Considering the sheer number of variables involved in communicating anything – it is an absolute wonder that it is possible at all. Even a little bit. Neurons, muscles, tissues, thoughts, air pressure, volume, pitch, language – the variables involved are absolutely mind blowing. It’s not surprising then that one of the many invisible elements of effective communication is often neglected.


Misunderstandings arise from this one place only.

Context, like all knowledge, is invisible. It is an internal understanding or interpretation about a situation, person, place, or thing.  Thes invisible conceptual ties that give meaning to message are absolutely critical! Consider any three word sentence:

“Paul ate apples.”

Add tone (a contextual element) via punctuation.

“Paul ate apples?!”

What changed? What changed about Paul? What changed about his relation to apples? Can simply adding context, in this case tone, change the meaning entirely?! Absolutely.

Context is the details around the message. It is the secret behind the oft quoted study that states only 7% of communication is verbal (or word choice).  It also dissolves arguments like no other tonic. Consider the effect of “I just found out (shocking (un)pleasant thing)” on a conversation.

Usually, people presume when they start talking that the other party is instantly ready, willing, and able to do so. This is usually not the case. People are “in their own heads” thinking about their own situations or daily events. They need context to help them change their focus and “set the stage” to receive the message. The simple statement before starting a conversation “Sorry, I’m in a bad mood” can change the tone immediately from a contagious assault to a collaborative empathy.

Steven Covey said “With people, slow is fast.” What he means is that when we take the time to communicate context and understand the other persons context and perspective, we prevent conflict, which is often more costly in many ways. Not only does providing a context make the message easier to consume, it is also the courteous thing to do.

So, how does one go about setting context? The elements of context are often found in the very first chapter of any writing book. Scene, Characters, Motive, Mood – any and all of these will do. These pieces of the story don’t simply add flavor, they change meaning. Try starting the next conversation with the following formula:

{Greeting}, {Person’s name}, {Purpose for talking}, {Emotion about the conversation}, {Topic}

For example: “Hey there Barbara. I wanted to talk to you for a minute because I have a concern I’d like to share. I’m a little nervous bringing it up right now, but I wanted to discuss the quarterly report.”


Yo Tom, If you have a sec, I want to congratulate you. I’m so happy you were able to take such good care of the Johnson family’s needs.


Good Afternoon Mr. Smith. I am calling to get further clarity. I am confused. Can we review our current agreement?


Hey Bill. I want to vent. I’m pissed off. You don’t seem to listen to my directions.

The temptation to introduce the topic into a conversation early is very overwhelming in our “cut to the chase” society – don’t do it. In the beginning, follow the formula – even if it is unpleasant or awkward.

Stop “delivering information” and start creating meaning by giving the context for a message before, during, and after the message. Don’t forget to make sure you get what you want out of the converation or message – (Coming soon), and how to handle genuine disagreements (Coming soon).