EDITOR’S NOTE: Being a good parent at times takes superhero skills. To help you develop your own, “The Relational Book for Parenting” authors Saliha Bava and Mark Greene offer advice. Go here to read more in this exclusive periodic series for City Dads Group.
Want your partner or child to really feel seen and heard? Then learn to be aware of and consider context during your interactions. This is a relationship super power.
From the Latin contextus, context means “weave together.” Context can come from an obvious big life event, such as an illness or a new baby, but it is also operates implicitly and as a subtext. This includes the emotional, familial, social, cultural, historical, situational, geographical and more — all that “background stuff” that contributes to who and what we are. It has a direct influence on what we are feeling and how we choose to interact with others. Think of context not only as present events affecting our tone, mood, level of energy and more but also as the histories we have individually and with others. These all impact the meaning of what we are experiencing.
Relationship Super Power #3:
In relationships, we are also constantly creating micro contexts as well. Every interaction presents the opportunity to create positive or negative shifts in our relationships. By staying mindful of this power we posses in our moment to moment dealings with others, we make better decisions and create stronger bonds. That is the magic of this superpower!
To be aware of context, we need to consider how the multitude of events and experiences we encounter every day intersect — whether it’s our child’s interactions at school or our spouse’s at the office. This makes for a cycle of meaning by which context defines our goals or actions, which in turn, redefine context and so on.
Author and consultant Harlene Anderson talks about context this way: Imagine someone arriving home from work (or if it’s a child, home from school). The first thing the person says when walking in the door is that he or she is having a problem with a co-worker. In this moment, a range of contexts will impact how that is received. Does the person typically take a moment to reconnect with you upon arriving home before discussing an issue? On that particular day is the person dealing with his or her own stressful situation? How often has the person discussed this issue in the past?
What if the person comes in the door and instead says, “May I tell you about this work thing that’s really weighing on me?” In that moment, the person has acknowledged a range of contextual issues and seeks permission to proceed. The resulting conversation has the potential to shift to something more positive by acknowledging that this requires some energy of our partner. Seeking permission is just one way of acknowledging the role of context in relationships. There are many others.
Never too young to learn about context
We can introduce the idea of context to very young children though the questions we ask. For example:
- “How do you think they settle arguments at Johnny’s house?”
- “Do you think maybe Daddy is tired from working in the yard?”
When we pose these kinds of questions, we help children understand that other issues besides their choices impact how things turn out. Eventually, they can learn to consider context in how they choose to interact.
By being mindful of contexts, you and your children can learn to examine and shift the stories and ideas we carry. The family conversations that take place in that process empower our abilities as creators of our own context. We can more mindfully design what is driving our view of the emotional, familial, social, cultural, historical, situational, and geographical elements that inform our lives.
Practices for considering context
- Tracking: Tracking context is a practice in mindfulness of oneself. In a conversation, ask yourself:
- “What context am I focused on?”
- “Which context am I avoiding or not taking into consideration?”
- “What is my child’s or partner’s angle or context?”
- Indicators: Openly acknowledge new directions in your discussion. Say “I’m changing the conversation” or ask to introduce another element. Like a driver changing lanes, these are your turn signals. It helps us to be accountable in a relationship while giving us pause and a moment of mindfulness.
- Name and focus: When a conversation veers into multiple directions, say aloud, “OK, we are all talking about different things. What all are we talking about? Which one of these should we pick?” Issues are often interconnected, but it helps to step back and see whether we might be over coupling things. This is especially helpful when you are in the midst of a challenging conversation. It’s harder to start acknowledging context in the midst of a serious argument but with practice one can do it even then.
- Avoid dismissing the context of others: We might be dismissive of a partner’s or child’s opinion or issue based on something we think we know about their context. Rather than dismissing their opinion based on a presumption, it is time to get curious. Like in yoga, concentrate on your breath and ask a question to help change your viewpoint. Turn your attention to genuine curiosity. Ask something like, “I’m having a hard time seeing how you are seeing it. Can you help me understand how you are looking at it?”
In the comments below, please do share your practices for:
- How do you stay mindful of contexts?
- How do you make context explicit in your conversations?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Saliha Bava, PhD, is a couples and family therapist who you can follow on Twitter @ThinkPlay. Mark Greene is senior editor of The Good Men Project who you can follow on Twitter @Remakingmanhood. Their book on growing our families’ relationship capacities, The Relational Book for Parenting, is available on Amazon.
See their introductory video at http://ThinkPlayPartners.com.
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