Every person in the virtual meeting room felt the mood shift. It was as though someone had popped a balloon.
But the trigger for this deflated mood wasn’t some explosive outburst or dramatic announcement. No, it was a completely run-of-the-mill change in a project schedule.
The project manager announced to a room full of people that some of their project deadlines had been brought forward — and he immediately lost control of the meeting.
Because the project manager didn’t explain why the changes were necessary or how the decision had been made, momentum of the high-energy meeting fizzled completely. The focus instantly shifted to all the unanswered questions about the schedule change, as affected team members wondered why they hadn’t been consulted. Project leaders backtracked to set context, and the meeting ground to a halt.
Nor was that the end of it. Project leaders needed a second meeting just to get back on track with the team members who had been impacted. In all, the project manager’s failure to set context cost hours of time and wasted a lot of energy.
And it all could have been avoided by taking a few minutes to set some context.
The Dangers of Missing Context
I’ve written previously about the dangers of unexamined assumptions. Assumptions lead to gaps in understanding that create tremendous problems for a project.
And not setting context is a HUGE assumption. When you launch straight into a question, announcement, or directive, you’re assuming that everyone else understands your starting point. But very often, they don’t.
A failure to set context creates gaps between what is said and how that statement is received. And in those gaps live conflict, anger, resistance, hurt feelings, and lots of misunderstanding.
But despite the chaos, delays, and wasted energy that lack of context can cause, many of us to routinely send and receive communication that fails to set context
We fail to set context for our meetings…
We fail to set context in our emails…
We fail to set context in our executive briefings (a place where we really need to take the time to plan our communications)…
…and our projects and our teams pay the price.
Setting Context Creates Alignment
Proactively providing context enables everyone to align around goals and intentions. That helps guide the conversation that follows and gives listeners space to react differently to the message they’re hearing.
Consider the difference between these two statements:
“We need to move to the next phase earlier, so we’ll be working on some project activities in parallel. Jack and Diane, that means we’ll need your pieces of the project completed in two weeks, instead of next month.”
“We’ve learned that the clients’ CTO is leaving in six months. She knows this project inside and out and she’s been a huge asset to our team, so we’ve decided to tighten our timelines so she can be available to us for the duration of the project. We think the best way to manage this will be to run some of the project activities in parallel. So that means Jack and Diane would need to get started on their pieces right away, so we can move to the next phase of the project next month.”
If you were Jack or Diane, which of these announcements would you respond best to?
The second one takes time to set the context, so everyone on the team can understand why the timelines have changed and why the leadership chose the path they did. By giving this background, the project manager enlists Jack and Diane as allies in the effort to speed up the project.
And Jack and Diane have the context they need to react appropriately– looking for solutions rather than trying to understand the rationale behind the changes.
Small shifts like these can make a huge difference in how announcements are received, how requests are handled, and how teams function.
Take Time to Set the Context
Anytime you’re in a position to communicate — whether it’s in an email, a meeting, a difficult conversation, or before a large audience — take a moment to consider the background knowledge, intention, goals, and understanding that you bring to the table. Then put yourself in the shoes of the person with whom you’re communicating.
- What do they need to understand in order to respond appropriately?
- How can you share your goals and intentions, so they’ll feel engaged rather than resistant?
- Where might their background or perspective differ from yours, and how can you help them understand where you’re coming from?
With enough practice, this kind of thinking can become automatic — and you’ll find that your conversations, meetings, and announcements go much more smoothly as a result.
Similarly, when you receive context-free communication from someone else, take a moment to request the context before you react.
Assume that the other person’s intentions are good, and approach the situation from a place of curiosity. Ask for the clarification you’ll need to respond well:
- Can you let me know what is prompting your question?
- What is the thought process behind this?
- How did this come up?
- What situation prompted this?
- What are your intentions for this?
Taking time to ask about context will prevent you from going into reactive mode — especially in situations where the initial communication is upsetting or stressful. By staying curious and asking follow-up questions, you’re giving yourself a chance to respond more productively — and you’re giving the other person a chance to help you do so.
Routinely asking for the context you need and providing the context that others require is a powerful practice. Setting context can save you from untold misunderstandings, conflicts, and bad reactions — which means less stress, less conflict, and fewer misunderstandings for everyone on the team.