Context and Content

Context and Content

When I hear a message in clear context, I can understand it better. Is this the same for you?

Imagine - you are sitting in a restaurant and the waiter approaches you but is still a few steps away. He opens his mouth and says one word, “Water?” The noisy restaurant obscures the audible sound coming from the waiter’s mouth, but between your lip-reading ability and the context of the restaurant, plus your familiarity with the pattern of these events, you understand immediately. You nod and smile and ten seconds your glass is refilled with water.

That level of understanding is largely geared around three triggers: 1) your lip-reading ability, 2) the context of the restaurant, 3) and the familiarity of the actions/pattern.

First, your skill or ability to read lips (Your ability to understand + the communicator’s ability to express).

What is your actual level of cognition understanding the communication to begin with? In other words, can you comprehend it? If you cannot hear in this fictitious restaurant and someone mouths the word for ‘Water’ but not in a spoken language you can understand (ie. For me I know no Finnish, Portuguese, or Japanese), then your first level cognition skills would not allow you to still pick up the meaning of the speaker.

Similarly, if the waiter mouths the word, “Water” but does not make it clear through the movement of his mouth, the viewer/listener is unlikely to make much meaning of it. The communicator’s ability to express is also a primary contributing factor as to whether or not the message arrives with the original intended meaning.

Second, context of the restaurant (Your ability to recognize how the environment or current thoughts plays into your understanding of the situation).

‘Real context’ is placing yourself in an environment that primes your mind (prepares it) to interact with patterns and ideas and phrases that are closely connected to that restaurant. The thoughts of ‘food,’ ‘beverages,’ ‘friends,’ ‘service,’ ‘coffee,’ delicious,’ might jump to mind. The thoughts of ‘trucks,’ ‘computers,’ ‘cactus,’ and ‘football,’ might be less on the tip of your tongue.

Being the lazy creatures that we are, our brain tries to keep itself on auto-pilot as much as it possibly can. Your body seeks to reduce cognitive load by finding this context so that it needs to work less hard to achieve what the brain thinks is the outcome you want. If context was not a factor, your brain would need to scan every word in your entire vocabulary to try to match the waiter mouthing ‘Water’ to a level of understanding you already have.

But by eliminating words that are less likely to appear in that setting, like ‘trucks,’ ‘computers,’ ‘cactus,’ and ‘football,’ your brain saves a tremendous amount of energy. Here’s an example I’m sure everyone has read before - by ‘priming’ your bedroom with low light and lack of blue light, you sleep more deeply. The context of this room helps our body produce melatonin, sending us and keeping us asleep. Priming our physical environments composes meaningful changes to our actions.

Placing yourself in a restaurant environment, you’d likely be able to understand the word “Water.” Don’t think so? Imagine you are in the restaurant again and this time it was you turning to the waiter to say, “Water?” He would recognize your request instantly. This also holds true when we say, “Check Please,” or “Mai Dan” in China. But imagine if we turned to the waiter and said, “British Parliamentary Debate.” My bet is that the waiter would be less likely to understand us because he is not thinking that could possibly come out of our mouths at that moment. So the context of the environment matters, as does the level of experience in pattern recognition of the waiter (and you). Which brings us to our third idea.

Finally, experience seeing similar patterns (Your ability to recognize patterns of content AND in context).

Practice creates repeated experiences (habits) which eventually become our intuition. What more is intuition than fundamental habits of your mind? Intuition is merely a fast response mechanism to a challenging decision (If the decision is not challenging, then we will often refer to it as a response or reaction). How often have you heard someone refer to another person as having great ‘intuition’ after a game of dodgeball? Or referring to someone having great ‘habits’ when they close some creative $10MM partnership deal?

It rarely happens because we disassociate the two, but they are both responses to conditions around us. Intuition just happens to be more frequently connected to higher-level mental cognition. But in my mind, intuition is just a signifier for a deeply-ingrained habit of thinking.

When you act in the same way repeatedly and in so doing rewire your brain away from the status quo and into a new habit and action, that forms the foundations of what in the future you will call intuition. When rappers are able to flow seamlessly during rap battles, it came from pattern recognition. When athletes just ‘know’ when a teammate will be behind them for the no-look pass, it came from pattern recognition. When chess or Wei Qi players make a devastating move, it came from pattern recognition. Habits of thought.

The same is true in investing or in management - business thinkers see patterns. In the beginning perhaps they were not able to tell what made the investment successful, but over time they get better and better at it (we hope!). And we similarly hope this is true within the context of debate judging, or coaching, or speechwriting, or hosting Parent Coach Conferences. Experience in pattern recognition, when combined with contextual awareness, when combined with skill/ability should ideally result in a favorable outcome.

So back to the restaurant. Imagine my wonder when a waiter approached me and mouthed a word I couldn’t hear (because of the music). It took me three times asking, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” to hear him. He asked, “Bitcoin?”

I was sitting and working at my computer, filing my taxes. I was drinking a cup of coffee. And I was in a restaurant in a city I was relatively new to. Very little context was present around the question - so when I didn’t hear 100% correctly what he asked the first time, I needed it repeated. It was so unexpected. It never occurred to me that is what the waiter would say.

Now, had the waiter placed even more context around the scenario, perhaps I would have. Leading with, “Excuse me sir, is that finance work you’re doing?” My response: “Yes, it is.”

His follow-up: “Bitcoin?” Would have made much more sense and I likely would have understood his question on the first try.

So why is this all important?

Because it is our responsibility as communicators to provide enough context for our listeners/readers/viewers/colleagues to make sense of the information we are sharing. It is also our responsibility as communicators to provide the information in the way that will most likely help the listeners/readers/viewers/colleagues.

Think about context before content - Intent before Content - Why before What.

This challenge falls to everyone in the LearningLeaders Partnership. We have responsibility to provide as much context as we can around decisions we make that materially impact other Partners and our Clients. This is relevant in every arena: Sharing with a Client why we have a particular guideline rather than just rattling it off from memory. Discussing with a co-Coach why a lesson plan could be edited or creatively delivered rather than commanding it. We do this with our students as well, every time we give debate feedback to students and request, ‘further characterizations,’ ‘clearer models,’ and ‘stakeholder analysis.’

Not all of those situations may result in you seeing perfectly eye-to-eye with the other person, but they should at least give the other person a better idea of what your thinking process is. If there is a disagreement, now there are fewer assumptions and more informed parties on both sides.

This is the reason why generally people want to know the ‘big picture’ before making decisions. This is the reason why we share the One Page Strategic Plan. This is the reason why I feel defaulting to transparency and openness brings more benefits than closed-ness. Openness allows everyone to see context.

If context is obviously helpful to us making better decisions together as a team and communicating more effectively, then why the heck don’t people share context more regularly? Because it takes time and is often ugly and challenging to really grasp a larger more abstract idea to then slide in more simplistic short-term fixes to simply tide you over to the next conversation. It is also more difficult for the communicator to provide context because the communicator is then required to think through the issue in more detail and simultaneously at a higher level. Finally, there’s a tendency (that I certainly have and I think I’m not the only one) to see a picture so clearly in my mind that I assume everyone else in the universe absolutely must see it that way too. After all, if something is so obvious, why would it require explanation?

The bottom line here is that generating a shared context is HARD. It is not a simple thing.

Shared context is the foundation of a great company culture, strong core values, and the foundation of trust. Shared context is why you naturally have an affinity for someone from your hometown compared to someone from the other side of the country. Lack of shared context is why it’s harder for us to empathize with those from a different socio-economic background. Shared context is why we at LearningLeaders feel we have a culture that we are proud of. Initial lack of shared context is what makes it imperative that as the team grows, we work extra hard to integrate and onboard new Partners effectively and respectfully.

When was the last time you didn’t have enough context around a situation and made a snap judgement about somebody else that you learned later was not justified? If you’re like me, it’s only ever happened once before in my life (kidding - once a week, more likely!).

Isn’t it helpful if that other person gives you more context around why the decision was made this way?

If you just answered, ‘Yes,’ to the above question, then I implore you to become that person who provides more context to others. As my homeboy Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When it comes to providing more context around decisions to those around you, every Partner at LearningLeaders has the ability, skills, and power to do just that.

For me, it never hurts to hear the backstory. And wouldn’t it be helpful, if you didn’t have the proper context, to ask? From my perspective, rarely is there a less informed dialogue and discussion after requesting for more context. Sometimes even just asking the question prompts on-the-spot analysis, revision, and improvements. This is the ‘Intent before Content’ mentality in action. This is the power of ‘Why before What.’

Although we rarely mouth words to each other at LearningLeaders (speaking at a regular old volume is just fine, thanks!), I know for sure there have been potential ‘communication mix-ups,’ noticed ‘misalignment,’ or a little bit of a ‘lack of clarity.’

Can we please just all make a commitment to each other that context is important? We can only build shared context if we build it together.

Provide context always. Ask about context always. Context is king.