Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe in some cases trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

When the COVID story is finally written, it’s then and only then that we’ll understand whether we’re currently at Chapter 2 or Chapter 10. Or indeed, how many chapters there are to this whole story. The one thing I think most people will agree with is that it feels like the end of the beginning where we’ve emerged from lockdown, and with a handbrake released, we’re coming into the next stage or the next evolution of this whole chaos that was thrust upon us.

In emerging, we are very clear that there are some difficult discussions and conversations that need to happen. And from the last two episodes, which were around conversations in chaos and the response to them, we realized that there’s a real appetite out there to understand how better to deal with and have better conversations.

To that end, we’re going to spend this episode talking about the importance of context. What do I mean by that? Well, in the general spectrum of things, at the very start of this lockdown period, the mantra that prevailed was that we’re all in this together. Well, that was partly true. The situation of COVID was universal and the same for everybody, but the implications of its impact were different depending on one thing: the individual’s context.

I have a nephew who’s young, free, and single, for whom it was a gift. He didn’t have to go to work every day. He could work from home without the distractions. He could get his work done in half the time. So he had half the time available to himself to do what he pleased. Contrast that with some other friends of mine, both of whom are working as a couple at home, from home, with young children, no balcony, in an apartment, no garden, trying to care for elderly parents, whilst one of them was diagnosed positive with COVID.

Different contexts. Different realities. It’s obvious when I say it that when two people enter into a conversation, particularly one that’s difficult, it’s obvious to say that both people are coming at it from a different context. Whilst we know that to be true, consciously, how people typically prepare for a conversation, particularly where there’s a different point of view, and we know it, is that I start by arsenalling up.

I start and look for all the evidence, all the data, all the information, all the facts that support my point of view. Meanwhile, The person on the other side is doing exactly the same without intending it or knowing it. We’re actually preparing for war. And ultimately, the person with the biggest army and the heaviest artillery wins.

However, all wars create collateral damage. In this case, residue, which we discussed in the previous episode. And whilst the conversation might end up high on clarity, it will end up low on commitment. And back to our original previous equation about clarity times commitment equaling leadership effectiveness, a 10 out of 10 clarity is no good if you’ve got a zero out of 10 commitment, it still results in zero.

I frequently find leaders who resort to positional power to assert their authority to win a discussion or a debate. Positional power is like a bar of soap. The more you use it, the less you’re left with. And whilst you might, in the short term, win the battle, you will ultimately lose the war on leadership reputation.

So let me propose to you an alternative aim the next time you have a conversation. What if your aim was simply to understand the other person’s context? Just simply to understand their context. How would that change things? Well, the first thing that would happen is you would have to approach the conversation entirely differently.

But to indicate how powerful this approach actually is, let’s first spend a little bit of time understanding why context is so important. We, as human beings, are infinite context creators. We cannot, not create context for every and in every situation. This is different from, but often gets confused with, logic.

Let me explain. If I were to ask you, what’s seven times seven, you will take logic and you will give me the answer, 49. However, if I ask you a different question: there are seven birds on a fence, and you shoot one, how many are left? The most frequent answer to that question is, well, it depends. If you ask a computer that question, there’s only one answer.

Seven minus one, which is six. However, ask a human that question. It depends on the context. It could be six, or it could be none because when you shoot, it scares off the other birds, so they fly away. Or it could be that all seven are left because there was a silencer on the gun. And so this is one of the uniquenesses of being human is that we create our own context.

What we do is we take external data and translate it into internal pictures in our mind’s eye that give us an individual, unique context, which becomes our reality.

So play with me on this. Here are two pieces of data. I want you to think of dog and car. Dog and car. What your mind automatically does, just with those two pieces of data, is you create a picture, and the picture has a dog and a car in it.

Some people’s picture will have the dog inside of the car. Others will have it outside of the car. If you love dogs, it’s probably inside of the car, nestled up in a nice blanket. If you hate dogs, it’s probably getting run over by the car. So, you can create an infinite number of pictures with just two variables.

The human mind, based on research that goes back to the 1950s, can hold between five and seven individual bits of data simultaneously or concurrently, which means that if you do the maths, you can have up to 720 different interpretations of exactly the same event. So that’s different contexts for exactly the same moment.

Where this leads to is this, and this is important. When people disagree, We almost always put it down to a gap or a breakdown in logic because we’re all perfectly logical in our own context.

If you want to resolve or unlock a deadlock in a conversation with one or more parties, spend your time and focus on trying to understand and unpack their context. By understanding their context, you will begin to see where the gaps are.

So, if this is so obvious, why don’t people do it systematically? Well, there are three reasons. The first reason is that we make a natural assumption, because this is all happening unconsciously that the context that we have is exactly the same as the context somebody else has.

If we take an example of, currently, the question of whether we should all be wearing a mask? Well, the answer to that question lies, firstly, in understanding the context in which we come at that question. Because everybody is coming at it from a slightly different context. And the approach is people typically load themselves up into justifying their context.

I remember a situation with a client from the real estate business where we were working with them in their headquarters, the executive team in Amsterdam. And they blocked off three hours to have a discussion. And the problem they were trying to solve was they needed to improve their organization’s efficiency.

They spent three long hours, 13 people in a room, discussing and debating. At the end of the three hours, they were tired, exhausted, and frustrated. And the conclusion had ultimately been impatiently dictated by the two strongest voices in the room, who happened to be the two most senior people. Does this story sound familiar?

At the end of the meeting, I asked each executive team member to take one post-it and to accomplish one simple task, which was to write down their definition. We took 13 Post-its, we put them on the wall, and everybody stood up and they read everybody else’s Post-it. Everybody had a different definition. We assume, because we use the same language and we understand the language, that our interpretation or our context and what we translate into our own mental picture is exactly the same thing, but it isn’t.

As Mark Twain once wrote, It ain’t what you don’t know gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

The second reason that people are reluctant to probe into others’ context to fully understand it is that there is a tacit belief that if I understand somebody else’s side of the bridge and their context for the situation, by implication, I have to agree with it. And here’s your exit clause. You do not have to agree with it. Understanding somebody else’s context doesn’t mean that you agree with it.

The third reason that people typically don’t explore the other person’s context to fully understand it is because they basically don’t know how. They don’t have the subtle tools or skills to enable them to do that. And that’s what we’re going to explore in more detail in the next episode. How do you approach it in a way that best accesses the other person’s side of the bridge? And in addition, how do you get permission and the opportunity to share your context so that you’ve got the best of both contexts.

Ultimately, isn’t the quality of the decision that we make based on the quality of the data that we have? And isn’t more data from qualified parties better than less data? I’m gonna round off with a parable that goes back thousands of years, and it’s based on the story of a Raj in ancient India who sent out six blind men to find an elephant. They all go out and when they come back, they begin to report on what they found.

Of course, they’d all found an elephant, but they’d all found a part of an elephant. So, one had found an ear, another found the tail, and another found the trunk, but they all swore that their elephant was the real thing.

And the last verse of the poem goes like this. And so these men of Hindustan disputed loud and long, each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong, though each was partly in the right and all were in the wrong.

Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, and stay connected.

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