In the previous post I have outlined some of the things we need to keep in mind when considering the communication from the Sender and Recipient’s point of view.
In this post I am going to look closer into two of them: Background and Context.
The background involves everything a person has absorbed during their existence as a social creature. It involves all the knowledge a person has accumulated over the course of their lives in the result of education, self-learning, general personal experience, extend of travel, ethnicity, geographic location and more.
Sharing some background brings communicators’ codebooks closer. You can easily discuss some specific professional things with your colleagues and struggle to explain the same things to your parents or friends who are from absolutely different professional spheres. I have been working in IT for almost 8 years and sometimes I find it hard to grade my language when talking to my mom. Knowing a person’s background can keep you on the safe side when discussing some sensitive topics. Keep in mind, that some topics can be sensitive for particular people due to their previous experience.
General background is connected to the general context since it does not refer to any particular situation but involves a broad range of things. A group of people with the same geographic location are well aware of the climate situation, which makes weather talks easily shared and supported. People with the same career path are aware of common rules and pitfalls of their profession and this knowledge is implied in the professional communication with their colleagues. As a speaker at a dedicated conference or a workshop you can expect your target audience to share some specifics of the area or to be at least on the same page about the basics.
What is more crucial to effective day-to-day communication is the narrow context and some specific information that helps us stay in the loop regarding a particular situation. Narrow context includes situational knowledge such as details about the participants, time and place. It can refer to the past and include some prior agreements, meetings, decisions, everything that happened before and might help to understand and interpret the meaning. It can also refer to the present or future and describe something that is happening or supposed to happen after the communication. It’s hard to catch up with the decisions if you were not part of the meeting and no one sent a follow-up. Often, the lack of sync leads to broken process pipelines and can bring more harm than an actual breakage. The information flows are supposed to create shared specific context and should be set up before anything else, like process, is considered.
Knowledge sharing is an indispensable part of any common activity. It builds a solid ground for information flows and enables better decision making.
Both types of background and context, general and specific, contribute to sharing the same meaning. In addition it can help you manage the level of elaboration. When expecting a certain background or situational awareness from your target audience you can skip some elaboration. Or, on the opposite, you might need to make your message more comprehensible and detailed for the rest to catch up. You could not bother and treat everyone as a clean slate and engage into elaboration without any hesitation, but in some cases high levels of elaboration are considered offensive and annoying and, with the best intention of yours, can still affect the communication in a negative way.
Referring to previous experience can be used as a bridge to the topic and knowledge you want to share. When talking to children parents largely rely on their current knowledge and use comparisons to introduce new things. F. e. I know that a child understands how cars work so I can use a car metaphor to help me explain how oxygen travels around the body. The same thing should happen with the adults who are very much like children when it comes to learning. New knowledge is better understood and remembered if compared to something we already know. I recall an Agile workshop where the trainer used a building metaphor to explain Scrum: the building was gradually constructed and the finished parts were put into use straight away.
Keep in mind there is a tricky thing about not sharing the background or context: some of your messages can trigger the behavior you never expect. And it’s better to deal with it proactively by learning as many facts as possible to narrow the communication gap. So it’s best of all to learn more about the people you communicate with. You will have to do it anyway. It’s a myth that communication works even if you know nothing about the people you talk to.
It can be a challenge. But you don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes or engage with CIA. You already have one of the most powerful tools for doing it. Listening. People enjoy sharing some facts about themselves. They may be shy, it’s true. But when provided with a comfortable and safe setting, almost everyone talks freely and shares some precious pieces of information that you can relate to. Just make sure to keep your ears and mind open to absorb the information you need to do your communication magic.
Stay tuned for more posts about communication and what it takes to be a successful communicator!