Connections and Context: Supporting the Reading of the Room
When we think about strategies that enable us to successfully move through life, we tend to look beyond ourselves. We make use of tangible external tools that get incorporated into day-to-day routines. We keep a planner of some sort, we make to do lists, we set alarms. All are viable options to help keep us on track and play into those problem-solving skills of executive functions. However, there is one tool that we use regularly that we don’t always acknowledge: context. The unsaid explanation of a situation informs our lived experience. Context is essential as it provides direction in how one may best interpret a situation and impacts decision making. Every moment we encounter and navigate creates a frame of reference for the next. Awareness of context allows us to guide our behavior and generalize what it is that we know.
Though primary used in discourse surrounding Autism, the concept of “context blindness” perfectly encapsulates the experience when someone struggles to read the room. Just as it sounds, context blindness relates to the difficulty with making sense of a situation and determining what should be done to best engage. Metacognitive awareness allows one to pull out familiar features of a situation and respond to them accordingly. Instead of a narrative rooted in failure to meet an expectation, it may be best to consider that one cannot be held accountable for what is not provided. We don’t know what we don’t know so efforts must be placed in trying to find out. In order to evaluate our participation and engage in a given situation, executive functions take the lead. Support in taking stock and making connections is important to aid in ensuring that skill building is generalizable. Having a partner in the process to glean what is unwritten can be helpful when developing situational awareness and combating “blindness”. When taking time to evaluate the whole in terms of its parts, we can find ways to manageably approach nuanced situations.
Here are some strategies to work alongside someone who may be struggling to understand context:
Creating a Language Framework
Being explicit with the language is a strategy to support independence in evaluating situations that can be helpful. As the goal in understanding context is rooted in increased confidence in one’s own competence, crafting a series of questions allow for the concrete gathering of abstract information. When the same language to guide discovery and understanding is used regardless of situation, someone is able to keep these questions in their repertoire and seek out answers on their own. Prompts such as, “What am I seeing?”, “What can I take at face value?”, and “What is the potential hidden meaning behind this?” can become part of the process in reading a situation for context.
Identifying the Pieces
To create a sustainable system to understand context, it is imperative that the answers are not just handed over to someone who is trying to navigate a situation. Drawing attention to the key threads needed to make sense allows for agency and independent problem-solving. The goal of this is to highlight to what is deserving of attention and not necessarily dictate what is missing but instead, guiding the process of collecting all of the clues needed to understand a situation. This gathering of information allows for someone to put the puzzle together with all the pieces in hand.
Reflecting on our Participation
While scouring the setting for context and taking a deep look into what others are contributing, it is important to encourage taking a step back to evaluate how one’s own actions impact the context of a situation. Not every situation is going to be successful. The way one addresses areas in need of fine tuning is important. Maintaining a clear feedback loop is helpful as it allows for the inclusion of all facets of context. All participants play a role in shaping context. Making sure there is clear language used when delivering feedback allows for someone to focus on how their engagement is being received and find ways to make adjustments if needed.
Making it Real
Authentic opportunities to practice allow for increased generalizability and build various frames of reverences. With every lived experience, foundational knowledge is increase as an archive of sorts is created. Contrived situations while helpful focusing on components in isolation, do not aid in fostering adaptability. Frequent chances to engage in a variety of situations allows for the widening of perspective and practice in flexibility. Cataloging responses and behaviors of others mentally helps to be better prepare for future moments and enable comfortability with the unexpected.
Overall, connecting to what one is trying to understand to what they know makes things meaningful. Being coached in making the jump helps an individual become armed with tools to recognize what is familiar and how to apply what is known. Finding ways to increase visibility ultimately allows for feeling capable to tackle context.