The “out-of-context” conversation

The “out-of-context conversation” is one of my favorite topics. Need to tell a co-worker about something that’s slowing the team down? Want to tell your boss about some extraordinary things the team is doing? You have a family member who is impacting the rest of the house with poor behavior? Try speaking out-of-context for a change. It works for me, let me explain.

Some of the best comedy comes from characters discovering something out-of-context. This was consistently done on Seinfeld, one of my favorite television shows. Laughing out loud, I’ve often said: “this is genius.”  Here is a scene that is a great example of a character in a situation where they have no context. Watch the end of the scene closely, when Jerry re-enters the room: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPxXPIdXWX0

Context. My dear friend Susan says “everything is context.” The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. Context. It can be a discussion that takes place at a different time, changing the context of time. And it can be a conversation outside of where the behavior is occurring – changing the context of the place. Either way, here’s how it works.

When my children were little there were a couple of times where misbehavior would find them sitting on the couch with me raising my voice. In the moment of correction, with some tears, I knew this was not a learning environment or moment. When I learned to wait until the next day when we were playing in another room or watching Sesame Street, to stop everything and lovingly say “…remember yesterday when…” I would always have their attention and learning together would happen. We could reenact the moment, talk about why the behavior was inappropriate and how to avoid it in the future. Teach the better way. Waiting for a short amount of time to pass, when the emotions are not running high  is what I refer to as “the out-of-context conversation.”

I had a basketball coach who liked to scream during games. He didn’t scream during practice. My memory of him during games is not hearing direction but seeing him attempt to give it, flailing arms, leaning forward, walking onto the court. I never heard a word he said in that context. Once, after a game, when I was in the training room with my leg in a whirlpool, he leaned against the wall and talked about some of my decisions on the court that night. I heard him at that time and place! I don’t believe he was doing it intentionally, but taking his coaching out of the context of the arena or even practice and moving it to me when all I was doing was staring at the swirling hot water worked! You imagine the difference.

Take it to business. Calling someone out in a meeting about a behavior meets with resistance and defensiveness. When needed, after a meeting or interaction where you feel something needs to be said, schedule a short 15-minute meeting for the next day. There is no need to sit down, just lean against a wall! And always remember, we are talking about behaviors here, not personalities. Stick to the conduct that is a distraction, for the team or the company. We’re not discussing the conduct in the context of the meeting time or location. We’re doing “out-of-context” of space and time to get more clarity, understanding, and a better shot at a willing ear.

My favorite – The positive. Out-of-context conversations to tell someone about how they’ve made a difference, to congratulate them on achieving a goal, to thank them for their performance – is very much needed today. It’s an obligation of leadership. Telling people about their gifts, their positive impact on the business, what they mean to the organization, the family. If it’s kids and you want to tell them you’re proud of their achievements in school, go out-of-context of your home to a restaurant. Same with work. You want to congratulate a team member on all the good work they put into a project, do it at the local coffee house out of the context of the shop or office. They will hear you better and more willingly.

Dear People: Stop doing the same thing over and over with the same poor results. Try taking it out of the context of how you usually do it. Context is extremely important. If Jerry Seinfeld had been in the room when Kramer answered that phone, his line “And you want to be my latex salesman,” would have fallen flat. The comic genius is Jerry reentering the room to find a situation for which he had no context. Brilliant.

Last thought. Here is a portion of a discussion I had with a supervisor about a team member who was taking too much time on updates. “I’ve told him repeatedly to get to the point and that he has 10 minutes. Taking 20 isn’t acceptable.” When I asked where these repeated conversations take place she furrowed her eyebrows, “what do you mean? I wait until after the meeting and tell him he took too much time and he needs to end at 10 minutes.” I said “take the conversation out of the context of the room where the distraction or problem is happening. Go now and schedule 15 minutes with him somewhere outside the office and have the talk. Make him put it into context with his mind. Start with telling him what you like about the updates, then say ‘let’s talk about the updates and time.'” Change the timing, the scenery, the circumstances.

When I spoke to the supervisor a couple of weeks later, she reported success!

Kenneth Noland, an American painter, said: “For me, context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.”

Give it a try. Context is everything.

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