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The #1 Communication Mistake at Least Half of Us Make

Posted January 16, 2020


Have you ever sat in a meeting and wondered, “What is this about?” I don’t mean in some existential crisis sort of way, but in regards to the purpose of the meeting. I know I have. In fact, this happened in at least half the meetings I attended while on teaching faculty. As person after person droned on and on, I’d sit there wondering, “What am I supposed to do with all of these words they are saying?”

The effectiveness of meetings at work, at church, and even in the home is often thwarted by the #1 communication mistake – one that at least half of us make very often. What is the mistake? Not setting context.

Info Comes in Two Forms

Context is important because humans take in information in two ways. First, we take it in at the detail and sensory level. This is like raw data, or the trees in a forest. Second, we take it in at the level of theme and meaning. This is like a headline that makes sense of the data, or a forest that is the big picture of all those individual trees.

In Myers-Briggs terms, these two ways of taking in information are referred to as Sensing and Intuition. While some people prefer Sensing and others prefer Intuition, everyone needs both functions in order to succeed in life. The two ways of taking in information work in tandem: Sensory imports data into our brain, and Intuition makes sense of the data. When they are paired, meetings work great. When they are divorced, meetings languish.

Context is an Intuitive function. Knowing the context helps us process the content of a meeting more efficiently and more effectively. Context declares: here comes some information and here’s what you should try to do with it. Without context, the words people share in a meeting are come at us like a raw data dump.

Meetings Need Context

Too many meetings bypass context and dive immediately into the content (Jill shares a report, Rob passes out a profit and loss statement, Shanna provides a detailed update, etc.). Without context, the data cannot be processed properly. Is Jill sharing the report as an FYI, or to stir conversation, or to help make a key decision, or what? Why do we want to know what’s in her report? What are we supposed to do with this information? We need context. Knowing the context will not only help everyone hear more effectively, it will also help Jill share more effectively.

One of the things I’ve learned to do in meetings where I am not the leader, is to request context as early in the meeting as possible. And I’ve learned to do this in a non-judgmental way. The whole non-judgmental thing has been hard to come by. For a long time I perceived the data dumpers as somehow inferior (are they stupid, or malevolent, or what?!?). Eventually I realized they were just different. For them, backing up the truck and dumping out a bunch of information is a perfectly rational thing to do since that’s how they take in the world. They don’t feel uneasy about sifting and sorting through raw data without a clear context (unlike Sensors who don’t know how to sift and sort without context).

If you’re a Sensor, do the rest of us a favor and give us the context before diving into the content so we can make some meaning from all the facts. And if you’re an Intuitive, do yourself a favor and bring some data to back up your big-picture snapshot of things (otherwise the Sensors will – and should – tear you apart).
When meetings and conversations start with the big picture and then move into the details, everybody can engage fully. So avoid this #1 communication mistake and always provide context – even when you think it’s not needed!