Why Context Matters

TAGS: iron game, Alexander Cortes, bodybuilding, personal training, sports, athlete, strength training, training

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In the past few years of writing and trying to put forth content for the fitness industry, I've noticed a reoccurring phenomena of reaction that always happens:

  1. You put together something that you think is helpful.
  2. It gets published or shared.
  3. There is criticism that it doesn’t apply to “X” situation and therefore it's wrong.

Now, this isn’t a complaint about “haters” or about people being mean. Rather, it has made me realize how important context is when spreading a message of any kind. It's human nature that people will always misinterpret or take a message out of context. Without context, you'll misunderstand. And while it's easy to say “fuck those people,” it's your responsibility to be clear with your own message and who you are speaking to.

Context — The set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, suggestion etc.

Understanding Context

Going with the dictionary definition above, context in the most basic terms means looking at something with as complete a picture as possible. And that something could be anything.

If I show you a picture of a tree and then say “tell me about this country,” you would think I'm crazy. That single picture of a tree doesn’t tell you anything. It’s a picture of a tree. However, if I show you a picture of a tree; teach you how to identify the shape and structure of the trunk, branches, bark and leaves; and then educate you on the different kinds of trees and how different species grow in different climates, you would be able to answer the question when I ask you, “What can you tell me about the climate this tree grows in?”

And if I then ask “Could you tell me what countries this tree probably doesn't grow in?” you’d perhaps be able to. Provided you know geography. If you don’t, I would have to teach you that as well.

What's your point?

The point is having a complete contextual understanding requires learning and/or communicating a lot of things. It means that you have to answer multiple questions in one question in a manner of speaking. It means communicating with as much clarity as possible so that someone understands the whole of the “picture” that you're describing. And it means that “fitness,” while not a complicated subject perhaps, is a broad one at least. There are many “things” to learn and account for and you can get very deep into it. What does this mean for your message though?

Maple Tree

Relative to Fitness

Humans aren't logical and rationale beings. Most people have never heard of thinking in “context.” The paradigm is an unfamiliar one. So what inevitably happens is that people misinterpret what they read, hear and see and assume that it's “wrong” because they don’t understand the context. Or if it challenges their thinking in some way that they don’t like, they’ll do two things:

  • They’ll seek out the situational exception that it doesn’t apply to (hereby reinforcing that what they think is right).
  • They’ll contradict it on a personal level. This tends to be spiteful (some people are jerks).

So simple advice such as "eating oatmeal is good for your digestion and is a healthy food” gets counteracted with “Well, what if someone is allergic to grains?!” Or “Well, I hate oatmeal. I don’t want to eat it.”

Or something with training such as “speed reps are great for developing explosiveness” gets the response of “But what if someone's a novice lifter?" or “Well, I tried it and it didn’t work.”

How about “Successful bodybuilders usually eat six times daily and train on a split routine.” Common responses include “Well, that isn't practical advice for a working mom!” or "Bodybuilders are all homos.”

I could conceivably go on and on and on with this. None of the above statements are “absolutist” in that they are saying or suggesting, yet people take them that way, and their reaction may have little to nothing to do with the actual statement. What can be done?

Preface and Refine the Message

This isn’t so hard truly. It comes down to being specific with your audience and communicating clearly. This will answer many of the arguments before they happen. The medium doesn’t necessarily matter. Whether it's writing, speaking, a podcast or in a session, the goal is always to be as understandable and clear as possible.

Before I communicate anything professionally, I have a simple checklist of sorts. These aren't literal “check the box” questions, but I’ll at least pause for a half second and consider what I say before I say it. This checklist is the following:

  • What is the subject I'm speaking about?
  • When is the timing of what I'm saying?
  • Where (circumstance) does this apply?
  • Why is this important?
  • Who am I communicating this to?

Now, in many cases, your audience could be your client or your team. You know who you're speaking to. You could already have a running dialogue with them, so it isn't necessary to preface yourself so much. However, when speaking in an educator role to an audience that doesn’t know who you are or what you're about, you must set your topic up in some context.

Maple tree

Here's a working example. It has become appealing for many “fitpros” to want to write articles or start fitness websites. Now, the question of whether this improves your actual craft of training is another article altogether, but I won't discourage anyone from writing. However, the issue that people constantly run into is that they put out a message that’s vague or a cliché and that no one really identifies with. Their message is undefined and no one listens or reads it. This goes back to clarity of communication and the five points I mentioned.

If you don’t quite know who you're speaking to, setting up the what and why and when and how of your message can be difficult. It will often end up being vague or general and it won't resonate. Again, this goes for any medium. Whether it’s a one-on-one interaction, a speech, a presentation or an article, everyone has had the experience of dealing with a boring communicator. If people don’t feel connected with and understood, they will “tune out” readily.

What if I’m fighting with everyone all the time though? If someone is constantly in a position of having to “defend” himself, I question what it is that’s prompting so many people to fight with you in the first place. You might be in the “wrong” on that one. Generally continuous outrage doesn’t beget credibility.

On the Flip Side

What if you're communicating clearly and people persist with being combative for no good reason? Keeping with a theme, I’ll always view criticism in context of whatever I was discussing, meaning I also don't take it personally.

In fact, for this article right now, if I get a comment that says “I didn’t really understand this,” I’ll think about that. I'm assuming the person tried to read it and didn’t understand it, but perhaps I could have explained myself better.

In contrast, if someone tells me, “This is stupid. You suck,” I probably won't care much about that. There’s nothing useful to be had in it. This is what I consider to be the difference between feedback and criticism. Feedback can be negative or positive in tone, but there is something practical that can be taken and applied from it. Criticism for the sake of criticism and personal attack though isn't worth caring about.

The mistake many people make is that they get positive feedback from many people except for maybe one or two or three people. They have to address those people, so they direct their energy into fighting with critics in an attempt to show them that they are “wrong” after being called wrong. And per anyone who has ever gotten into an argument in fitness, no one has ever admitted to being wrong about anything ever in the history of this industry. This goes back to context.

If my goal was to be an educator and I reach 100 people positively, does it matter that five people didn’t like what I had to say? Or 10? Or 20 even? In context of my overall goal, I say no. No, it doesn’t. The ratio of 80/20 rules in action. That 20 percent of people who hate what you have to say aren't always going to be the loudest. And per my past article on the “hater” complex in the industry, it isn't worth spending your time on such people. Focus on the ones who are willing to listen, learn and hopefully pass on what you're trying to teach. And the ones who aren’t? They are wrong, as the interwebz likes to say.

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