- The parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: “You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context.”
- The set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.
Context creates the framework by which a message is understood, regardless of whether the message is communicated by text, verbally or using graphics, or a combination of all of these. Context creates the back story or history the intended receiver uses to interpret your message. Businesses rely on effective communication to spread their message to external target audiences. Most businesses invest time in planning and reviewing the written, verbal and graphic elements of these messages, as well as the structure it is presented in to ensure this achieved successfully. Formal internal communications on strategy, business directions, etc. from the executive level are given a similar level of development before being released. What we, universally, manage poorly is everyday internal communications. People assume other members of the same business will understand what they are communicating, without understanding the impact context has on interpretation. The trend is to think that all members of the “team” have the same levels of knowledge about the subject matter, and an equivalent contextual environment by which they will evaluate the value of the communication. There are two main types of context to consider when designing a communication; internal to the message, and the external context in which the message will be received.
Internal Message Context
Internal message context provides the level of detail necessary for all recipients to fully understand what is being communicated. A vast majority of communications fail to provide the detail or story required. Whilst a like-minded Subject Matter Expert may quickly comprehend the true meaning of your message, generally knowledge will vary depending on individual:
- Skill in the particular subject being discussed
- Experience in dealing with the subject
- Capability of thinking in relation the subject.
This is clearly evident when comparing the difference in communication when discussing business process with a business unit. If the business unit is communicating with an external contractor the expectation of understanding is low, and detail is provided about how and why a process is conducted in the way it is. When communicating with the internal records team, for instance, the expectation is high that because the records team are employed within the same business they will/should understand a lot more about the process, and therefore vital context is not added. In order to communicate your message clearly, place it in context by giving a brief history or some back story of where the particular issue sits within the larger picture. Don’t assume that the receiver will immediately understand what you are talking about. Or why it is important for them to know. Without context the message loses impact and will be relegated to the sidelines by the receiver. Providing context is even more important when communicating via written messages, such as emails or letters. There are no visual or vocal clues for the recipient to rely on when reading an email, and no opportunity to ask questions. Consider how frequently you have to spend valuable time unravelling/interpreting poorly explained messages. Avoid imposing that level of frustration on your recipients.
External Context Impacting Recipients
There are multiple contexts in which recipients will receive your communication. Understanding them and taking them into consideration when creating a communication plan, and the communications, will result in higher levels of achieving the required outcomes.
Context relating to the physical surroundings and material objects of both:
- The subject within the communication event.
Don’t assume recipients of communication will know where an event took place, or templates required to develop requested documents. Add the necessary detail for the audience
- Impacts of the natural world that will influence and affect communication.
For example if the environment is noisy, verbal communication will not be easily heard. Supporting written and graphic communication is necessary to support the message; or find a quiet space for delivery of the message. If it is too hot or cold, audience discomfort will change their ability to focus and receive the message you are o communicating.
Cultural context refers to the rules and patterns of communication that are different for each culture. We are all products of our environment and cultural upbringing. Where in one culture it is not considered polite to interrupt, in another you cannot be heard without doing so. Or it may be culturally polite to not present a dissenting view, which then misleads the presenter in believing they have agreement on the subject of the communication. Establish the expectations of how communication will occur in meetings and presentations to assist in overriding cultural barriers. Develop feedback opportunities and tools that allow all receivers of the communication to respond.
Interpretation of the message being communicated is affected by the internal landscape of the receiver. What they are feeling or thinking will influence how they interpret the events/message being conveyed. Every communication is viewed through the filter of the receiver’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. You will not know all the innermost thoughts of people you are communicating too! But you can accommodate many in how you present your message. Communications regarding TRIM (and Records Manager), for instance, may be negatively interpreted, especially if your audience has had a poor experience with the software previously. Reflect carefully on how the language, emphasis and detail of your communication may be interpreted by these people. Walk a mile in their shoes; think of a situation where you had software imposed on you. How would you interpret and react to the communication you are about to publish. Maybe it needs reframing or endorsement from senior levels by being issued/presented from a senior manager. Maybe some reward needs to be communicated to encourage people to read the whole message. Or are posters required that build a new profile of the software, so future messages are not ignored.
This is overwhelmingly an ignored context. Symbolic context includes all messages (primarily words) which occur before or after a communication event. It influences the creator of the communication and/or the receiver in their reaction to the communication. For instance, if a Records Manager has said informally to the audience at some point that the BCS is difficult for End Users to understand, it is likely the construct of any formal communication, verbal or written, is based on this premise, and does not contain the correct detail to make it easy to understand. Even if the formal communication presents a picture that can be clearly understood, the audience is likely to ignore the communication based on their expectation they will not understand it. Alternatively, excellent communication may be achieved in a team meeting about how to use the EDRMS within a business unit, which then is not applied due to the symbolic context where a manager speaks negatively of the software and places barriers to use. Think carefully therefore about the simple offhand words you use in everyday speech; “it’s difficult to do”, “bugs”, “system cannot do that”, etc. Get in the habit of replacing them with; “the easy way to approach this”, “the correct way to use the function is”, “here’s how we do it with our configuration”. Develop awareness of potential symbolic context barriers created by nay-sayers, and develop tactics to head them off before they impact your communications.
The relationship between the sender and receiver will affect the way a message is interpreted. Communication, especially one-to-one, or to a small group, is sub-consciously run through the filter and presumptions based on past experience by the receiver. The past experience can be directly related to yourself and your direct relationship with an individual or group. If you have previously created business benefits through the use of the EDRMS, then future communications will be welcomed and evaluated with a positive outlook. However if a previous incumbent in your role had a poor relationship with an individual or group the relational context of expert-layman that existed may impact the way in which your communications are now received.
Situational context relates to what the recipients of our communications believe about the type of communication event you are engaging them in. Their context in which they receive the communication may be; emails are not worth reading, presentations are always boring, team meetings never result in anything happening, etc. Communication is a complex web of language, media, context, etc. Building personal awareness of what influences the outcome of our communication helps you to continually improve. The old nursery rhyme of “Good, better, best, never let it rest until your good is better and your better is best” applies. Strive to achieve “best” and watch how people respond to your improved communications.