Learning to set good, appropriate, strong, clear context for conversations and shared experiences is one of the most powerful and foundational components of authentic relating.
You can think of context like the rules of a game. Setting good, clear context ensures that all participants of a given context are playing by the same rules of the game, and that each player knows the rules clearly and comprehensively. Loose or vague context leads to confusion, assumptions, and potential for chaos, just as sloppy or erratic rules of game can lead to confused or chaotic play.
Let’s imagine that two teams meet on a field to play a game. One team assumes it is there to play basketball, while the other team assumes it is there to play football. You can imagine the chaotic outcome if the context of the game isn’t clear and explicit. Each team thinks the other team is cheating or not making any sense, and the game quickly degenerates into messy conflict. Often, relationships are just like this – each person is operating inside of his or her own implicit context, and confusion and chaos ensues until hopefully someone catches on and realizes that each person is playing a totally different game.
If we go back to the sports analogy, the context of the game of basketball includes bouncing the ball on the ground with a player’s hand. All players need to be clear on this bit of context to make sure everyone is playing the right game and by the same set of rules. What happens when a player kicks the ball? The player is out of context and is penalized accordingly. Clear context ensures that all participants know when actions uphold the context and when actions break context. It’s no different in relationships, whether at work or at home or with two people or on a big team – context needs to be explicit and it needs to be shared for any relational game to be played smoothly and effectively.
Let’s take a closer look at the difference between implicit and explicit context. Implicit contexts govern behavior in society all the time. When you walk down a busy sidewalk, an implicit context is that you don’t walk into people, stare them in the eye when you pass, or walk down the sidewalk naked. You don’t need signs on the street making these rules of social context explicit – they are built in to the underlying fabric of shared human spaces that we all implicitly agree to uphold. If someone runs down the sidewalk naked and running into people, everyone understands that this behavior is out of context and expects there to be consequences to not playing by the rules of this societal game.
During our Level 1 course, we ask participants to name some of the implicit contexts in the space, thereby making them explicit. Here are a few examples:
- When one person talks, other people don’t talk
- Everyone is clothed and seated
- Everyone speaks English when talking
- Course leaders provide the teaching
- We sit in a circle
- We don’t hit people
- If you have to use the bathroom, you can go without asking
We don’t need signs on the walls of the venue listing all these implicit bits of context, because we all assume that we collectively subscribe to these rules of the game we’re here to play. Yet by making these implicit contexts explicit, we get to see how much of our behavior is controlled by the underlying contextual framework underpinning any given experience.
Missing or confusing context can even be deadly. Here’s a true story that illustrates what can happen when the implicit context controls people’s perceptions of what’s happening. A group of friends were hosting a Halloween party that spilled out of the house and onto the front yard of a suburban neighborhood. Unbeknownst to the guests, a fire had started in a house down the road and an occupant had been severely burned. He stumbled out of the house, down the road and into the Halloween party. The guests assumed that he was dressed in some kind of burn victim costume and did nothing to help him. Finally, after he collapsed and his personal implicit context became publicly explicit, someone realized the situation and called an ambulance.
It’s a good practice to develop a context radar, identifying the implicit contexts at work in any given situation. Many of the contextual games we play are conducted unconsciously, with sometimes disastrous results if we stumble into a foreign context that wasn’t made explicit.
All laws are essentially aspects of societal context-setting. Laws are the rules of the game of living in society. Just like breaking a rule in a football game, if you break a rule in the game of society, you are accordingly penalized. And just like in a sports match, the penalty for breaking the rule of law is some kind of handicap that prevents you from playing the game for a specified duration or in a limited way.
Context also determines the relationship to a particular emotional experience. For example, context determines whether a sensation is painful or pleasurable. In one study, monkeys were administered an electric shock by itself – not surprisingly, their brains registered pain as a result. But if the monkeys were given a highly pleasurable reward while being shocked, their brains associated the shock with pleasure and rewired themselves to accommodate this new contextual environment.
You can also see the power of shifting context when you look at Olympic athletes. The kind of unbelievable suffering these dedicated athletes are willing to endure, month after month, year after year, would break most of us. But the power of the right context – in this case, training to win a medal at the world’s most prestigious sporting event – can induce people to undergo extraordinary hardships in service to the game being played.
We can expand this phenomenon to our entire lives. By simply recontextualizing certain situations and experiences in life, we can give them an entirely different meaning. For example, let’s assume that I live inside of an implicit context that I’m an introvert. Everywhere I go, I am playing the game of “Being An Introvert”, and my behavior will reflect this game I’m playing. One evening, I go to a party and for whatever reason, I’m feeling more social than usual. But since I’m living inside of the implicit context of being an introvert, I stay quiet, hug the walls, and don’t engage, as usual.
But what if I invent and play the game of “Sometimes I’m An Introvert and Sometimes I’m An Extrovert”? Now I get to decide how I want to show up at the party, and if I’m feeling unusually social, I can extend the rules of the game to let me be as extroverted as I want to be.
Let’s expand this idea to the general games of life we play. Most of us are unconsciously and implicitly playing the game “Looking for Opportunities to Confirm my Stories and Illusions.” Very few people realize that this is actually an invented game that we just started playing unconsciously. At any time, we can stop playing that game and start playing a new game of our own invention.
A much better game to play is “Using Every Challenge as an Opportunity to Grow.” If I set the contextual rules of this game to extract whatever learning I can uncover from any challenging experience, it completely redefines the way I perceive the experience of challenge. Let’s say I asked a woman out on a date and got rejected. Instead of resorting to questions of self-esteem, the ongoing explicit context of “Using Every Challenge as an Opportunity to Grow” lets me look at the experience as an opportunity to extract the insights I need to be more successful in asking women out on dates in the future.
Negotiating and Getting Buy-in
A critical part of setting and establishing context is making sure you, as the context-setter, have the buy-in of the other people you’re inviting to share the context with you. If other players of the game you’re offering are not bought in, you can’t expect them to uphold the rules of the game. This is why negotiating the rules of the game – the elements of the shared context – is so important to ensure that you have full buy-in. Give other players an opportunity to adjust some rules – they may have certain insights that make the game more fun, easier to understand and play, provide more value for the participants, or be more sustainable. Once everyone is happy with the rules, then the game can be played.
Remember that context can be renegotiated anytime. We don’t exactly know how the game will go until we start playing it, and we may discover new and better ways of playing it once we gather some data after playing it for awhile. This itself can be part of the initial context – “We will revisit the rules of the game after a certain amount of time has elapsed, and have an opportunity to renegotiate the rules.”
As the context-setter, it is your responsibility to uphold the context. If a player veers out of context, it’s your responsibility to name it and to steer the player back into context. If you invite people to a pirate-themed Halloween party and someone shows up wearing an alien costume, it’s your responsibility to either let the person know he or she is out of context, and to either enforce the context you originally set or to renegotiate the context to accommodate the player’s behavior.
Context in Relationships
All relationships are happening inside of a contextual framework. Conflict and breakdown happens when the people inside of a relationship are living from two different implicit contexts. One person is playing basketball while the other person is playing football, and chaos ensues. We each assume the other person is playing the same game we’re playing, and don’t bother to make sure that the rules of the game have been conveyed and agreed to.
For example, let’s say John and Jill are in an intimate relationship and John leaves for two weeks on a business trip. One aspect of John’s implicit context is that he’ll call every few days when he gets a chance. Jill’s version of this aspect is that John will send a text every day like he does when he’s at home. These individualized, unshared contexts set up each player to play by a certain set of rules, and to assume that the other player is playing by the same set of rules.
Several days go by and Jill sees that John isn’t playing by the rules of the game and gets upset. John is surprised and defensive when Jill brings it up because he was playing his own game correctly. If neither of them can recognize that they had simply overlooked established a clear and explicit context for John’s time away, the conflict will likely escalate and the relationship will suffer. All that needed to happen was for them to create and agree to an explicit context that included the frequency of calls when John is away, and then they can each relax knowing that they are playing the same game and by the same rules.
Identifying, naming, negotiating and establishing explicit context in relationship is critical to its sustainability and to the ongoing ease of the members of the relationship in navigating the unpredictable nature of life. Here are some examples of areas of consideration that clear context can address:
- Are we monogamous or not? What are the terms of relating with other people?
- How often and through what channels do we communicate with each other?
- How much freedom do we have to go off and do our own thing? Do we let the other person know each time, or can we do things autonomously?
- What expectations do we have around financial contributions?
- What are our standards for our shared living spaces? How often and to what degree do we expect living spaces to be cleaned and organized?
- How often do expect to have sex? What are desires and expectations around sexual interaction?
Notice where you borrow or impose the implicit contexts in culture to inform how you show up in relationship. The cultural context of marriage comes with a variety of both implicit and explicit rules for how to be in that kind of relationship, depending on the culture in which the game of marriage is being played. The context of marriage means something very different in India than it does in the United States. And yet, each person has a unique version of what the context of marriage actually looks like in practice, and if those versions aren’t shared and explored, breakdowns are surely in store.
These cultural contexts can be both comforting and suffocating, depending on the whims of the player. An explicit context of marriage in the Judeo-Christian world is marriage until “death do us part.” This provides both the comfort of knowing that your partner is by your side for life, as well as the sense of restriction that there is no getting out of it if feelings change. This context can also have players feel like failures for not being able to play the game the way it was designed and intended. There is nothing inherently bad about two people deciding to stop being married, but the context of marriage is so strong that breaking it comes with a host of societal and personal repercussions.
Writing your own context can free you and your partner from such traps. Writing one’s own context of relationship instead of applying a previously conceived context of relationship is more work and takes more thought, but is likely to produce a more sustainable, conscious, supportive, and relaxing container for the game of relationship to be played.
How to Set Context
We teach people to go through the following sequence to make sure all aspects of context-setting have been addressed: What, who, when, where, why, how.
- What – What game are we playing?
- Who – What are the roles of the people playing the game?
- When – How long does the game last, and when does it start and end?
- Where – Where is the game played?
- Why – Why are we playing this game? What is the desired experience while playing it, and after the game is over?
- How – How do we play it? What are the rules? What are the consequences for breaking the rules?
Although it might seem tedious, the more specific the details of the context, the less headaches and confusion there will be once the game starts being played. Take the time to flush out all considerations of a particular aspect of the game to make sure everyone is as clear as possible as to the rules.
Let’s apply this framework to real-life scenarios. Let’s say you’re in an intimate relationship and you want to have a sensitive conversation with your partner about having kids in the future.
- What – We’re playing the game called “Talk About Having Kids” – a conversation about our personal and shared desires around having kids together
- Who – We’ve been in a relationship for a few years and we are exploring becoming prospective parents. It will just be the two of us in the conversation
- When – We agree to talk tonight at 7 o’clock for an hour. If we want to go longer, we can add another hour. If we haven’t completed by then, we’ll make arrangements for another conversation within the next few days
- Where – We’ll be at home together
- Why – It’s important that we are on the same page around parenting, and that we have a clear understanding of each other’s expectations around family dynamics and parental responsibilities
- How – We’ll each have the opportunity to share fully our thoughts, desires, expectations, and fears. We won’t interrupt each other but we can ask each other to pause if something isn’t clear. We’ll reflect what we heard the other person say before we share new content. We’ll hold hands to feel connected
Any of these points can be requested by each person, and the other person can either accept, reject, or negotiate any part of the proposed context. For example, one partner might want to go to bed by 9:30, while the other partner wants to make more time for such an important conversation. The end time can be adjusted or negotiated as necessary, along with the addition of consequential elements of context, like we’ll talk again at lunch tomorrow if we don’t complete the conversation tonight.
Setting clear context and getting full buy-in by all parties vastly reduces the likelihood of resentment or frustration due to competing realms of implicit context. For example, if the timing of the conversation wasn’t discussed and one partner launched into the conversation on the spot, the other partner could be resentful for not being considered. These kinds of breakdowns happen all the time in relationship and are easily prevented by the practice of setting context.
Context-setting is ideal when you’re bringing charged or triggering material to someone. We often just go in guns ablaze without considering if the other person is actually available to receive whatever it is we’re sharing. Our ill-considered approach will likely have the other person go on the defense, and the interaction spirals down from there. Bringing charged material to someone and ensuring that it leads to constructive dialog depends on the other person being in an open space of listening. Without listening, there’s no dialog and no forward progress.
A much better way to engage in a sensitive interaction like this is to first offer a context, negotiate, and get buy-in. It can go something like this:
Bill: “Hey Sue, I want to talk to you about what happened yesterday, when would be a good time? I’d like about an hour, and want to have it be in private.”
Sue: “I can meet for an hour tonight at around 8 o’clock, does that work for you?”
Bill: “Yes, that’s perfect. Thanks.”
Now Bill knows that Sue will be available for him when they sit down at 8 o’clock to talk.
When 8 o’clock rolls around, Bill can set additional context for their time together. Sue can adjust as necessary until there is full buy-in. This process sets them up to have a productive, constructive conversation that often leads to greater intimacy and trust. Here’s how it might sound:
Bill: “Thanks for meeting me. Are you still open to hearing what I have to say?”
Sue: “Yes, I am.”
Bill: “OK, great. I want to add some context for this conversation. First, I’d like to have the space to just empty out everything that’s on my mind without being interrupted, are you OK with that?”
Sue: “Yes, but if I don’t understand something, can I pause you?”
Bill: “Yes, that’s fine.”
Sue: “I’d also like to add that if one of us reaches a charge level of 7 or higher, that we stop the conversation and just breathe for a minute or two, is that OK?” (Charge levels are a great way to track how charged someone is, and suggest a framework for what to do if a charge level reaches a certain threshold)
Bill: “Yes, that works.”
Sue: “OK great, I’m listening.”
And off they go. They’ve both co-created a game, listed and agreed to the rules, and made sure there was full mutual buy-in. Now they can both play and actually enjoy the process. Once couples go through this process a few times and learn to trust it, they understand that setting context is a critical aspect of a healthy, conscious, authentic relationships.
Here’s another example of the sequence, this time in a business setting:
- What – Weekly Operations Meeting
- Who – Bill is leading the meeting. Sarah, James, and Hollie are reporting as heads of their respective departments. Gary is visiting from HQ to observe
- When – Starting now, for the next two hours, finishing at 3pm
- Where – In the large conference room
- Why – To review projects in motion, plan for upcoming trade show, check status of job applications, and go over profit/loss figures for week prior
- How – Each department head will provide a report, with questions at the end. Bill will facilitate and decide when we move onto next topic. Gary will be taking notes and won’t be providing input
If structured and delivered correctly, context eliminates confusion and the time it takes for people to ask questions to get clear on the rules of the game. Good context ensures efficiency and productivity, whether in business meetings or in conversations between intimate partners. Everyone can relax in knowing the rules of the game and in knowing that everyone else knows the rules of the game being played.
To review, here are some things to remember when setting context:
- A context is offered and other players are invited to play. You can’t force people to play your game without resorting to oppressive techniques
- Other players can adjust and negotiate the rules of the game. If players are confused, they should ask questions and get clear before playing
- Everyone needs to be bought-in to the game before it can be played
- The context-setter is the context-keeper. If the game veers out of context, it’s your responsibility to name it
- Context can be renegotiated and reset anytime, most often as a result of new information that wasn’t available when the context was first set
- Making implicit contexts explicit is a bit like seeing the Matrix – you start seeing all the rules that govern the games people play unconsciously
- You have the power to shift and replace contexts of your life anytime. The best contexts give you a sense of purpose that aligns your behavior in service of that purpose
- The most effective contexts inspire and mobilize a population in service of a common ideal. You can literally set a context that can change the world