The Context of Communication 

Does My Form of Communication Change in Certain Situations?

The circumstances surrounding a message provide the context. These include the setting you are in, the culture that guides you and whomever you are communicating with, and the purpose of the communication to begin with. Context also includes the values people have, appropriateness of the message, the timing you choose to convey your message, and the reason behind your wanting to communicate. This means considering your audience, the place, the time, and all other variables that impact communicating constructively.

Generally, all communication happens for a reason. When you are communicating with people, are you always on the same wavelength? Are you wide awake and your roommate almost asleep? Is the baseball game really important to you but totally boring to the person you are talking with? It is important that everyone involved understands the context of the conversation. Is it a party, which lends itself to frivolous banter? Is the conversation about something serious that occurred? What are some of the relevant steps to understanding context? First of all, pay attention to timing. Is there enough time to cover what you are trying to say? Is it the right time to talk to the boss about a raise? What about the location? Should your conversation take place in the elevator, over email, in a chat room? Is everyone in the conversation involved for the same reason?

Sometimes we have misconceptions about what is going on in a group situation. Perhaps we think that everyone there knows what we are talking about. Or we think we know everyone’s opinions on an issue or situation. Or we come into the conversation already thinking we are right and they are wrong. Communication in these instances can go very wrong. Why? We aren’t listening or even preparing ourselves adequately for the conversation we hope to have. So often we are only concerned about what we have to say to an individual or a group and we don’t step back long enough to reflect on what our message might mean to them. We seem to not care about how the message will be received and are often surprised by how poorly the communication actually went. Why? Because we didn’t step back and think, “Hmmmm, my aunt is a really religious person and would probably be offended by a conversation about sexual intimacy.” Or, “My father is having a bit of financial trouble, and this might not be the right time to bring up money I need for a new car.”


Image representing communication.
“Communication” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by P Shanks

Do I Use an Altered Style of Talking When I’m With Different People?

There are so many instances in our lives when we focus on our needs first and blurt out what we are thinking, leading to some critical misunderstandings. It is really important not only to be concerned about our need to communicate, but to take into consideration with whom we are communicating, when and where we are communicating, and how we are going to do so in a positive way. First, you should step back and think about what you want to say and why. Then reflect on with whom you are attempting to communicate.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence — or recognizing your own emotions and those of others — will help you avoid miscommunication as well. When you are aware of your own emotional state and you have the skills to address and adjust, your communication with others will improve. You’re less likely to blurt out an angry retort to a perceived criticism, for example. You’re also better able to manage communication when you recognize someone else’s emotions as well. A conversation can veer into hostile territory if someone feels attacked, or perhaps simply because they’ve had an emotional experience related to the conversation that you don’t understand. Taking note of other people’s emotional responses during a conversation and listening and speaking with empathy will help you manage the situation.

When conversations begin to feel heated, it’s a good idea to pause and ask yourself why. If it’s you who is feeling defensive and angry, make an effort to recognize the source of your frustration and try to take a step back, perhaps leaving the conversation until you’re better able to control your emotions and communicate in a way that’s more clearheaded and calm. If it’s someone else who’s emotional, again, ask yourself why. Can you see reasons that this person may feel attacked, belittled, or usurped? If you can recognize their emotion and address it, you may be able to get the communication back on solid footing.

Listening Is A Communication Action

Our communication includes both sending and receiving messages. Unfortunately, we often don’t take the time to focus on the latter part. Often we are already thinking about what we are going to say next and not listening to what is being said to us. This lack of focus occurs in intense, oppositional discussions, but it can also be common in one-on-one conversations and when someone is confiding in us. When we listen, we need to embrace the concept of empathy, meaning you understand what a person might be feeling, and understand why that person’s actions made sense to them at the time. This way our ideas can be communicated in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps us understand others when they communicate with us. Even though it is silent, listening is communication. We can often “hear” what is being said but don’t really listen well enough to discern what is meant by the person trying to communicate with us. In order to listen effectively, we should consider it an active process, in the same way we think about speaking or messaging.

So what does active listening entail? There are some strategies you can use to help you become a good listener. First of all, stop talking. You can’t listen if you are talking. Secondly, turn off the television, put your phone in your pocket, silence the music and, if needed, go somewhere quiet so you can actually focus on what is being said. Next, have empathy for the person talking to you. In other words, don’t begin thinking of ways to answer. Even if someone has a problem (with you or something else), avoid trying to immediately solve it; consider whether the person speaking to you really wants advice or action, or might simply want to be seen and heard. Finally, before you say anything as a reply, repeat what you heard so the other person can confirm that you heard them correctly. You would be amazed at how well these strategies work to help avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

Think of what context and what communication tool you would consider in the following situations:

  • You need to let your instructor know you won’t be able to hand in your assignment on time. What will you say, when and where will you say it, and what form of communication will you use and why?
  • Your roommate wants to have friends over for a party and you aren’t sure you are up for that. What and how do you tell your roommate?
  • The weekend is full of activities, but you are expected home for a family gathering. How do you let your parents know you aren’t coming?

As said earlier, emotions are frequently involved in communication. It might seem like it would be easier if everything was logical and everyone was always coming from a place of no emotion. But that’s not how it works in most instances. People have opinions, needs, desires, and outcomes they are looking for; feelings that can be hurt; and differing attitudes. What is important is that we need to be aware of our own emotions, and those of others, when attempting to communicate. Consider other people’s feelings as well as your own. Have empathy. And in the midst of trying to do that, listen, don’t just hear!


Woman listening.
“Listening” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Chris (a.k.a. MoiVous)

Barriers to Effective Communication

Meredith and Anvi are working together on a project on marketing for a communications class: Anvi will create content for a flier, and Meredith will determine the best platform for advertising. In their brainstorming session the two realized they had some outstanding questions about how much content the flier should contain and whether they needed to turn in additional documentation. Meredith left it to Anvi to clarify this since the content of the flier was her responsibility. Meredith waited impatiently the entire class session for Anvi to ask about the assignment. With class time almost up, Meredith spoke up, telling the instructor in front of the class that Anvi had a question about the assignment.

Anvi clarified the assignment with the instructor, but when Meredith tried to find her after class to talk about next steps, Anvi had gone. Meredith was surprised to receive an angry text from Anvi soon after class accusing Meredith of embarrassing her. Anvi pointed out that she’d managed to complete every assignment so far in the course and she didn’t need Meredith to take over on this one.

Communication can go awry for a number of reasons. One could use jargon or technical language that is unfamiliar. There can be differences in the perception of an issue. People may speak different languages, or the colloquialisms that one uses don’t make sense to everyone. As in the case with Meredith and Anvi, cultural considerations can also affect the way people communicate. Anvi, for instance, prefers not to speak to the instructor during class because she feels that she’s interrupting. She prefers to approach the instructor after class time is over. Meredith, on the other hand, usually has a task list she likes to tick off one by one to make sure everything is moving on time, and she can sometimes become insensitive to the communication styles of others.

Some barriers are likely to be emotional, often caused by topics that are sometimes considered problematic, such as sex, politics, or religion, which can interfere with effective communication. Sometimes what you are trying to communicate is embarrassing or otherwise a bit personal, and you kind of skirt around the edges of really saying what you want to say. Other emotions, such as stress, anger, depression, sadness, and the like can have an effect on how well you communicate with another person, or they with you. Physical disabilities, such as hearing loss, can also come into play and get add challenges to successful communication.

Some of our behaviour and communication is based on previous encounters, and we don’t see past that and start fresh. Sometimes the barrier can be a lack of interest or attention on the part of the receiver. There are also expectations about what might be said or stereotyping on the part of the sender or the receiver. Often when we communicate with people we have preconceptions about who they are, what they are thinking, and how they will react to whatever we say. These preconceptions can get in the way of productive communication. A person could have an attitude that comes with whatever is being said or written. Or perhaps there is a lack of motivation to clarify what you want to communicate, and the end result is not what you were hoping for.

Image representing a barrier.
Barrier by Scarlett Mckay from Noun Project

Preconceptions and Assumptions

Have you ever thought about the message you are conveying to others? If you were standing on the street corner, what would others see? How do you play into others’ preconceptions simply based on your appearance? Of course, you should be yourself, but certain environments or situations require us to consider and, perhaps, change our appearance. Wearing a t-shirt with a sports team’s logo may be appropriate when you’re at home or out with friends, but you wouldn’t wear it to a job interview. College presents us with many situations where people’s preconceived notions of our appearance may come into play. For example, while it might not be fair, faculty may have a certain perception of students who attend lecture or office hours in pajamas. Consider the implications of sitting in your instructor’s office, asking for help, when they think you haven’t changed your clothes since you woke up. You are absolutely free to express yourself in a certain manner, but your appearance may miscommunicate your motivation or intent.

Recognizing how our own preconceptions come into play, and acknowledging those of others, generally leads to more effective interactions. One of the biggest changes about the way we interact is the vast number of people available with whom we can communicate. This is a wonderful thing as we get to meet many people from diverse places. It can also be challenging because we are not always prepared to communicate with people from varying cultures, genders, ages, or religious and political views. Sometimes a simple lack of familiarity can lead to errors or even offense.


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