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Context Is King

The other day as I was coming into the office, I happened to pass by one of my coworkers who was already at her desk working. I said good morning to her as I walked by, and she said "Hey, Keith." I stopped, and walked over to her desk, waiting for her to ask me whatever her question was. She looked up, waiting for me to say whatever I was going to say to her. It turned out, we had a bit of a context issue. She said "Hey, Keith", and I heard "Hey Keith...". We quickly figured out that we had misunderstood each other, joked about it, and went on our way. But this 30-second interaction got me to thinking about the importance of context. If these two simple words can be interpreted so differently, what are the implications to more complex issues?

Each day, we engage in countless conversations with coworkers, clients, managers, team members, customers, the public. From those conversations, we are making decisions which will either further or inhibit our company's success. And let's be real, most of the time we have a full (if not overflowing) workload for the day, so we're probably juggling multiple priorities. Is it reasonable to think that maybe we leave room for gaps in what we understand vs. what is really being discussed?

In order to maximize the effectiveness of our communication let's identify some important distinctions between communication and effective communication.

  • Process vs. Product - Leadership titan Michael Kouly says that "The wrong decision in the right context and the right decision in the wrong context are equally inappropriate". We're going to make plenty of wrong decisions in our careers. It's the way it goes, and it's part of how we develop and evolve as professionals. Avoidance is futile. Once we make peace with that, we can move past the fear of the wrong decision, and focus on the importance of the decision-making process. That process involves ensuring that we fully understand the issue at hand before we can hope to reach an appropriate decision.

  • Why vs. What - The biggest mistake we can make is taking things at face value. Especially when you're dealing with people. They're complex, complicated, and things are rarely as they appear at first glance. In order to truly understand an issue, it's helpful to ask the person why they think or feel a certain way. You'll often hear some very important clues and context into their thought process that will come in handy when it's time to make a decision.

  • Face time vs. Screen time - The proliferation of mobile devices had led to a significant increase in communication volume. According to a recent study by Nielsen, the average teenage sends 3,339 text messages per month. That's a LOT. But more doesn't necessarily mean better. Reading a text message robs you of important context that you need to fully understand the message.All the emojis on the interweb can't replace what's lost. Even talking on the phone strips away some important nonverbals that can potentially make the difference between thinking you understand and truly understanding a situation. So next time you open a new email to ask a coworker a question, take a few extra minutes and walk down the hall and talk to them.

So the next time you're about to dig into an important situation and decide how to respond, remember that context, not content, is king.

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