Reading the Situation Requires Understanding the Context
Self-awareness is an essential quality of all exceptional leaders. Leaders who are self-aware know their strengths AND their weaknesses, and understand how they are perceived by others. This allows them to monitor and regulate their behavior so as to be more effective in social situations. The black belt of self-awareness, however, is worn by leaders who take self-awareness one step further and learn to read audiences, rooms, and situations.
Reading situations and audiences requires an understanding of how meaning is created through context. There are many contexts that give rise to meaning, and it is important to explore how they shape how others interpret what they see and hear.
Common contexts like physical environment, activity, and motive all apply influence to shape the meaning people ascribe to words and messages. For example, the phrase “sit down” means something very different in a courtroom than it does in a lunchroom. “Sit down” takes on a different meaning between people watching a sporting event versus those experiencing an amusement ride. The phrase “sit down” means something else altogether when an instructor says it to reprimand versus saying it with the motive to give others relief from physical exertion.
The contexts of relational history (we had an argument last night), past events (a colleague was recently accused of harassment), and current news events (a tragedy has occurred in our community) all work to give rise to meaning in a given moment. The best leaders appreciate the influence of context and become keen observers regarding how specific changes in context create vastly different interpretations by an audience and in specific situations.
Through the practice of working backward from a context and then predicting how audiences and colleagues will interpret an event or a message, leaders can develop a deeper understanding of how to read a situation. This allows them to consider the context or to purposely create it when they have a need to project a specific meaning or interpretation.
Projecting how others will interpret and assess the context of messages is a ninja-level skill that can be learned. Should we practice in your office or mine? In the evening or the morning? After a team meeting or before?