Context Matters

I read this Blog Post recently, Competence is Context-Dependent, which provides a perspective on context related to hiring and recruiting that I very much agree with. The primary take-a-way was that it may not follow that the best person for a job in one organization is the best one for the same job in a different organization. It depends on the context (culture) of the organization. The individual will most certainly have to act and behave differently in one than in the other regardless of the job.

For those of you in the HR field, I’d really recommend this read. For me, however, it really triggered my thought process on the topic of context, which I’ve always felt very strongly about, especially in terms of communication and leadership.

I can still remember a few years ago, when there were some website design pundits preaching that content really didn’t matter anymore. Their advice was to just get yourself out there. I remember thinking then, if content isn’t important, why design one in the first place. If you have nothing of substantive value to say (context), why be out there at all?

I have this same perspective on leadership, as I’ve always felt that the context of anything was critical. If you don’t have the required level of discernment or understanding, then how can you know where anyone is coming from? How can you know what lens others see the world through and how it shapes their values or opinions? How can you lead effectively?

In my view, the context of any situation is a must know. Remember this one from yesteryear that is still completely relevant today? Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Most of you know this is Habit 5 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I still have the book and the audio training tapes (digital now of course 😊), to which I still refer to often as refreshers. The content is timeless and never out of context.

The data backs it up! Most people listen to someone with the intention of replying, and as soon as they have a reply in mind, stop listening and wait for a chance to jump in and respond, even if they have to interrupt. It really drives me nuts when someone does that or talks over me, and hiding my consternation is no easy task. No matter what remarkable new insights are uncovered in the subsequent words from the other person, I find myself immediately wanting to tune them out.

With context, on the other hand, so much more can be accomplished if we truly understand the backstory of the other person. We can become better at giving or receiving feedback, meeting new people, assessing the environment more accurately, knowing what the room is telling us; in short, becoming better communicators.

For anyone wanting to become better at discerning context, I’d have the following suggestions:

  1. Listen for what’s not being said. In my view, this is a core competency. Understanding non-verbal cues and body language is a great advantage.
  2. Remember that you don’t have to respond. In my previous life, where I attended a lot of corporate meetings (most of which, truth be told, were unproductive 😊) I made it a point not to say very much until the end. Why? Because most of the people who were doing most of the talking and responding were so busy running for office, that they completely missed primary points of context. I made it a habit to make note of points I thought were relevant and then to summarize in context that added some value.
  3. Ask thoughtful questions at timely intervals. One of the most important lessons I learned from my mentor, Sam Walton, was to ask Why? at least 5 times, because you probably weren’t going to get the real story until after that fifth question.
  4. Resist the urge to give a lot of advice or state a lot of opinions. You have to consider that you’re not the only one this person has talked with and refer back to the data I shared with you earlier about how most people respond. It takes someone with listening discipline to resist this urge.
  5. Be open to whatever the path the conversation takes. The most significant discovery I’ve made over years of communicating with people is that most really don’t want any feedback. They just want to be heard. Even if nothing comes of the interaction in terms of resolution, positive outcome, or otherwise, they at least need to leave feeling like they were heard.

In today’s environment, there’s one phrase I hear so often now, especially from politicians and elites, that I have to resist the urge to tune them out. The phrase is I was taken out of context. In the interest of trying to be objective, when I hear that, I always check the backstory. Unfortunately, I do find that 99% of the time, the individual was taken completely in context.

Truth Be Told, however, we still need to know the backstory.

Published by The Leadership Consortium

Maxie Carpenter was formerly Vice President of HR & Talent Development for Wal-Mart Stores. After a 27-year career, he began to pursue a number of other interests, which included alternative education, nonprofits, consulting, writing and public speaking.

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