One of the most fundamental pieces of communication is context. The context could be a shared space, a common interest, or simply just being at either end of an interaction or experience.
Consider, however, what it would feel like if you were teleported into a conversation with no warning or background? You’d feel disoriented, frustrated, and unable to contribute. You might even take out your frustration on the person in front of you, and they’ll probably respond in kind.
To overcome this, you’ll need to establish context. What are we talking about? Why are we talking about this? Why is this important to us? Why is this important to her or him? Why am I here?
Now naturally that would rarely happen. Teleportation doesn’t exist, and we rarely chose to involve ourselves in a conversation that we know nothing about. We do prefer however, to partake in conversations where the context is shared. Where it’s obvious and immediately understood by the people that are present. It’s not an active choice. It’s not something that we think about. But it’s there. We need it. We know it’s vitally important.
So here we have this obvious, inherent, and subsequently shared context. But what about the rest of it?
What about our individual context?
We each have a story. We have fears. We have beliefs. We have worries. We have failures. And we have wins. That hour; that day; that week; our story is taking place. It plays a big part of who we are and what we bring to the table. But oddly enough, it’s not obvious. It’s not part of the shared context. It’s tucked away. And it’ll stay there — completely missing from the equation unless someone seeks it out.
This is where empathy comes in. Empathy is the tool to seek the individual context and make sure that it’s shared. To bring it into the fold. When that happens. When we ask and answer the hard and not-so-obvious question of “What’s that person’s story?” it enriches the shared context and in some ways completes it.
When we do this hard work up front, everything else that’ll follow will be frictionless. It’ll be mutual, generous, kind, and forgiving.
Try it the next time you run into a friend, a loved one, or a stranger on the street. Seek context. Seek empathy.