Context Matters

Think fast: is “going downhill” a good thing or bad thing?  Well, it’s obviously a good thing at the end of a long hike.  But it’s not so good when you are looking at an important measurement such as the Gross Domestic Product of the United States.

Here’s another one: are you making money or losing money when you lease a car?  Most people think that leasing a car is a terrible idea but you certainly don’t think that way if you are an automobile salesperson.

One more: is it wrong that you resent something?  No one wants to be bitter so you might agree.  On the other hand, I’m sure a client would be very happy to know that you resent the IRA distribution form after the first one went missing.

These examples are all known as contranyms – a single word that has two opposite meetings.  Another example is “dust” which can mean to remove dust such as dusting a piece of furniture.  However, it can also mean to add dust such as when you dust strawberries with sugar.

As you can see, context matters.  If you see someone slumped over in public, what do you think? Is that person drunk or having a heart attack? Will your answer change based on what the person is wearing?  Or the time of the day?

We’ve all heard why it’s a bad idea to assume, but we do it anyway.

So what can financial advisors and financial planners do to gather more context and stop assuming during your conversations?

Start by remembering Stephen R. Covey’s guidance to “seek first to understand, then be understood.”  In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey wrote that we listen autobiographically – that we use our own frame of reference to interpret the world.

Next, slow down and gather the whole story.   This means paying attention to the details.  In his song The Boxer, Paul Simon sang, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”  Don’t grab bits and pieces or presume you know what comes next.

Linguists have a term called garden-path sentences which refer to a grammatically correct sentence that confuses the reader.  The best example of this is, “The old man the boat.”

Did that fool you?  Most people have to read this sentence several times before they understand that “the old” is the subject and “man” is the verb.

Finally, show empathy.  It has been said, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Add a little graciousness into your life and the think the best of others instead of the worst.

I’ll leave you with one final observation from the mind of Stephen Wright, “On the other hand, you have different fingers.”

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