As someone who loves taking pictures from my mobile, I decided to download an app which allowed me to frame the picture in myriad ways. I was amazed at how the same picture could look so different with a different frame selection. From a bold image, to a candle lit silhouetted, to comical caricature to a crumpled newspaper look to a vintage postage stamp, to an ink splashed image, to a picture out of holocaust. Some looked inviting and drew me closer, others baffled me, some irked me and yet others repelled me. But it was the same picture! Only the frame was changed. And with each frame my view of it, my connection with it and my desire to keep it or trash it, changed.
Context is that frame in communication. The frame you select will shape the assumptions, perceptions and outcomes arising from it.
So what exactly is “context”? It is an environment, a background, an atmosphere, a given situation in which a conversation takes place. The primary driving force is Purpose and intention.
History is ripe with examples of how the context was set in some powerful speeches. In 1961, John F. Kennedy —at 43, laid the context through his unforgettable line: "My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” What was the purpose? To stress on National Service.
In his famous “I have a Dream” Speech in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial set the context by stating in unequivocal terms "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy." What was the purpose? His vision of American racial harmony. The following year, at the age of 35, he became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
In my journey of 3 decades in communicating and presenting for clients the purposes have varied dramatically from one situation to another. Let me give you an example:
As a Coach I set the context very clearly at the very onset. “I am here to support you to reach your goals within a short span of time. My purpose is to serve you, not to please you. I am a professional Coach, not a social one. I will tell you to do things that may make you uncomfortable. I will push you, track you and if need be hound you. Because my only purpose is to help you WIN. Now is this agreeable with you?” If he is committed he will respond with a YES! After shaking hands, it may be a good idea to seek permission before posing questions, while laying the context that some questions could be deep and cause some discomfort. And are only necessitated in order to gain better understanding that can expedite the fulfilment of his goals. “So let me begin by asking you…………?”
On the other hand, visualise a scenario where I go as a Coach and straight away start bombarding my potential client with deep/uncomfortable questions. No background, no context. I need not spell what the possible outcome would be and what the relationship will culminate into if at all there will still be a relationship.
A lot of potential fruitful relationships are often sacrificed, sometimes unintentionally at the altar of context setting or more accurately for lack of it.Mere intention is not enough
I remember years ago when I started my journey as a Facilitator, I was co facilitating a session with a European colleague at his place. He was a bachelor and had just landed from overseas. With the intention of helping out with beverages during breaks I had carried some tea/coffee/creamer sachets and cookies with me. Well, the outcome was far from what I had expected and I had only myself to blame. Did I set the context before acting upon my intention?
In a nutshell, setting a context obviates the risk of “poking holes.” It helps us get understood and viewed from the lens we would want to be seen from, it creates a buy in, it gets us the results we are seeking, it sets the tone for the future of a relationship and a lot more.
In my next session we will delve deeper into different purposes of setting the context and discover critical elements we need to consider while setting the context, or our expression can become “axe-pression” and break our communication.Sonia Mehta