The Power of Context
Learn the Master Key to Relational Leadership
“Context is Decisive.” — Werner Erhard
Setting context is the single most powerful tool for creating the kind of relationships, connections, and experiences you want to have. Doing this is crucial — from creating more rewarding moments to having greater influence, to being a more effective leader.
A lot has been said about leadership. One dimension of leadership I think deserves more attention is the relational. Relational leadership puts the quality of relationships on equal footing with all other practical outcomes. How we do something together matters as much as what we are doing. When we collaborate in ways that are mutual, voluntary, and connected we increase the likelihood we will want to collaborate again. Relational leaders know how to inspire others towards an outcome, and how to make the journey together along the way worthwhile.
“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” — James P. Carse
Setting context is a foundational skill of Authentic Relating and is the key to mastering relational leadership. It is also a skill you can learn and improve over time. Read on and I’ll tell you how.
What’s Your Context?
Consider the context you are in right now. You’re reading, which means you’ve learned to read English. Some feature of your background made this possible. Are you reading this on paper? Or on a screen? Either way, some technological infrastructure makes this possible. What country are you in? What city? Are you alone, or are others in your immediate space right now? Standing? Sitting? Day? Night?
How did you come to read this? What’s your interest and motivation? What do you hope to get?
Notice what it is like to simply put your attention on all the layers and aspects of the context you are in right now. Is this hard or easy? Do you feel intrigued or bored? Do you feel freer or more limited? Do you sense more options or fewer? Do you like or dislike noticing all this?
Noticing aspects of your context and how you relate to them is the starting point.
What is Context?
All things in time and space exist within a context. This includes our thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. Context is ever present and multi-layered. Context is made of many components — environment, history, causes, conditions, decisions, agreements, as well as many other forces and factors. These components are what give shape and structure to context. Context influences our focus and attention. Context moves some things to the foreground and other things to the background. Some possibilities become more likely, while others, less likely.
The context of any situation is often implicit — unspoken, like a backdrop. Or it can be explicit — spoken out in the open. Either way, it’s always there.
Within the human experience, we have many overlapping contexts — gender, race, culture, identity, language, educational background, geographical location, income level, place of employment, profession, entertainment we enjoy, a game we like to play, a hobby or interest we share, and so on. When these contexts remain implicit, they shape our experience in the background, often without our awareness.
Relationships carry their own special context as well. These are specific to relationships with particular individuals, for example — a child, a parent, a manager, a spouse, a sibling, a co-founder, or a teammate. A relationship context arises from the history of that distinct relationship. These kinds of contexts are often rich and complex and carry features unique to the relationship.
As you develop more awareness of context, you’ll sense more possibilities, and become adept at engaging it to create more of what you want, more often.
How to Engage with Context
There are two ways to actively engage with the context. Both are significant and essential. And, they interrelate.
The first is to notice and identify an implicit context. Take one or more aspects of any implicit, unstated context and make it explicit by stating it, for example —
- “It seems like you’ve got some recommendations you’d like me to hear…”
- “I’m noticing we’re the +1’s at this company holiday party…”
- “I think I’ve been trying to impress you throughout this conversation…”
- “Until now, seems we’ve been interacting only as a teacher and student…”
- “I notice we’re both at this gathering, I wonder what brought you here…”
- “I’m wondering what you think of this artist we’re both here to see…”
By putting words to something, we create an opportunity for more options in how to relate to it. When we do, something new and interesting might emerge spontaneously. Sometimes this information can be used to create an explicit context.
The second way is to engage with context is to create one explicitly. Do this to create something you want to experience with others. I use the term setting context for short. This is something that you’ve already been doing, without this label for it.
Setting context is creating an invitation to an experience you want to share with one or more other people. Here are the ingredients —
- What are we going to do?
…a short descriptive headline or label
- Why are we going to do it?
…what’s in it for you and for them!
- How are we going to do it?
…a process, a plan, a structure, a script, or the “rules of the game”
- Who is going to do what?
…the roles each person would be taking on
- Where is this going to take place?
…right here or someplace else? Or limited to specific locations?
- When, and for how long, will this be taking place?
…start/end times, duration (e.g. minutes? hours? days? weeks? months? years?)
…triggering conditions such that, when they happen, they invoke certain actions?
…conditions for completion — what does “done” look like? how will we know?
- Buy-in — are we going to do it?
…negotiating consent and agreement, discussing options when needed
Let’s say you’ve clarified these ingredients for yourself. You’ve conveyed them effectively. You’ve got the buy-in. Then congratulations, you’ve succeeded at setting context!
It’s as if we’ve sat down to play a board game together, read and understood the rules printed on the inside of the box lid, and now it’s time to play! To illustrate, here’s a short and simple example —
“Hey gang! I’ve got something I’d like to do so we can all get to know each other a little better. I’d like each of us to complete the sentence stem ‘One of my favorite childhood experiences from this time of year is…’ You game?”
The Power of Purpose
The central part of any context is a purpose. In the act of setting the context, it’s the answer to the question “why?”
Without a sense of purpose, a context will not sustain itself. The context must ground in the sense of a shared purpose among the participants. A key place to look if things seem “off” in a particular context is for a lack of shared purpose. It’s very likely the sense of shared purpose has diminished or wasn’t there in the first place. If you convened the context, you may not have inspired or articulated a big enough “why” for this group.
Those who master setting context know how to conduct the power of shared purpose. They have the ability to motivate and inspire without resorting to hidden manipulation. They need not resort to the formal authority associated with an office or position of power. Simon Sinek, the author of the book Start With Why, captures this when he says —
“There are only two ways to influence human behavior:
you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” — Simon Sinek
When you inspire others say “yes” in a way that feels mutual and voluntary, free from a sense of undue coercion, you are demonstrating relational leadership. Here are some tips which will increase your ability to inspire others in this way.
Prior to speaking aloud to set the context, connect to the purpose within yourself. This feels like tapping into the possibility that something good will come of the context you’re creating.
This possibility of something good is not merely for your own benefit, it needs to be broader and more inclusive. A complete sense of shared purpose includes four parts. To get a sense for these parts, ask yourself —
“In this context, what good can I imagine is possible…”
- “…for myself as an individual?”
2. “…for the others I’m inviting?”
3. “…for the relationships amongst those I’m inviting, including my relationships with them?”
4. “…for others not included in this context — the broader world?”
(These same four questions also apply to a pair — yourself, and the one other individual you’re inviting.)
If you can feel the sense of possibility before you say it, then when you do, your listeners are likely to feel it too. You’ll inspire them to say yes to your invitation.
Perhaps this sounds like a lot of work to get all four parts in place before even saying anything out loud. You might be making this more complicated than it needs to be, as I’ve found some people do. If so, here’s another tip.
Consider the simplest smallest seed of shared purpose. I believe it begins with a sense of possibility, that’s all. I intentionally chose the wording, “what good can I imagine is possible…?” because asking yourself these questions is for changing your state of being. It’s not for generating accurate predictions of the good that actually will come of it, like hypotheses in a science experiment. The possibilities you envisioned could turn out to be accurate, or inaccurate, in the end. The key is, to be honest with yourself as you respond to these questions. The purpose is to tap into your potential to inspire others to choose this experience with you.
(If part of your purpose is to achieve some measurable output, you can include that as well. Sometimes a context is a literal experiment in the social sciences. Most of the time, in our social world, we just want to take part in a shared experience with others.)
As a final tip, I assure you it isn’t necessary to say your answers to all four questions out loud. It’s possible you could leave unspoken any answer to “why?” This depends on the pre-existing context. You can often leave it out if there already exists a lot of history between the people present. An example of this is a team at work that’s been together for years. Another example is a married couple. Pre-existing relationship contexts often, though not always, carry a strong enough shared purpose such that stating it is unnecessary.
If you’ve had any experience with group leadership, you’ll probably recognize the challenge of getting buy-in. As shared purpose is central to setting context, getting buy-in is crucial. But it is rarely easy.
It is simple if you’re clear ahead of time about the social norms of the group when it comes to things like consent and buy-in. This only applies to groups where you know the pre-existing norm. Some groups even have formal processes. If you know the way, then just use it. But this doesn’t apply to most groups.
It’s often even simpler if you’re just with one other person. Your relationship context often clarifies the way you choose something together. This usually doesn’t apply to a pair of people early in their relationship. For any pair of people over time, they’ll find their favored way to mutually consent. Use it if you’ve got it.
In my work as a consultant, group facilitator, and team coach, I’ve had a ton of experience setting context for many groups. I’ve also worked as a mediator for partners in various enterprises. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy or universally applicable solution to achieving buy-in. In light of the complexities, I’d like to share my insights to help you out.
It helps to understand not everyone shares in common a notion of what they mean by buy-in. Same goes for words like consent, consensus, and agreement. When setting context, I do not recommend holding to a fixed and universal notion of what those words should mean. It’s better to accept that any differences individuals have by what they mean by those words vary according to their backgrounds.
For example, some people often assume consent, unless they hear otherwise. Some people believe that consent in a group means unanimous consensus. Others value informed consent, which requires transparency of all relevant information beforehand. For others, consent isn’t a factor because they believe they must obey authority.
So what do you do when norms around group buy-in are unknown, unclear, or not held in common? You need to find the sweet spot of just enough of the right kind of buy-in for the group to move forward. You’ll need to learn how to calibrate with a group in real-time. This often requires a lot of “learning by failing” over time to develop a sense for how to do this. Here are a few things to aid you in learning this.
Start with a shared purpose. The stronger you connect inside yourself to the four components of shared purpose, the more your words will have the power to influence. This can go a long way toward inspiring buy-in.
Give an opportunity to answer clarifying questions. Be sure to give clear, direct, and accurate answers without excess explanations. If you want people to feel good about following your lead after the fact, they’ll want to believe they gave informed consent. They won’t if they believe you misinformed them. It helps to give clear answers to the questions what? why? how? who? where? when? If you did this at the outset, you’ll get fewer clarifying questions to answer.
Group buy-in is not like a tablespoon of butter. We cannot measure it with an instrument like a ruler, a scale, or a spoon. It’s not objective, but rather intersubjective. It’s not easy to point out when you’ve got it, or when you don’t. It falls along a spectrum. Here’s one way to get a sense of this spectrum.
On one hand, if you assume consent or move too quickly, you’re likely to encounter resistance of one kind. These people want to have space to ask clarifying questions, raise objections, or have the opportunity to opt-out.
On the other hand, if you attempt to achieve unanimous consensus, you’re likely to encounter resistance of the opposite kind. These people want to share in the proposed experience, rather than using time with too much discussion beforehand. Note that people of this second kind are usually bought-in to the proposal but are not bought-in to discussing the proposal for too long.
The sweet spot usually exists at a harmonious and mysterious location between these two extremes and is unique to the group. To make things even more complicated, the sweet spot can move around at different times even for the same group!
Another way to hone in on this sweet spot is to consider the difference between consent and consensus. My favored way to understand this comes from Sociocracy, a dynamic governance system for organizations. With consensus, everyone must be “for” the decision. With consent, everyone must be “not against” it. In this arrangement, consent is a lower bar than consensus. Sociocracy favors consent over consensus.
Say you’ve formed the invitation in setting context clearly. Then, you’ve given space for clarifying questions. Now be on the lookout for genuine objections rather than seeking unanimous consensus. This will help you get a feel for group consent. As a corollary, do not make a request for everyone’s input or agreement because this will most often lead to an extraneous discussion. And it will alienate the part of the group that is most willing to follow your lead.
Sometimes you will modify the original proposal to achieve buy-in. Consider this when it seems like you haven’t quite reached the lower bar of group consent. When someone seems to have a genuine objection, ask them something like —
“What specifically could be modified which would satisfy your objection?”
When you do this, keep a strong connection within yourself to the possibility of shared purpose. Be less attached to the specifics of your original proposal. This helps with incorporating adjustments to the proposal.
If you’ve begun making adjustments, I encourage you to take care to ensure this does not slide into an implicit discussion to reach a unanimous consensus. If this is happening, you might need to nudge the group saying something like —
“I’m noticing how we’re continuing to discuss doing this, rather than just doing it. I hope we’re at a point where we’re willing get into it, rather than trying to perfect the idea ahead of time…”
This is likely to recalibrate the group's attention and it will move things toward buy-in.
This could sound a bit formal, like a facilitation guide, rather than something you would apply to your close relationships, like friends or family. If so, I’d like to draw a connection between the two.
Consider how a facilitator is someone who makes any social process easier. In the broadest sense, a social process applies to any relational activity.
As I mentioned earlier, if there’s history between you and the people (or person) you’re with, you’ll have a lot of pre-existing relationship context. Here, the buy-in is typically easy and casual. It’s often assumed unless you hear otherwise. Too much formality will seem awkward and unnecessary.
Buy-in tends to be more formal in other kinds of groups. The group could be unfamiliar to you. Or the group has little to no history together. Or the group has no established norms or clear process defined for choosing something together. In these cases, without enough formality, the people will react to what could appear to be consent mistakenly assumed.
Consider how the same dynamics of creating mutual consent in service of a shared purpose are at play in all cases. It’s there when little formality is needed, as with good friends or an intimate partner, and when there is more needed, as with perfect strangers, and everything in-between. Developing relational leadership includes developing intuitions for navigating these dynamics successfully across the full spectrum of these contexts.
Getting buy-in is the trickiest and most subtle aspect of setting context. I recommend you focus specifically on developing your capacity to do it well.
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” — John Lydgate
Holding to the Context
You’ve got the buy-in and now, you’re in. It’s game time!
If you were the one who set the context, then by default, it’s your job to hold it. (The exception is if you explicitly designated someone else to do this while setting context.) If the experience is going to provide something good for those who are participating, then the context must be held. This is the job of the context holder, a job analogous to that of a referee. (By definition, a referee is a particular kind of context holder.) Here’s how to do it.
Doing this is simple. Some attention must be given to what is going on, and some to what we said we were going to do — the context!
The hard part comes when it seems like things are going off course. The holder of the context must be willing to do something to get the group back on track. This might take some determination and effort. It could mean interrupting something or someone. This isn’t always comfortable. Believe me, when it is necessary, people will thank you for it. When you succeed at interrupting, you will have people’s attention.
Once you have their attention, say something like this —
“I seem to be noticing…
…and we said we were going to…”
That could be all it takes to get things back on track. You might also suggest how to get back on course. Or you could guide things step-by-step until things are rolling again. Be ready.
Sometimes, the original context isn’t going so well. If so, instead of holding to it rigidly, it might be best to pause and try to debug it.
How to Debug Context
Something is going wrong!
Sometimes, a situation is going differently than what you were expecting. You think you’ve set context reasonably well, but maybe you could have done a better job. Maybe things feel a bit out of sync — awkward, bumpy, or confusing. Perhaps people are doing something very different from what they said they would be doing. Or perhaps tensions are rising or conflict is breaking out.
In these cases, consider which components of context might be missing, unclear, misunderstood, or left implicit. Then see if you can revise it or create a new one — more clearly, more precisely, or more intentionally and mutually agreed upon.
Here are some key questions to ask when considering how to work with clarifying the context.
- “What might be a significant, relevant, implicit context that hasn’t been spoken openly?”
- “Is there a component missing in this current context — what? why? how? who? where? when?”
- “Does everyone here understand the current context accurately enough, including me?”
- “Has everyone bought into what is happening here? If not, what might that take?”
Don’t worry about setting context perfectly the first time. It’s unlikely you’ll get buy-in right off the bat on your first attempt. Even when you do, and you get into a context you’ve set up, things might still go differently than you were hoping.
I have good news — you can revisit context at any time during an interaction or ongoing relationship. Remember, context is always present. You’re already participating within it and in determining, in part, its shape and structure. So returning to context again is a natural and necessary part of the process.
“You aren’t going to get it right. We are infants at creating context, and infants don’t get it right. You have it wrong to start with, and it’s only out of having it wrong that we come to know it and to master it.” — Werner Erhard
Getting Good at Context
As a core tool for Authentic Relating, setting context is both a relational art and social technology. With time, you’ll hone your technique and develop your intuitions of how to do this with greater skill, ease, and enjoyment. Here are some key signs you’re well on your way —
- You’re happier and more satisfied with how your interactions are going.
- Your relationships feel more authentic and mutual.
- You’re able to tap into an internal sense of shared purpose at will
- You’re able to achieve buy-in more often and more readily
- You’re able to hold context in a way that has people thanking you
- You’re able to debug context, getting people into a flow
- You’re are sensing and tracking multiple layers of context
- You’re smoothly returning to context when needed to negotiate adjustments and clarifications.
These also happen to be the signs you’re developing relational leadership.
Consider people who have a knack for social skills. They seem to know how to “read” ephemeral things like energy, a dynamic, a situation, a room, or people and get in-sync with what’s going on. This arises from their awareness of many overlapping layers of context. They also create experiences that people want to be a part of. They’re natural leaders. They guide and influence what’s going on around them. Others tend to look towards them. This arises from their ability to tap into the power of shared purpose and use it to shape their context.
Perhaps a reputation as a people person or a natural leader appeals to you. Perhaps it does not. I don’t have an agenda to persuade you either direction. I hope you gain greater awareness and ability to work with context in the ways you want to. This way, you’ll more often bring your unique gifts to others. Instead of hesitating when you want to step up and take the lead, you’ll do so with confidence. And you’ll have more of the kinds of relationships you want to enjoy.
Michael Porcelli here. I’ve embarked on a project to present all the principles and practices of Authentic Relating in a clear and practical way. These will include things you can do. One day, this will become a book. I welcome your feedback. I’d love to hear how it’s working for you. And how it isn’t. Please sign-up here to stay current. I would be grateful for your financial support in making this project a reality.