Have you ever sat in a meeting and wondered, “What is this about?” I don’t mean in some existential crisis sort of way, but in a purpose sort of way. I have. In fact, this happens in at least half the meetings I attend. I sit there as someone (often the team leader or person in charge) drones on while I wonder, “What am I supposed to do with this deluge of words?”
The effectiveness of meetings at work, at church, and even in the home is often thwarted by the #1 communication mistake – one that at least half of us make very often. What is the mistake? Not setting context.
Context is important because humans take in information in two ways. First, we take it in at the detail and sensory level. This is like raw data. Second, we take it in at the level of theme and meaning. This is like a headline or a caption that makes sense of the data. In Myers-Briggs terms, these are Sensory and Intuition. While some people prefer Sensing and other prefer Intuition, everyone needs both functions in order to succeed in life. The two ways of taking in information work in tandem: Sensory imports data into our brain, and Intuition makes sense of the Sensory data. When they are paired, meetings work great. When they are divorced, meetings languish.
Context is an Intuitive function. Knowing the context helps us process the content of a meeting more efficiently and more effectively. Context declares: here comes some information and here’s what you should try to do with it. Without context, the words people share in a meeting are come at us like a data dump.
Too many meetings dive right into the content (Jill shares a report, Rob passes out a profit and loss statement, Shanna provides a detailed update, etc.). Without context, the data cannot be processed properly. Is Jill sharing the report as an FYI, or to stir conversation, or to help make a key decision, or what? Why do we want to know what’s in her report? What are we supposed to do with this information? We need context. Knowing the context will not only help everyone hear more effectively, it will also help Jill share more effectively.
One of the things I’ve learned to do in meetings where I am not the leader, is to request context as early in the meeting as possible. And I’ve learned to do this in a non-judgmental way. The whole non-judgmental thing has been hard to come by. For a long time I perceived the data dumpers as somehow inferior (are they stupid, or malevolent, or what?!?). Eventually I realized they were just different. For them, backing up the truck and dumping out a bunch of information is a perfectly rational thing to do since that’s how they take in the world. They don’t feel uneasy about sifting and sorting without a clear context (unlike Sensors who don’t know how to sift and sort without context).
If you’re a Sensor, do the rest of us a favor and give us the context before diving into the content so we can make some meaning from all the facts. And if you’re an Intuitive, do yourself a favor and bring some data to back up your big-picture snapshot of things (otherwise the Sensors will – and should – tear you apart).