This morning, inside the locker room at the gym, I had an odd experience.

I was walking to the shower, wearing only a towel, when I passed a fully dressed man I’d never seen before who seemed headed to the exit. He looked me in the eyes, smiled big and said, “Jesus loves you! Repent and be saved.” And then he left.

I think he hoped that I would consider his religious message and possibly convert right then and there – but all I was left thinking was:

What about my mostly unclothed body screams, “This guy needs a savior!”?

Often when thinking about communicating with others, the focus is on the message. WHAT should be said? But it is important to note that properly communicating isn’t a solo. Best results come from a duet – between the right words and the right setting.

Context is key.

Imagine the exact same situation mentioned above – but change the setting to a street corner outside a church.

Suddenly, the plea for conversion to Christianity cognitively connects with location – and who needs Jesus more than a random skinny guy who is walking around downtown in a towel?

Raising kids is a constant battle with conveying context. After a hectic afternoon last weekend, my wife put a simmering bowl of soup in front of my 6-year-old. It had been a long day with lots of things to accomplish and people to see. On days like that, we often don’t find the time to cook at home. But with extra love and effort, here was a steaming serving of something warm and delicious being set in front of my son. His reaction?

“Wow. That looks like throw-up.”

He was shocked by the reaction he received. (Let’s just say it wasn’t mild.) He really thought that he was just stating a fact. He had not taken into account anything about what it took to make that soup appear on the table. A thought that might have been funny in another place (and in reference to a different chef) put him in his bedroom for a few minutes of reflection instead of at the dinner table with the rest of the family.

Sure – you may be laughing at these stories. But how often do we talk to others with a self-centeredness that fails to consider the setting?

We get so caught up in what we want to say – how important we think it is – that we don’t collect the rest of the ingredients we need for the conversational recipe.

Here are a few things to consider before launching into what you have on your mind:

  1. Is this place a good place to talk? – My kids often get their most talkative while we are getting into a car. But with door shutting and seat buckling, engine turning and trying to get down the driveway, my attention is elsewhere. I often remind them to wait until we are on the road if they want a real response from me.
  2. Who else is onstage? (or waiting in the wings) – Think about who might overhear what you have to say. Even if it is a seemingly harmless observation, the message or reaction could be dulled if the wrong people are around.
  3. Are there “squirrels” present? – We live in an age of overstimulation. Noise, technology, other people, even bright colors can be distractions. If the chat needs to get serious, think about finding a familiar and comfortable place without a lot of other things that might steal attention.
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