Context, Context, Context!

“An old proverb says: ‘We see people not as they are but as we are’. To which we add: ‘And who we are is shaped by the context in which we exist’. We win first prize when we are able to see, not just the actions of others, but also the context out of which these actions come. We win second prize (and it is not an inconsequential prize) when we know that, for the most part, we don’t”.
Barry Oshry, Seeing Systems

Let this sink in. Do you really see anyone or any situation clearly?

Most of us think we do, but we don’t. We see others through the prism of how we are. And context shapes how we are.

This insight landed with me like a meteorite hitting my personal planet, during the seven-day, 24/7 total immersion Power Lab programme in 2000. Luckily, unlike in the movie Don’t Look Up, I survived the Power Lab.

Observing my behaviour during this programme, people might have asked who is John Watters? Was he the overbearing, distant, aloof, arrogant ‘top’ who showed up in the first five days of the Power Lab? (Note: I was living in the ‘elite/top’ space for the first five days of the programme.) Or was John the sociable, fun, creative ‘bottom/worker’ who showed up in the last couple of days of the programme? (Note: I was moved to the bottom space for the last part of the Lab).

My personality was constant over the week; what changed was the context in which I was living and working. The tricky thing is that we think our experience is the only reality, in the sense that we believe that our experience is solid and tells us who we are and who they are. Yet change your context, or change your relationship to the context you’re in, and most times you will feel and behave differently, and you will look differently to others. Context matters much more than we think, and most of us don’t see context or realise its power!

So, I think our work is twofold:

1. Clean up the lens through which we see. Notice the assumptions, the stories we carry, the stuff that triggers us, all the things that obscure our view of things as they are. Life is a practice and it’s easy to go to sleep on the job. Or is that just my experience? 😉 It requires discipline to stay awake and alert.

2. See the context we and others are in. And learn how context (top, middle, bottom, customer, dominant/ingroup, other/outgroup…) shapes behaviour and consciousness, including our sense of ourselves, others and the whole system.

What are your thoughts about the power of context?

John Watters, Facilitator, Leading Self, Leading Systems programme

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