Whether the matter is in your professional or personal life, seeking context is an important step in understanding someone’s behavior, actions, and decisions.
It is incredibly easy to categorize, label, or put a blanket statement on a person, situation, or decision. It’s easy, it makes sense. It doesn’t require you to think too much.
Context, however, is an instrumental tool that helps us take a peek behind the scenes, and often either confirms or negates our beliefs about a person or situation.
To cite an example, I finished the last year of my Undergraduate degree this year at Purdue University, where I served as a Resident Assistant of an upperclassmen residence hall for the last two years. And an important component of our RA training included seeking context and information. When I first came on to this role, I could not grasp what that meant, but with time and experience, I learned the true value of seeking context.
For example, there was a resident on my floor last year that never interacted with me or the other residents. She never came to floor events, and I often saw her lingering around in her pajamas in the afternoon. At first thought, I thought she was extremely introverted, unsocial, dismissive, and probably did not like social settings, and given it was an upperclassmen hall where most people keep to themselves, I brushed it off. However, then I started to notice other symptoms that indicated a larger problem, she would have bags under eyes, signs of poor hygiene, weight gain, and would not make much eye contact, or would try to quickly run away if I tried to talk to her.
I decided it was time to talk to her.
After a difficult conversation, for me and her, I learned she was having a terrible time at school, along with a host of other issues, and she was struggling with a relapse of depression. She had been struggling with major-depressive-disorder since high school, and she had been learning to cope with it, but her depression came back stronger this year. She felt that she could not open up about this due to shame, fear, and the idea that nobody will understand her reality. The story has a positive ending: over the course of next few weeks, she started going to go back to therapy, she started to trust me more and began having small conversations, and I noticed her engaging with others on the floor. Not much, but still more than before.
This is just a microscopic example of context can do: it provides us with a new vantage point to analyze a situation and take necessary steps from there.
Institutions attempt to seek context all the time.
An entire component in graduate college admissions process seeks context: Personal Statement. It is through our unique experiences in our lives that we are able to illustrate the story behind the numbers on our transcript, the job titles on our resume, or situations in our lives that shaped us and drove us where we are today.
Corporations seek context when they investigate allegations: whether that is sexual misconduct, poor employee performance, or catty office vibes that impacts the company culture.
I write this today because I find that it is incredibly easy to look past situations and people, and in a society that is constantly hard pressed on time, seeking context is an important metric that allows us to engage in honest dialogue in which both parties feels heard and understood. And as a result, a viable solution can be implemented to help get rid of the problem. The alternative proposes a reality that does not seem lucrative to either party: build up of resentment, passive-aggressive vibes, bottled anger/frustration, and engaging in interactions based on things that neither talks about but acts upon.
My life experiences have taught me to look beyond the surface level, and try to understand a person and situation before jumping to a conclusion. The next time you find yourself jumping to judgment on a person or situation, try to find information by seeking context, understand the other person’s reality, and then arrive at a decision.
So what does the process of seeking context look like? Here are a few tips I derived from my personal experiences:
1) Approach with good intent. Try to close the negative tab you have on someone, or put a pause on the assumptions you have already have. Give them a chance to state their thoughts and experiences.
2) Use interrogative statements. Before you assume someone is out to get you, consider that their personal life may be impacting their mood. By simply asking “Hey, are you okay? I noticed you have been a little out of it lately,” you are opening the platform for open dialogue that allows the other person to respond.
3) Use “I” statements. Another way you can approach someone is by using I statements. Before accusing someone/or telling off someone, you must remember that there is a good chance that your truth is not their reality. Starting off by saying “I feel that you have lately not been working hard,” ” I feel that you are not happy lately.” This gives the other person a chance to negate or confirm your truth by explaining their side of the story.
4) Take action. Once you have gathered more information by seeking context, it is now time to plan enforceable action that you can take. Whether that is reporting a problem to someone in the chain of command, or helping the individual seek a solution, action allows us to rectify the issue, as opposed to letting things sit high and dry.
5) Follow up. Businesses do this all the time: they run their customer experience management sector by studying the interaction between an organization and a customer by collecting aggregate data. Similarly, by following up with the person/parties involved in the situation, you are trying to understand if the action you took in step 4 is effective or not, and if yes, all good and done, but if not, it allows you the chance to take an alternative route to rectify the problem.
Context allows us to view a person or situation with a new lens that provides us with more information, it gives us the space to investigate that either confirms or negates our original belief, and allows us to take enforceable action to correct the problem.
I hope this article sheds some light upon how context is an important metric in evaluating people and circumstances in our personal and professional networks.
Culture sits at the heart of any professional or personal network, and people make up these networks, and I strongly believe that if we can improve the way we approach situations on an individual level, it will have positive, broader implications on the culture of our networks.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn