Context Changes Everything

The lesson of power of context keeps coming back to me.  One of my first experiences in seeing how context can change everything came when living in Charlotte, right after I got my first car with a key fob that unlocked my car.  (Ok, this was a long time ago!)  I asked my husband “Is it possible for someone else’s key fob to open my car?”  His answer was that is was possible but not likely.  Still, I wondered.  Then a few days later, I was shopping near an Old Navy, and popped open my presumably empty trunk to load my purchases.  What I saw hit me in the gut:  A stack of clothing with a receipt on top.  The kicker?  It was an Old Navy receipt.  What the heck?  I turned around and saw the Old Navy store, and immediately KNEW that someone had just left them in my car. Trying to be a good citizen while being thoroughly freaked out, I took the clothes back in the store, explaining that someone had accidentally locked them in my car, and would be back looking for them.  Weird, we all thought, but they must have a similar key fob.

A few days later, one of my neighbors called to say thank you for taking her to get her daughter after a fender bender.  Then she said:  “By the way, I left some clothes we were planning to return to Old Navy in your trunk.  Can I come by to get them?”  Imagine how difficult it was to explain to her that those clothes HAD been returned – but just not in a convenient way for her.  Well, dang.  Seems context and fear got all crossed up and what looked like a good citizen move was my fear brain making up stories.

Never again, I said.  From now on, I will Check. It. Out.

Immediately I applied this learning to a corporate situation.  At the time, I had a national role with a large bank in training new college graduates to be bankers.  Recognizing that one of their most important skills would be evaluating the health of a business from the financial statements, we were always on the search for good ways to help them be better in accounting.  We found a one-day program that simplified things by having them run a lemonade stand like a kid.  It was a fun and engaging program that taught big lessons in an appealing way.  Or so we thought.  The first time we ran it, we simply informed the 120 students what time and where to be for their Friday session.

When they came back on Monday for their next level accounting intensive, our team was expecting a big thank you for giving them such a fun and informative day of non-boring accounting lessons.  What we got instead were offended, angry and insulted future bankers.  Huh?  When our team debriefed after hearing from the students, we realized that we had given NO context for WHY they going to a program that treated them like kids.  We had used the “just the facts” approach and it bombed.

A few weeks later, the second group of trainees came through and we applied what we had learned.  In addition to the what, where and when for the accounting program, we said this:  “One of your most important roles as a banker will be in learning to be insightful in your analysis of your client’s financial statements.  We know you have all had accounting, so this is nothing new.  However, we are going to be moving very quickly and deeply into some complicated aspects of reading financial statements.  So, as a fun way to dust off your accounting skills, we are giving you a fun way to refresh your memory with a game.”

This time was different.  On Monday, they came back full of excitement and gratitude for a useful day.  The only difference was in the how we described the program.  We set the context differently, and they responded in ways that helped them for the rest of their twelve-week program.  Aha, I thought, I have mastered context.  And for many years, I carried that belief.

Then came the turtle incident.  Or maybe you would call it a ski incident.  For most of that summer, we had seen a large painted turtle sitting on a log near where we drop to rest and shorten the rope.  We had even named him.  One day, my husband was driving, and I dropped in the water, noticing that the turtle wasn’t there.  (And wondered exactly where was he?  If not on the log, was he somewhere under me?)  As I pushed my back foot into the toe piece, I heard a click.  “Well there you are, Mr. Lucky!” thinking that he must have surfaced and his shell hit my ski.  So I said “hit it” pretty quickly because, even though I like turtles, I didn’t really want to sit near a big one in the water.

As I crossed the first wake, I took one of my biggest crashes ever.  While I was not injured, it certainly shook me up enough to not ski again that day.  The next day, we visited another lake to ski.  As I got in the water and pushed my back foot into the toe piece, I heard the same click as the day before.  My first thought was “What?  They have turtles too?”  Thanks to the context, I immediately realized what a stupid thought.  My front foot had unclipped from the release.

All of the sudden, the events of the day before made sense.  This was not a turtle incident.  This was a ski incident.  My crash was directly attributable to having my ski unclipped from the boot. It was preventable, but I missed critical data because I over relied on the context of the situation without thinking things through.  Instead of being curious about what else could have made a click, once again my fear and context got all crossed up. My brain took a shortcut, and without me being mindful to override the lazy conclusion, I took an unnecessary fall. Replacing a worn out release solved the problem. Wish I had been more curious before the bad fall!

Where do we let context create conclusions that are not useful?  In what ways does our “lazy brain” take shortcuts that ultimately hurt us?  How can we learn to be mindful in how we set context in our communications?  In what ways can we recognize and learn to see those little fear incidents that are not even real?  What stories are we making up and do we even check them out?

The stories we make up influence our outcomes.  Context shapes our stories – and we can shape context.  All it takes is a moment and the willingness to see it. 

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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email

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