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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

Context is Key (Part Three): The Art and Science of Giving and Receiving Context

If you’ve been following along, you know that we’ve learned about the power of “context clues” and how our neurobiological states (aka, the ebbs and flows of our nervous systems) are informed and impacted by the contextual information our bodies and brains receive. First, we reviewed how having accurate context clues can profoundly impact (for better or worse) our wellbeing, relationships, and overall experience in the world. Second, we looked at some of the neuroscientific principles behind this reality, in order to help better understand the underlying processes at play when we receive, perceive, and react to contextual information.

Today, we’ll dive into some practical ways to implement these principles into our everyday interactions and relationships. To flesh out this concept further, it’s been helpful for me to break these principles down into the various ways we both give and receive context in relationships.

Let’s do this, shall we?

Offering Context to Others (For Their Benefit)

One of the #1 principles in any trauma-informed approach, is facilitating a sense of safety by “overly”-communicating what you are doing before and as you do it. For example, if you’ve ever found yourself in the not-so-pleasant situation of receiving medical care, such as preparation for a blood draw, MRI, or surgery, ideally the provider assisting you will explain exactly what they are doing before they do it: “First I am going to do an alcohol swab, then I will insert the needle, etc.” And so on and so forth. While this does not ameliorate the unpleasant nature of the procedure, at least you know what in the world is happening.

Similarly, I have learned- through both training and experience- how critical it is for me to offer context in my clinical work as a trauma therapist. Although all humans benefit from the power of context clues, those of us who have experienced significant trauma or relational harm greatly benefit from clarity and predictability (as a large part of trauma is disorientation and unpredictability). Here’s another series of examples I’ve used in practice:

  • Explicitly telling clients before I move my body in a significant way (i.e., if I need to get up to adjust the sound machine, going to grab a tool or art therapy supply, needing to grab a tissue, etc.)

  • Explaining any peculiar happenings around the building that day (my office is based out of a church, so there are often special events or different people around the building, whether that’s due to an art show, ministry-specific event, or a community-run event).

  • Clearly describing the steps of any intervention of exercise we do in session (i.e. whether that’s a guided mindfulness exercise, creating a family genogram, or engaging in a more experiential technique).

In short, offering others context can help down-regulate their nervous systems, because then their bodies and brains do not have to expend precious energy trying to figure out what to anticipate, and instead can focus on the actual task and experience at hand.

Providing Your Context to Others (For Your Benefit)

Although this might appear to be the exact same principle as described above, providing your context to others for primarily your sake, is another way we can practically apply this concept. From this perspective, providing details of your context to other people can help you feel more understood and can empower you to advocate for your needs.

Here’s some more concrete examples of this category:

  • Deciding to disclose to someone how you’re emotionally arriving to a particular event:

    • “Last night was a really challenging and sleepless night with the kids, so I am not feeling as mentally sharp as I’d like to be for today’s meeting.”

    • “I wanted to come and celebrate because I value your friendship, but the holidays are a really hard season for me due to my history of grief and loss, so if I’m not overly cheerful, that’s why.”

  • Giving further context behind a boundary you set:

    • “I need to leave early from [x,y,z], as I need to prioritize resting my body today.”

    • “I appreciate being asked to help in this way, but I do not have the capacity to support you in this request at this time nor in the foreseeable future.”

  • Providing an explanation- not an excuse- to a way you reacted:

    • “I am sorry I snapped at you. You did nothing wrong. I had a really stressful day at work and wrongly took it out on you.”

    • “I am not overreacting. My thoughts and perspective about [x,y,z] are informed by [specific life experience].”

    • “I am really anxious about receiving my upcoming medical test results and am having a hard time focusing on our conversation. I am sorry.”

**Disclaimer. Let me be clear: you do not need to justify or have an explanation for your experience, reaction, or emotional response in order for it to be “real” or “valid.” Sometimes, we don’t have conscious awareness or access to our own contextual information that informs our experiences: that’s ok. This principle more so applies to when you already have awareness over particular pieces of your story and the “whys” behind your “what.”

Furthermore, you do not owe anyone any sort of context or explanation. This principle applies when you so choose to share and disclose your experience to others, not if/when you are feeling forced to “defend” or “explain” yourself. Capisce?

Asking Others for Their Context

Just as others are not entitled to know your context, you are not entitled to know other people’s context. However, if done from a place of genuine love, curiosity, and empathy it is both permitted and encouraged to invite someone to further share their experience. Examples of this might look like:

  • “I’ve noticed you have been struggling to arrive on time to work over the past several weeks- is there anything that would be helpful for me to know in order to best support you as your manager?”

  • “We seem to be having a hard time connecting tonight- is there something we need to talk about or something we need to do differently tonight?”

  • “When you do [x,y,z], I feel [x,y,z]. Can you help me understand what that means for you so I can better grasp where you’re coming from?”

Engaging in compassionate and curious inquiry- rather than reactively questioning or responding- allows you to have more insight into the other person’s frame of reference. Ideally, this promotes empathy, understanding, and safety within the relationship.

Receiving Others’ Context

Finally, there are times when we get the honor of receiving someone else’s story or context that they choose to self-disclose. Whether it’s an example from one of the categories above, going on a first date, having a friend share aspects of their trauma history, listening to the details of your spouse’s day, etc., we can sometimes feel uncertain as to how we should “best” respond.

Although this is by no means the “magical steps to respond perfectly” (any one of my clients would be able to share with you my soapbox rant regarding the danger of promoting easy, quick fixes that will supposedly “cure” and “heal” you in no time), the following are helpful postures to take when find ourselves in the privileged position of receiving someone’s vulnerable act of sharing a piece of their story (and by extension- their self) with us:

  • Listen. Like, actually listen. Don’t just nod your head while you wait for them to finish so you can jump in with your thoughts or feedback: really listen. True listening involves setting aside our agenda and invites us instead to fully receive what the other person has to say.

  • Pause before responding. You don’t have to stay silent forever (*I promise*); however, we often jump too quickly into answers, solutions, or even sympathies, rather than allowing the content and moment to first sink in. Some of the best “verbal responses” I have received have been wordless moments of pause, where I’ve sensed that the other individual has truly grasped the gravity of what I just shared.

  • Engage with genuine curiosity. Curiosity doesn’t seek to solve problems or offer solutions, but rather it seeks to genuinely know and understand. If it does feel appropriate to ask for clarifying information or further context, do so from a place of wanting to understand the other person’s situation better, rather than trying to prove your own point. (If it feels impossible to do this, maybe the silence might actually be more therapeutic for everyone).

  • Limit making comparisons. It is 100% natural for human beings to attempt to connect with other people by talking about ourselves and our own experiences. Heck, our own life is the thing that we often know the most intimately, and therefore is often our go-to reference point when we encounter similar and contrasting experiences. But rather than employing your own understanding by saying things like “I know exactly how you feel” or “I’ve been in your same shoes,” it is much more powerful to admit our ignorance and lack of understanding while still proclaiming our desire to be with the other person:

    • “I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I am here with you still.”

    • “I know won’t pretend to know your experience; I do know that I will continue to support you.”

    • “While I haven’t experienced this personally, I can imagine how challenging this is for you. I am so sorry you have to endure this.”

Final Things to Consider…

Number One: As a reminder, you are not God. Meaning, you will mess this up! I can attest to the ways that I fail daily at both giving and receiving context in relationship with others- and “supposedly” I should have it all together as a licensed professional counselor who equips others with these same skills, right?

Wrong. I am just as human as the rest of you, and thank God for that. Rather than feeling pressured to ask/say/do things perfectly, we are granted the permission to be human AND to continue to earnestly seek growth in all aspects of who we are and how we relate.

So pause, breathe, and remember that you do not have to be perfect, because the God of the Universe has been, is, and will continue to be, and does not hold that expectation of you.

Number Two: If you’d like to take this exploration a bit further, here are some additional questions to consider:

1) What are some ways that I can practically offer context clues to people I regularly encounter? My family? Roommates? Co-workers?

2) What might inhibit me from freely sharing my context with others? Lack of felt safety in the relationship? Shame? Feeling unable to articulate my experience? How might I already do this well?

3) What hinders me from asking others about their context out of a place of curiosity vs out of reactivity?

4) How might I be able to practice the power of “pausing” before responding?

(If you'd like to process these or other things further within the safety of a counseling relationship, you can click here to directly schedule an initial consultation to see if you'd like to pursue work together.)

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