Blog | Apr 30, 2016 | 2 Comments

Your Communication Context

Are you a “high-context” or “low-context” communicator? No idea what that means? Read on — I think you’ll find this very interesting.

More wisdom from Eric H. F. Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute.

I’ve had the chance to attend a few workshops about multiculturalism and how to be a more competent leader in a diverse world. My previous blogs [respectful communication guidelines] and [3 things you don’t know about me] drew on the work of Eric H. F. Law, who teaches about diversity and leadership.

Today, I want to introduce you to another concept: high- and low-context communication. Here, Eric uses ideas from Edward T. Hall’s book “Beyond Culture.” This is a summary of the two styles:

A low-context communicator doesn’t take other people and the environment (context) into account very much. Her attitude: “Thanks for coming, now let’s get to work.”

A high-context communicator needs to understand the “lay of the land” and learn more about the people in a group before making a contribution. And she often waits to be invited to participate. Her attitude: “If I don’t know anything about you, I can’t work with you.”

Eric gave us this checklist (with minor edits from me) to help us determine our own style:

Low Context Communication Style

__ Individual-oriented
__ Relies on explicit coding of information being communicated; is less aware of contexts (more emphasis on words and written documents)
__ Uses linear logic
__ Adjusts to new situations quickly
__ Conflict may occur because of violations of individual expectations
__ Deals with conflict by revealing
__ Direct, confrontational attitude
__ Focuses on fact-finding
__ Focuses on action and solution
__ Has open, direct strategies

High Context Communication Style

__ Group-oriented
__ Relies heavily on the physical (shared) context of the transmitter and receiver; very little is in the explicit, transmitted part of the message (more emphasis on non-verbal signals and storytelling)
__ Uses spiral logic
__ Takes time for “contexting” in new situations
__ Conflict may occur because of violations of collective expectations
__ Deals with conflict by concealing
__ Indirect, non-confrontational attitude
__ Cares about “face-saving”
__ Focuses on relationships
__ Has ambiguous, indirect strategies

Based on the number of answers in each column, each person assesses where they are on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being very high context and 6 being very low context. Eric then asks everyone in the room to sort themselves into a horseshoe pattern with the ones and the sixes at each end.

It’s fascinating to see who ends up in which positions. I’ve done this twice now and noticed that more people in leadership positions end up in the 1-3 range. Also, more people of color and people from non-dominant cultures (those who are not White/Western European descent) are in the 4-6 range. More Whites end up in the 1-3 range. (If you’d like to learn more about how culture relates to the concepts of high- and low-context communication styles, consider reading one of Eric’s books.)

How do we bridge the gap between these communication styles?

This takes practice. This takes years. You have to really commit to it. But Eric gave us some basic recommendations:

I surprised myself by ending up in the 4.5 range. Where are you?

Image credit: EDV Media Director in flickr



Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


Interesting post, thanks for sharing this. It seems like you need to be somewhere in the middle to get things done!


Anne Janzer


Thanks, Anne. The.middle is often an interesting vantage point.




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