“Context is Decisive.” —Werner Erhard

The single most powerful and universally applicable tool for creating the kind of relationships, connections, and experiences you want to have with others is Setting Context. Doing this effectively is crucial—from creating more rewarding moments, to having greater influence, to being a more effective leader. It is also a skill that can be learned and improved over time. Read on and I’ll tell you how.

What’s Your Context?

Consider the context you are in right now. You’re reading, which means you’ve learned to read English from some background that made this possible for you. Are you reading this on paper? Or on a screen? Either way, some technological infrastructure makes this possible. What country are you in? What city? Are you alone, or are others in your immediate space right now? Standing? Sitting? Day? Night?

Are you reading this on the IntegralCenter.org website? If so, what led you to this page? Perhaps a social media link, a web search, or an email link. Maybe you’re in a training that includes this as its curriculum.

Notice what it is like to simply put your attention on all the layers and aspects of the context you are in right now. Is this hard or easy? Do you feel intrigued or bored? Do you feel more free or more limited? Do you sense more options or fewer? Do you like or dislike noticing all this?

What is Context?

All things in time and space exist within a context. This includes our thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. Context is ever-present and multi-layered. Context is made of many components— environment, history, causes, conditions, decisions, agreements, as well as many other forces and factors. These components are what give shape and structure to context. Context influences our focus and attention. Context brings some things to the foreground while others things to the background. Some possibilities become more likely, while others, less likely.

The context of any situation is often implicit—unspoken, in the background. Or it can be explicit—spoken out in the open. Either way, it’s always there. Within our human experience, we experience many overlapping contexts—gender, race, culture, identity, language, educational background, geographical location, income level, place of employment, profession, a TV show we like, a game we like to play, a hobby or interest we share, and so on. When these contexts remain implicit, they shape our experience in the background, mostly unconsciously. As you develop more awareness of context, you’ll sense more possibilities, and become increasingly adept at engaging it to create more of what you want, more often.

How do you Set Context?

There are two ways to actively engage with the contexts that are shaping our relational experiences. Each one is significant and essential. And, they are both interconnected and support each other.

The first way is to notice and identify one or more aspects of any implicit, unstated context and make it explicit by stating it openly. By stating something, we can create more options for how to relate with it.

For example…

  • “It seems like you’ve got some recommendations you’d like me to hear…”
  • “I’m noticing we’re the +1’s at this company holiday party…”
  • “I think I’ve been trying to impress you throughout this entire conversation so far…”
  • “Up until now, it seems we’ve been interacting only as teacher and student…”

The second way is to set an explicit context in order to create a new experience and enroll others into it with you. This is something that you’ve probably already been doing, and you just might know it yet. Essentially, setting context is creating an invitation to the kind of interaction and experience you want to have with one or more other people.

Here are the ingredients—

  • What are we going to do?
    …a short descriptive headline
  • Why are we going to do it?
    …what’s in it for you and for them!
  • How are we going to do it?
    …a process, a plan, a structure, a script, or the “rules of the game”
  • Who is going to do what?
    …the roles each person would be taking on
  • Where is this going to take place?
    …right here or someplace else? Or limited to specific locations?
  • When, and for how long, will this be taking place?
    …start/end times, duration (e.g. minutes? hours? days? weeks? months? Years?)
    …triggering conditions so that, when they happen, they invoke certain actions?
    …conditions for completion—what does “done” look like? how will we know?
  • Buy-in
    …negotiating consent and agreement, discussing options when needed

When you’ve clarified these ingredients for yourself, conveyed them with clarity, and gotten buy-in, you’ve succeeded at Setting Context! It’s as if we’ve sat down to play a board game together, read and understood the rules printed on the inside of the box lid, and now it’s game time! To illustrate, here’s a short and simple example—

“Hey gang! I’ve got something I’d like to do so we can all get to know each other a little better. I’d like each of us to complete the sentence stem ‘One of my favorite childhood experiences from this time of year is…’ You game?”

What If It’s Not Working?

Sometimes, a situation is unfolding differently in some way other than what you were expecting, even at times when you’ve successfully set context. Perhaps tensions are rising, conflict is breaking out, or maybe things just feel a little bit off track—flat, uneven, weird, confusing, etc. In these cases, it can be very useful to consider which components of context might be missing, unclear, misunderstood, or left implicit. Then see if you can create a new one—more clearly, more precisely, or more intentionally and mutually agreed upon.

Here are some key questions to ask when considering how to work with clarifying context.

  • “What might be a significant, relevant, implicit context that hasn’t been spoken openly?”
  • “Is there a component missing in this current context—what? why? how? who? where? when?”
  • “Does everyone here seem to understand the current context accurately, including myself?”
  • “Does everyone seem ‘bought-in’ to what is happening here? If not, what might that take?”

Don’t worry too much about nailing context just right the first time or every time. It’s unlikely you’ll get buy-in right off the bat on your first pass at making a proposal. Even when you do, and you get into a context you’ve set up, things might go differently than you thought they would anyway. You can revisit context at any time during an interaction or ongoing relationship. Remember: Context is always present and you’re already participating within it in some way and in determining, at least in part, the shape and structure of it. So returning to it over and over again is just a natural and expected part of the process.

“You aren’t going to get it right. We are infants at creating context, and infants don’t get it right. You have it wrong to start with, and it’s only out of having it wrong that we come to know it and to master it.” —Werner Erhard

How Will I Know I’m Getting the Hang of It?

You can think of Setting Context as both a relational art as well as a technology. With time, you’ll hone your technique and develop your intuitions of how to do this with greater skill, ease, and enjoyment. Two key signs you’re well on your way are (a) when you notice the degree to which you are sensing and tracking multiple layers of context present in any moment, and (b) the ease with which you can return to Setting Context at any moment to negotiate adjustments and clarifications. These signs indicate your progress towards mastering this vital skill.


Michael Porcelli is committed to people cultivating more realness in their relationships both personally and professionally. He’s played a key role developing a world-class team of facilitators and Course Leaders with The Integral Center and AuthenticWorld. Whether it’s taking people into deep interpersonal encounters in the moment, crafting a training curriculum, or facilitating a fast-paced business meeting, you’ll find him friendly, down-to-earth, and probably ready geek-out at the drop of a hat.