Give us the context

Give us the context

There are no words to describe our shock and horror at the killings in Christchurch.
Nor enough tears to wash away the pain of losses and suffering.
Believers and non-believers offer thoughts and prayers for those directly hurt.
All of us support this most beautiful city and country in their sadness.

Give us the context

A friend with whom I was having coffee recently suddenly said “I never thought it would work. Not the way they did it.” It was before the violent Europe debate blew up, so I figured it wasn’t about that. I played along. “How do you mean?” I said. “Well,” he replied scornfully, “I mean not so close to the exit and with so little light.” “Ah,” I replied, “dangerous, was it?” “Don’t be silly”, he continued, “How could a kitten be dangerous?” I then asked what on earth he was talking about.

Another person who helps me greatly held an entire discussion about an upcoming meal without revealing that what we should eat at it had already been definitively decided. Both these cases of lack of context leading to poor communication and misunderstanding, illustrate the importance of setting the scene. Here’s another time when scene setting is totally forgotten. A thread of emails can get quite long. Being copied in after a mile of exchanges requires some context.

But it is often missing. A recent example left me wondering what we were going to do at 3am. Something important, it sounded from the ten earlier emails. To get the context fully I would have had to search through seven months of turgid, technical exchanges simply to establish that the service was American and had limited hours when we could speak to it. Three words of introduction when I came on the scene would have been enough to alert me to what was going on. And, as it happened, I wasn’t needed to make the call at 3am anyway.

Time was when we spent a while setting the scene. Not boringly nor at length. Just enough to allow the other party to understand and join in helpfully. Broaden what I am saying and you see the need to think in the other person’s mind as well as your own. The recent runaway train in USA could have been avoided if the two engineers were communicating with each other. The fact that one said ‘Put the brake on’ and the other did it caused a monumentally expensive need to derail the train at high speed. It had sped down the line at over 80 kilometers per hour without a driver. All for want of thinking ‘Does he know which of the two trains I am talking about?’

The understandably selfish need we have to communicate in a busy, hectic world leads us to forget that the person we are speaking to may not know what the subject is. How do we remedy this? By thinking, of course. But what thoughts do we need to have before we impart the critical information that is going to change the course of history? Once we master it we will improve our communications so dramatically that we will get promoted to greater responsibilities

To start with we weigh up the other person quickly. First impressions are vital. Not always right, they have an uncanny way of giving us critical clues without explaining the reasons for them. Is the person trustworthy? Are they calm and apparently straightforward? What do we know of the recent work and home life? If we have done our homework, that may be quite a lot. Have we checked them on LinkedIn and other social media? There are often good clues there.

As our conversation develops do we notice any sign of distraction? For example, someone who takes out their mobile phone, apparently to switch it off, is probably looking for an important call. S/he will therefore be paying less attention to you than usual. You will need to re-attract the person with compelling questions that they have to think about. ‘Are you paying attention?’ is not enough.

Moods, scenes, attitudes, concentration change all the time so our weighing up the person we are communicating with has to continue nonstop. Exhaustion sets in, not the sort that shows as needing sleep but the mental exhaustion of too much input. If the listener show signs of losing interest, have a break, change the subject or plan to deal with the issue another time.

The promise I made myself that we would not mention the B word in the Daily Paradox today is about to be broken. If Mrs May had thought more of the context of what she is doing rather than the political glory (as she sees it) to be garnered by succeeding (as she sees it), we would not be in the incredible mess that we are. When you next watch news of the dreaded subject look for the way in which some of the reporters set the context so well and briefly. Others don’t clue you in.

Stimulus, challenge, disruption, controversy – yes to all of these.

But please give us the context at the start.