Context is Critical

Posted by Mike Kaaks

20 June 2013

I was recently reflecting on a couple of books I'd just read, both of which were in one way or another about making decisions. Each made lots of references to tests that researchers had devised to unlock some insight into the way we humans work in given situations. As my thoughts wandered further I came to the issue of context as I realised that these tests illuminate behaviour in a very specific circumstance. Researchers have to narrow it down, otherwise they cannot be conclusive in their findings. The understanding they provide to us is invaluable, letting us understand more and more of the human condition. However, when we want to apply some of that insight, we have to deal with the challenge which was eliminated in the laboratory, namely that when these things happen in life they happen in a multifaceted context.

Life isn't always black and white, it isn't simply a matter of either/or. It's about the context in which things happen, which means that the choices we make have to accommodate all sorts of variables. I'm reminded of my feelings when working with some of the consultants I experienced in my corporate life. It's a process which often starts with analysis of how you reached where you are now, the feedback of which often implied (or sometimes just spoke directly of) the poor quality of decisions and choices which had been made. Initially this feedback made be defensive, but then I came to realise that the expert that we'd called in was looking at the topic in a very deep very narrow cut. A bit like the lab psychologist. Our decisions had been, and continue to be made in a very broad and much shallower domain. A different context. So it was helpful to have the alternative view, but it had to be seen in the context of what it meant for the next lot of choices we were going to be making. Seen in context.

We see something similar in the expert analysis of sports. The focus on a moment in a game. For the player it is part of a very dynamic flow in which her decisions are made with the inputs of being there on the field, inside the action. For the analyst it is a static review, from a completely different line of sight, a very different context.

All this brought me around to Chris Argyris' model of Advocacy and Inquiry. These are tools for elevating the quality and outcomes of our dialogues, especially those at work. Underpinning his model is the challenge that when we speak be should be motivated by a desire to be understood, and when we listen, by a desire to understand. To do that he calls on us to share our assumptions about that which we're advocating, to give it some context. Let me give you an example - "my family migrated to Australia in 1950". This comment might garner your interest, and if so you might quickly find yourself thinking all sorts of things; was I born here or overseas?; why did the family come here? what part of Australia? where did you come from? my neighbours migrated in the '50s and so on. If I go on talking and move to the topic of ethnic diversity while you are still thinking about the differences between travel by sea and by air, then we disconnect. Our dialogue suffers.

If I had said "my family migrated to Australia in 1950 and as a result I have always been interested in the contribution that ethnic diversity has made to life and work here" the connection when I move to my next point would be strong. The thoughts you have upon reading this second example are quite different and will enable our dialogue to flow with understanding. The context is right for me to make my next point, and you are right there with me.