How The Best Leaders Set Context

The Way You Start A Conversation May Determine The Outcome You Get

Imagine being part of this interaction.

You walk into the kitchen holding the checkbook. Your spouse is preparing dinner and you ask, What’s this check for $300 you wrote last Thursday?”

Impatient for answers, you glance down at the check register and jump to your next question:Do you understand how much are we spending on groceries and cable?”

You get a curious glare, but since you’re just getting started, you press on. “Do we really need to be spending $85 each month on pet supplies and another $180 on miscellaneous? I don’t get it.”

Insert the you-are-about-to-get-hit-in-the-head-with-a-frying-pan pause here. (This may be a good time to duck because before you know it, vegetables and expletives are flying from the direction of your spouse and you’re left standing, dumbfounded, wondering what just happened since your goals in raising all these questions were actually good ones.

Let’s start over.

Imagine the same scene with one important difference. You start by stating your intention, which sounds like this: “Honey, we’re coming up on our 10-year anniversary, and I want to take you—the love of my life—on a romantic vacation to Paris. I’ve been trying to find some ways to pay for it and could use some help.”

You can bet that the outcome would be different, and it only took two extra sentences and the foresight to employ a practice great leaders use every day.

forbes setting context

Here’s Why This Is So Important

Think back to the most emotional conversation you’ve had recently at work and at home. Chances are good each resulted from misinterpreted intentions. You were probably trying to accomplish something very different than the very person you were trying to help thought you were.

You got angry because they assumed the worst while you were trying to be at your best.

You can avoid this type of drama by starting potentially difficult conversations by stating your intention. Some examples:

For A Client

Instead of saying: “We need to talk about your project timelines slipping again.”

Try: “My intention is to staff your project with the very best people we have, but the project deadlines keep moving, so I’d like to discuss ways to create a workable schedule.”

For A Hormonal Teenager*

Instead of saying: “I looked at your class schedule for next year, and you and I need to have a conversation about all the easy courses you have signed up for.”

Try: “I want you to have as many options as possible when it comes to choosing a college or career, so I’d like to talk about your class selection for next year.”

For An Employee

Instead of saying: “I need to see you in my office at lunch time.”

Try: “You have been kicking some serious butt, and I’d like to buy you lunch and learn about how you’re outperforming everyone on the team.”

For A Boss

Instead of saying: “Why are we spending so much time on the Johnson account?”

Try: “There are four accounts that I think I can immediately grow, so I’d like to understand if you think the Johnson account should still be priority No. 1.”

Great leaders understand that a huge part of their job is to provide context. You can see from the examples above that by setting context in the beginning of a potentially difficult conversation, you can avoid:

  • Your client thinking you are trying to overbill them
  • Your teenager thinking you are calling him stupid and/or controlling him again
  • Your employee thinking she is about to be fired or reprimanded
  • Your boss thinking you are challenging her authority

The next time you are about to engage in a difficult conversation, remember the formula: Context + Curiosity (about how the other person may react) = Collaboration

Enjoy Paris.

*Author’s note: When it comes to setting context, I’d advise honing your skills with clients, co-workers and partners before taking on the teenager conversations. Some situations require Jedi-level skills.

Article originally published May 15, 2014 on

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