversation, take a pause and ask yourself what the chapter heading could be for the conversation. The more you think about the big picture summary of things, the better you will be at providing context.
Stop pretending. When you’re on the receiving end of poor context, admit it to yourself and to the other person. Most of us smile and nod and stick with it hoping the picture will become clear very soon. Try reducing the amount to time you wait for things to become clear and instead try proactively asking the other person to provide some context to help you fully engage the conversation.
What about you?
How has lack of context proved problematic for you? Are you the culprit? The victim? Both? What have you found to be helpful in improving your own ability to provide context? What have you tried to help others improve?