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The Importance of Context. Period.

(Context is the general that lends meaning to the specific.)

Sound bites. Headline grabbers. Head-turning quotes. All in the hope that the content goes viral. This is what drives today’s “news”.

While these dramatic, if not misleading headlines might pull eyeballs, turn ears and gain air time with their shock value, they do a huge disservice to those of us trying to find news where we can get facts, figures, as well as interpretation and analysis by an ‘expert’ in the field. [Of course many of us know enough to understand that bias always plays a role, and you must always consider the source…as discussed in my previous article about bias and fact vs. fiction].

In a day and age where Russian bots influence what’s trending, spin gets typed up in 280 characters or less, and the term ‘fake news’ is bandied about when someone doesn’t like what they are hearing, it is refreshing to see reporting that is grounded in fact, understands historical context, and attempts to acknowledge the culture.

The Importance of Context in Foreign Affairs

In “A Word From Henry Kissinger,” an article published in the February 6, 2018 print edition of the Wall Street Journal, author Walter Russell Mead discusses his new role as the Journal’s Global View columnist.

When Mead originally accepted the Global View position, he sought out advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and equated it to visiting the Oracle at Delphi.  The response he got from Kissinger was short, sweet and simple:

My request for advice as a new columnist did not even merit a sentence; Mr. Kissinger had only a word for me. What a column on international affairs should seek to provide, he said, is “context.” – Walter Russell Mead (@wrmead)

Reporting on foreign affairs can be nuanced work of course, and it requires an audience that is willing to take time to read an article, not just glance at a headline or someone’s interpretation of that headline. This brilliant advice from Kissinger to Mead is usable for all of us, whether we are writing about the news, leading a company through a transformation, or deciding which news sources to read and trust.

When Mr. Kissinger advises a columnist to focus on “context,” he is suggesting that there is value in helping readers to appreciate the kaleidoscopic variety and sometimes dizzying complexity of the forces at work on the international scene, and in explaining how those forces interact with American politics. – Walter Russell Mead (@wrmead)

Why Highlight the Importance of Context?

When we read, we must ask the right questions that reveal context (and look for reporters and pundits that do this as well). I also call this getting to the why behind the what. We would all do well to seek to understand the context (historical, cultural, or otherwise) that helps us digest something that goes against our own way of thinking.

The Importance of Context

The Importance of Context in Connecting the Meaning

Here are some examples of how the right context can help all of us tap into the inextricably linked and unchanging process — meaning / connection / behavior  —that compels all of us to strive for a higher meaning in our work and in our relationships.

  • At a time when many people cling to stories and narratives that align only with their own views, it is critical to strive to understand the context of the global news flashing across our devices every day.
  • At a time when companies must innovate or fail, it is critical for leaders to frame the context to help drive change within an organization.
  • At a time when division and labeling win out over dialogue and civil discourse, it is critical to seek a common foundational context for productive discussion.

This has been the core of my work for twenty years. As an extension and continuation of that work, I’m proud to announce that the editorial board of the Psychoanalytic Inquiry Journal has asked me to guest edit an upcoming edition. I am humbled and honored to work with this journal, which accepts contributions from both analysts and non-analysts, weighing in on my theories on the topic of narrative as they play out for individuals and organizations alike.

In all of my work, I will continue to refrain from political punditry in an effort to cut through the cacophony, with contextual clarity. And in the interest of maintaining the proper context, I recommend you read the full article, “A Word from Henry Kissinger”.

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© Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership. Reprints available with permission.

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