How can I use my Context?


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In my last post ‘My Context uses me’, I had dwelled on how my Context, that omnipresent meaning making machine in all my situations, uses me. How my context wields the power to put me on rails and makes me react in predictable failing ways. I was left wondering whether I could do something about shifting away from such almost certain failures.

The “Being a Leader” course, attended by me recently, revealed a pathway.

As we saw in the last post, our context does function as a cognitive lens, a filter so to speak, through which we view the world, others and interestingly, even our own selves. As we look at a situation, our context highlights some aspects, dims a few and even blanks out yet other aspects. So what makes up our context? It’s our Worldview and frame of reference for the situation at hand. It is our beliefs, biases, prejudices and assumptions which play a part in the context’s meaning making and filtering process.

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Now let’s consider what constitutes our beliefs, biases, prejudices and assumptions. In a nutshell, it is our past experiences. Our brains are adept at using this past to create a default context which comes automatically with the situation at hand. This default context, coloured as it is by our past concerns and fears, restricts us and our actions. As the context is decisive, one can see the wisdom of the old French proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

The “Being a Leader” course went on to show that a critical part of our effectiveness in leadership and life arises from our ability to replace the default context by a created context for the same situation. This created context, unencumbered by anything from the past, allows us to see possibilities which were not being allowed so long by our past.

So how does the above work? To understand that let us revisit the situation which we had talked about in the earlier post, ‘My Context uses me’.

“Whenever I notice someone, be it a family member, relative, office colleague etc. not doing it ‘my way’ or voicing disagreement about my way or style of functioning, I feel that the person is actually trying to prove me wrong , undermine me, not giving me the respect which I deserve etc.”

.My default context was, ‘Disagreeing with me implies proving me wrong, undermining me, disrespecting me etc’. This context led to situations occurring for me negatively and made me react in negative, hurtful ways.

As I review the above situation, I realise that I do hold the power to create a new context for myself. A context which says, ‘Getting the job done is what counts and it really doesn’t matter if the way adopted by others is different to mine so long as the job is done’.

As I think of this created context, I can see that it allows me to hold the big picture of getting the job done and get people to align their focus and actions to that. I also begin to see that with this context, I am no longer getting undermined, proved wrong and getting disrespected.
I now see that I hold the power to use my context to my advantage.
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On a lighter note, I append below an extract from the ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster, which highlights how one could mis-use the context to the other person’s disadvantage!

“I don’t think you understand,” said Milo timidly as the watchdog growled a warning. “We’re looking for a place to spend the night.”
“It’s not yours to spend,” the bird shrieked again, and followed it with the same horrible laugh.
“That doesn’t make any sense, you see—” he started to explain.
“Dollars or cents, it’s still not yours to spend,” the bird replied haughtily.
“But I didn’t mean—” insisted Milo.
“Of course you’re mean,” interrupted the bird, closing the eye that had been open and opening the one that had been closed. “Anyone who’d spend a night that doesn’t belong to him is very mean.”
“Well, I thought that by—” he tried again desperately.
“That’s a different story,” interjected the bird a bit more amiably. “If you want to buy, I’m sure I can arrange to sell, but with what you’re doing you’ll probably end up in a cell anyway.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Milo helplessly, for, with the bird taking everything the wrong way, he hardly knew what he was saying.
“Agreed,” said the bird, with a sharp click of his beak, “but neither is it left, although if I were you I would have left a long time ago.”

In learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:
1) “Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

My Context uses me.


“For me context is the key- from that comes the understanding of everything.”
– Kenneth Noland, American contemporary artist.

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Interestingly, my first acquaintance with ‘Context’ was from an experience with something which is opposite, that is ‘Out of Context’. I was in junior school when one of the girls in my class came running to the teacher and exclaimed loudly, “Miss! Miss! Dilip is saying he will kill someone!” When Dilip was called in for his explanation, it transpired that during lunch, he had remarked, “It is so hot. I feel like killing that person and sitting in his place in the air-conditioned school office.” Here was a case of a young mind taking some words out of context. The listener, listening to the specific set of words without the benefit of the context in which they were spoken, however derived a different meaning altogether.

As I go through life, the power of context continues to be revealed to me. I am witness to myriad claims and counterclaims in the realms of politics, media and entertainment in which politicians and celebrities, when confronted with some of their past utterances, resort to saying, “I never said that, I was quoted out of context”. Stating this, the individual is quick to articulate a context which completely shifts the meaning of what he /she had said.

The dictionary meaning of Context is ‘the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement and idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed’.Said another way, Context is something which interweaves into a situation to provide meaning. While we may not be conscious when we look at a situation, there is always a context that we hold that generates for us the sense that we make of what we see. A situation in a vacuum is apt to lose much of what it might mean or imply for us.

How a context can shape the way of being and actions of people is wonderfully portrayed in “The Life of Brian”, the 1979 British Comedy film. Tired of masquerading as a phony messiah, Brian tries to run away from the crowds following him and loses one of his shoes in the process. To the crowd however, the context is one of ‘every word and action of Brian is a point of doctrine’. The accidentally lost shoe of ‘Messiah’ Brian is held up as such. This is humour and satire at its best!

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As I start distinguishing the contexts in my own life, I see a particular situation playing out repeatedly.

Whenever I notice someone, be it a family member, relative, office colleague etc. not doing it ‘my way’ or voicing disagreement about my way or style of functioning, I feel that the person is actually trying to prove me wrong , undermine me, not giving me the respect which I deserve etc.

I thus see all such situations from a context of ‘Disagreeing with me implies proving me wrong, undermining me, disrespecting me etc’.

As I hold this context, the situations occur for me negatively. This negative occurring impacts my mental state, emotions and thoughts as also the actions I contemplate. So how do I react? I tend to lose sight of the big picture. I justify myself by knit picking on the right or wrong ways of doing things from my perspective. I get down to micromanaging and in my anxiety to enforce, end up in confrontation, acrimony, blame game and what have you. So even though I started trying to get something done, I have really ended up fanning dissent, demotivation and unworkability.

I can see now how my context has been using me. How, time and again, it puts me on rails and makes me react in a predictable, disempowering manner. How my reaction gets based on how the situation, shaped and coloured by my context, shows up for me.

So if my context uses me thus, can I shift away from it to avoid my disempowerment and failure to get the job done?

I am left wondering about what kind of practices I need to adopt to shift away from disempowering contexts to empowering ones for myself……to be continued…….

In learning……… Shakti Ghosal