Creating understanding by communicating context – first in a three-part series

Life is complex and only becoming more so due to the expanding need to communicate and coordinate with others. This increased demand can be even more frustrating when we find ourselves solving the same problem, or answering the same question, or telling the same person to do the same thing over and over again.
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Life is complex and only becoming more so due to the expanding need to communicate and coordinate with others. This increased demand can be even more frustrating when we find ourselves solving the same problem, or answering the same question, or telling the same person to do the same thing over and over again.

The causes of these maladies can be numerous or complex, but frequently high on the list is that we tend to communicate tasks and data rather than context and understanding.

All of us have received emails from people where the sender dives right into a dissertation on the details of a project, or even worse, shares thoughts beginning mid-way in the thought process. We struggle to understand what it is they are talking about and what they want from us.

Both of these circumstances illustrate the power and importance of creating understanding through communicating context.

Thinking and Communicating in Outline Form

Think of your communications as if they were prepared in outline form, with Roman numerals, numbers, capital letters, etc. The Roman numerals and capital letters represent the more foundational concepts of the communication, while the lower case letters and numbers with parentheses represent the minutiae that support those foundational concepts. Like this:

I. Fundamental concept

A. Desired outcome of the communication

1. Main message

a) Details

(1) Action required

(a) Timelines

Starting in the Middle

Most communication occurs at the middle of this hierarchy. Some people are inclined to gravitate to the more extreme details, while a few “fly high”, focusing on the higher level concepts and motivations.

Communication at a mid-level works well as long as both parties share an understanding of the concepts higher up in the outline hierarchy. With greater context and understanding quality of work, quantity of work, and contentment with work all improve.

Traveling Up and Down the Outline

While most people are inclined to communicate using the middle ranks of the outline, nothing is forcing us to do so. We can travel toward the Roman numerals in order to understand context, and we can travel toward the lower case letters in parentheses to cover greater detail. If we are in the middle and want more context, we ask, “Why?” If we are in the middle and want more detail, we ask, “How?”

The Karate Kid

Do you remember this classic movie from the 1980’s? Daniel is taking karate lessons from the sage Mr. Miyagi, but his first assignment for Daniel is to paint his fence and wax his car. Daniel is very frustrated, and certain that Mr. Miyagi is just using him to do chores. It is only after Daniel learns that those are the same motions that he will use in karate that he fully understands and appreciates what Mr. Miyagi is doing for him.

In other words, Daniel didn’t understand because he didn’t know the context of the assigned tasks.

Getting Practical

  • When communicating (verbally or in writing)
  • Be careful not to assume that the people you are communicating with understand the underlying assumptions, motivations and concepts of the topic at hand.
  • Rewind and cover some of the information, decisions, history and developments that brought us to this point
  • Explain the ultimate desired outcome
  • When receiving communications,
  • Make sure you understand the underlying assumptions, motivations, and concepts, and the ultimate desired outcome
  • If you need clarification, ask “why?”, repeatedly if necessary
  • If you need more information, more detail, ask “how?” repeatedly if necessary.

In Part 2 of this series by Adages from Ascent, we will address how to apply the concept of using context to create understanding when delegating.

© Ascent Advising 2007 (reprinted exclusively by SNEWS® with permission)

Dave Bartholomew is a principal with Ascent Advising, providing wide-ranging business advisory services to companies around the globe. His 30 years in leadership roles in the outdoor industry equip him well for coming alongside business owners and executive teams in moving their companies ever upward. His popular email newsletter, “Adages from Ascent”, brings to light vital and innovative concepts for running a business. For a free subscription, and to view past issues of the newsletter, visit and follow the link for “Adages from Ascent”. Dave can be reached at or 206-669-7055.


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