Pattern #19

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Context Awareness Card

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Context Awareness

Context Awareness Symbol

Pattern Heart

Contexts shape what happens. The same actions in different contexts create different outcomes and have different meanings. Environments, mindsets, values, expectations, situational dynamics, power relations, systemic forces, needs, culture… all these matter. So pay attention to context in whatever is explored, whatever is set up and whatever is done.

Some related patterns:   13 Commons and Commoning   29 Expanding Situational Curiosity   36 Full Spectrum Information   63 Power of Listening   74 Rich Feedback Dynamics   80 Story   82 Systems Thinking

  • What is going on around us (or around what we’re doing) that is going to impact how things work out here?
  • Does what we [want to] do here fit the expectations, history, needs, and culture of the other people involved? Are they ready and interested? Are we?
  • How can we set the stage in this situation to increase the probability for wise outcomes?
  • Which location or situation might provide the best context for what we’re trying to accomplish?
  • Do we know enough about the context we’re operating in to navigate it well? What realities and possibilities are we missing or denying? What would prepare us more appropriately?

Context Awareness – going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

Context is often not acknowledged as important. Our attention goes to the actors or entities in the scene and the actions happening between them. We don’t pay much attention necessarily to the background.

For one of the most obvious examples of context shaping what happens, consider a person who is doing a performance that has no audience – or if they have an audience, whether that audience is being supportive or antagonistic.  In every case, their performance will be different.

Context awareness is particularly important because the systems we live in are contexts for everything that is going on, everything we’re doing, everything we are thinking, everything we believe and think is real.

How we’ve grown up in this environment and the stories that we tell ourselves, how everybody else around us is thinking and responding, all this is shaping us in very powerful ways. Context is almost like a form of leadership.

The same actions in different contexts create different outcomes and have different meanings. You can dress in a business suit and go into an office and nobody notices. If you dress in a business suit and go to a hippy rock concert you are going to really stand out and people are going to think you are strange.

There are cultures where it’s considered natural for people to stand very close when talking with each other, whereas in other cultures they try to maintain some distance. There’s a book I read once that talked about diplomatic meetings where the diplomats have their relaxing cocktail hour talking to each other and they are moving around the room because person A is backing away to get person B further away and person B is moving forward to get closer to Person A. This strange cultural difference is dictating the motions of the people in the room without them even being aware of how and why it’s happening.

It is often important to ask, What kind of environment is this? Is it a beautiful environment or a concrete environment? Is it very noisy or quiet? Does your culture or mine dominate here?  What are the mindsets of the people here? Let’s say you walk into a dialogue or deliberation and you have a history with the other people there and you resent them because of what they’ve done to you or what their ancestors have done to yours. You might not be thinking of what you’ve done to them but you have a mindset that says, “I don’t trust these people”. If you trusted them, you would have very different interactions with them. And values, too, are part of context: you value honesty and openness and somebody else values privacy. These two do not go well together. And expectations: you expect that what is going to happen is that we are all going to be friendly, and somebody else expects that we’re going to move efficiently through our agenda.

You have individual contexts and collective contexts. All them have power. Situational dynamics and power relations are often talked about. Some people are marginalized and others are privileged, so we have the older white men who traditionally have more power than others and kind of presume their privilege and their role. Then we have people of color or women who are habitually more withdrawn because of power relations and their experience of exclusion and invisibility. When we have our meeting, we need to be aware of what’s going on in that realm and make efforts to ensure that the people who tend to not speak up have a chance to speak up, etc.

If you are a facilitator or a convener of a conversation, you might be looking at who’s being invited, what are the historical relationships and the power relationships among them and how are you going to deal with those contextual factors to help facilitate more wisdom generation in the group. You have to be aware of that, and you can’t just assume that everybody is equal and that it doesn’t matter where they come from and where they’re sitting. All those things matter and the more you can take them into account the better off you’ll be.

This is one of the powers of Nonviolent Communication: it goes down to people’s needs. People have different need profiles even though everybody shares the same composite list of needs. In some situations or conflicts people may have certain needs that are more vivid for them than their other needs. Their need profile may not fit with the needs that other people are feeling. You’re trying to be aware of who’s coming with what kinds of needs and how you need to address those. So all these things matter. Overlooking these things will have consequences and it will be difficult to generate wisdom (which is – in our definition here – taking account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit).

Among the things that need to be taken into account are the internal and external contexts in which people find themselves. So we’re trying to take that into account when we’re exploring something. When we are looking at an issue, we ask how do certain contexts play a role in how that issue is unfolding. When we set things up for conversation, are we going to be in a closed concrete room with a podium in the front and a bunch of chairs lined up facing the podium, or are we going to be in a wood and glass room with light streaming in, a bunch of plants visible, and the participants’ chairs in a circle. Those are radically different physical contexts and usually we would probably want the latter but sometimes we may want the former. The point is to be conscious that this is a major factor in how we proceed in whatever we do. Whenever we are taking initiative, it’s important to look at the context into which we are bringing our intervention.

So that’s context awareness and the more aware we can be of the many dimensions of context – for context is not just one thing – the more likely we will be dealing with the matter in a wise and successful way.

Video Introduction (16 min)

Examples and Resources

Listening projects and all activities that involve listening – Among the methods and approaches for context awareness, listening stands out as vital. You need to listen in order to get whatever’s going on. If it’s a human situation and sometimes even a nonhuman situation, you need to listen, ask questions, see what people say and feel what the energy is. There are formal organized listening projects about which I have written descriptions on the website.

There are ways of analyzing power dynamics in a situation. You want to understand the “power field”, which is like a magnetic field shaping what’s going on. Who are the players? What sorts of power are they bringing into the situation? That is another tool that raises our context awareness.

Concerns and needs – Concerns are such a powerful form of leverage for understanding that one of the other patterns is All Concerns Addressed. People have lots of life energy infused in their needs and their values, the things that they want, the motivations that they have. Where that energy gets blocked, concerns, objections, or violence show up. Underneath the objections and the violence there are concerns and needs. To unpack people’s concerns is an efficient way to tap into those underlying motivational dynamics. The more you learn about that the more you understand why such-and-such is going on with people. Addressing concerns gives you access to the internal psychological context for what’s happening.

Asset Mapping is a way of going into a community or situation and looking who has the capacity to do what in terms of individuals, teams and organizations. It’s not looking for problems so much as to understand what are the resources. Once you start asking the right questions you discover the old woman who is confined to a wheelchair is fabulous with babies. This woman who has supposedly no capacities actually has valuable capacities that could be productively matched with somebody else’s needs. But understanding a community using asset mapping goes beyond simply fulfilling this or that person’s needs. It reveals more of the whole of what’s possible here as part of the context when you’re trying to help out a community.

Multicultural training is about trying to understand the kinds of dynamics that I was talking about in terms of closeness or distance. There are assumptions underlying different cultures. In India if you are picking at the shared food with your left hand, nobody else is going to touch that food. The right hand is what you eat your food with. There are hygienic reasons for that. If you don’t know that and are an ignorant Americans stepping into that cultural context, you could commit tremendous faux pas. If you are involved with another culture, you will be learning something about that culture – and it is a good idea to do as much of that ahead of time as possible.

Family Systems Therapy is an interesting application of systems consciousness. Different people may have their own personalities but in the context of the family they manifest particular roles because of who everybody else is and what the family history is. Understanding the narratives that are playing out within the family, you will learn more about who’s doing what because of what. Family Systems Therapy is an example of becoming very conscious of the systemic context and not just of the personalities involved and who is doing what right and wrong.

Ecology of course is all about context. What life forms and natural entities including water and rocks are involved and how do they all fit together into one coherent environment? Every entity in the system is part of the context for every other entity and the whole system is a context for all the life within it.

Eco-sociology is an ecological form of sociology where we are looking at the natural world and how human social dynamics are reflections or extensions of existing dynamics in nature. It takes a lot of the insights that context-rich ecology offers and applies them to sociology.

History is all about context. Consider the Middle East.  No one can tell us that these people are just working out their problems in the present time. No, history is possibly the most dynamic thing that’s going on there. You need to accept that and work with that as part of whatever you do there because that’s what’s unfolding. You will experience the next wave of a very deep history that has lots of abuse and struggle and oppression and whatnot in it on all sides.

Paradigm studies – A paradigm is a worldview.  It’s the way we think, the way we think individually and how that’s part of the way we think collectively. Learning the worldviews of different groups and societies is part of understanding the context you are working with.

Anthropology is looking at culture through the ways people behave together in communities and groups, which is a primary context for all human behavior generally.

Demographic analysis – If you are going to work in a community, how many old and young people are in that community, how many black and white people are there, and how many Republicans and Democrats are there? You’ll be better prepared the more you understand about who is involved – in the demographic sense – in the different situations and in the groups or communities you’re working with. There are certain implications for different arrays of that kind of diversity.

Going back to listening, interviews with stakeholders or adversaries in a conflict are an important part of this pattern, too. If you are going to consult with a corporation to resolve a conflict, interview the individuals in and around the conflict before you step in to handle the collective scene. How do they frame what is going on? How do they see it? What’s the gestalt, the whole picture here that you’re stepping into and trying to resolve? The answers can provide you with guidance about what to do next.

Those are all examples of the power of context.