Leadership Communication Basics: Setting the Context

To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others

Tony Robbins

Everyone knows the importance of communication, not only what you say, but how you say it, when you say it, who you say it to, how you look when you say it, what your body language is telling others, etc., etc. The same communication skills work whether they are in professional or personal settings.

Setting the Context

This is the first post on communication basics. Setting the context is important whether you speak, read, write or listen. This simple step of setting the context helps establish meaning and sets the roadmap for where you want to go – it is the why. Context setting goes by other names such as, level setting, foundational information, background information or setting the stage.  Most successful leaders talk about the why of a project to build support. Context provides the why.

Too simple you say, maybe, but if you don’t set a context for your communication, people may get confused, stop listening, risk making mistakes and wrong decisions and someone is sure to ask for context.


Are We Talking About the Same Thing?

Have you ever been in a situation where two of you are discussing something and you realize that you aren’t talking about the same thing? Both of you are using the same words, but they mean something different to each of you.

I was leading a project and was trying to get buy – in from the participants. The meeting had been going on for a while before I realized that we were not talking about the same thing. This was one of the few times I failed to set the proper context. We were using the same words, but they meant different things to each of us. I was talking about the issue from a regulator perspective and other participants were talking about the issue from an educator perspective. Luckily for me, one of the people at the meeting had a foot in both worlds, and recognized that we were were not talking about the same thing. Every profession or trade, even different age groups have their own language, so it is important that we make sure that the words we use mean the same thing to everyone.  We were able to sort things out and continue. 

This lesson taught me to listen carefully to what people are saying and check out if my understanding is correct. I’ve said, “I know we are using the same words, but I don’t think we are talking about the same thing. Tell me what you mean by …” This slows down the conversation until we figure out if we are talking about the same thing. The danger is getting to the end of the discussion and finding out that people do not agree with the decision, because they thought you were talking about something else.

Cultural Communication

Years ago, I took the best course ever on communication. I was working on a project on cultural communication.  The course leader made his point through games. One game that sticks with me is a card game we had to play. There were several tables set up. Each table had a set of directions, a pack of cards, and the same number of people around the table.  We played at our table for about 10 minutes and then some of the players from our table switched over to another table. Each table got new players and we started playing again. When we switched players something interesting happened. The new players didn’t seem to be playing very well and were creating confusion for the rest of the table. It turned out that the new players were playing with a different set of rules. Each table had slightly different rules to play with. When the new players joined our table, we assumed they were playing with the same rules we were playing with. This drove home the point about the importance of context, to understand the objective, know the rules and never assume anything

Polar Opposite Views – Problem Solving to Success

One of the most successful projects I was responsible for, was to find a solution to a difficult and controversial problem that involved bringing two polar opposite views together. The solution came from the participants themselves and resulted in win – win for the project.

The project was messy, tempers were high, mistrust was high, lines were drawn in the sand. What made it a success was a series of planned communication strategies including: setting the context, providing information so that everyone had the same basic level of understanding, listening, collecting information, adjusting our findings based on what we learned and letting the participants find the best solution to the problem.

How To Set Context?

  1. Identify your objective, what is it you want to accomplish and why?
  2. Are there rules to getting to your objective such as guiding principles? Guiding principles outline the boundaries of the project and non – negotiables. They set the foundation for what you are doing and keep you to your course.
  3. Your group will have different levels of understanding of what your issue is. Some will have a lot of knowledge and others will have little or no understanding.  You will need to provide the basic information needed to level the playing field. Those who don’t have much understanding will get basic information and those who have more knowledge will be reminded of the basics.
  4. What background is important? It depends on the setting and the nature of the discussion. Sometimes it is simple and brief – just a few words will do to set the background and context. At other times it may be complicated and require more detail. For example context and background information for the more complicated discussions might consider some of these questions : Why this is important now, what information is out there about your issue (pros and cons), is anyone else doing what you are proposing (why reinvent the wheel – just tweak it), what are the risks of moving forward or not moving forward?
  5. Talk to your group and find out what else they think is important.


When I tried to take short cuts and not set the context, it didn’t work out so well for me. People want to know the why behind things. It helps to frame your response. Think about when you were growing up and you asked your parents why you couldn’t do something. If they gave you an explanation about the reasons for their objection, you might not have liked it, but an explanation was better than “because I said so.”

You maybe thinking that this is too simplistic and lot of work or it doesn’t apply.  Think about the last time you were in a conversation with someone and they blurted something out that made no sense. You probably had to tell them that you were having trouble following the conversation. No context!

You must speak the same language to participate effectively in any discussion.

Published by Diane Allen

Hi there, my name is Diane and welcome to my blog site! Leadership mindset is the mindset that embraces, vision, courage and action.

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