Some of us may have heard the phase “context is more important the content” but it’s a very broad, overarching statement that can be difficult to process. What exactly does this mean in general, and also in the context of toxic communication and toxic relationships?
The answer to this question arguably holds the key to unlocking so much of the source of toxic communication patterns from narcissists, sociopaths and other disordered people (or just general jerks you’ll meet in daily life – narcissistic/psychopathic traits are unfortunately spreading in western society, even in people that wouldn’t qualify as having a personality disorder). In this article we’ll break the issue down in detail, with examples, so it’s clear what this general principle means.
Here is a summary answer:
When communication is toxic, the context of words (provoking negative reactions, dominating, berating, undermining, creating insecurity) becomes more important the actual content of words (whether what is being said is actually true or relevant). The abuser does not care about the truth of what is being said but more on gaining power and making the other person feel bad.
This is why this pattern of communication is so common among the so called Cluster B spectrum of personalities (psychopaths/sociopaths/narcissists especially), since these toxic personalities are primarily fixated on dominating, controlling and subduing others, and couldn’t care less about truth, justice or fairness.
Hence people caught up with these toxic characters and toxic communication patterns will often find themselves exasperated that the other person seems completely uninterested in the content and reality of conversations, and is instead more concerned with making them feel bad. Recognizing the context vs content distinction is a crucial first step in detaching from these toxic dynamics and sending negative energy back where it belongs.
Let’s look at this entire issue of context vs content in communication, with a special emphasis on toxic communication/relationships, together with examples and some methods to turn these noxious communication dynamics back on the people who continually use them.
What is Content in (Toxic) Communication?
In terms of communication more generally, content generally means what it says – the actual words that are said or written down.
However, in terms of toxic communication, then it’s best to go break it down more and examine more some of the things which may be discussed:
- Who actually did or said what
- Whether stuff happened or didn’t happen
- What was was said or not said
- Who’s responsibility something really is/was. Who’s to blame (if anyone)?
Anyone who is earnestly and sincerely focusing on any of these things could be said to be more interested in the content of the communication/interaction; the actual truth or reality or facts. This is typically what the target or abused person in any toxic interaction is more interested in, because they are usually good, sincere and honest people.
What is Context in (Toxic) Communication?
Now let’s turn the issue of context in toxic communication, or communication in general. This is more concerned with the interpersonal dynamics of the communication rather than cold, hard facts, truth or logic.
Here are some examples of this:
- The power dynamics – who’s in control of who in the interaction?
- Positive interpersonal dynamics – adoration, admiration, affection, and (sexual) attention (of particular interest to narcissists, who feed off this)
- Negative interpersonal dynamics – who is provoking or upsetting who? Is someone inducing a negative emotional reaction out of someone else?
- In terms of personality disordered people, bring this under one umbrella – am I occupying this person’s mind/thoughts, in either a positive or negative way? Is so, then they have power and control over that person, which is what they want.
What Do We Mean By Context is More Important Than Content?
Now we’ve distinguished between context and content in communication, it should be more clear why toxic communications and toxic relationships proceed in the dramatic, exasperating way they do for the sincere people who get caught up in them.
You’ve got one person who is earnestly concerned with the content of interactions (truth, facts, logic and fairness), and the other who couldn’t care less about any of that, and instead is only concerned about the context of interactions (do I have power/control? Am I getting attention/adoration etc? Can I provoke a negative reaction in someone else and get them upset and agitated, as it makes me feel “full” again).
This is what we mean when we say context is more important than content for toxic people (narcissists and sociopaths especially) in communication, and it is a crucial distinction we are to make if well-meaning people are to properly detach from crazy-making communication such as gas-lighting, projection and other reality-inverting methods of abuse that come from people who have no interest in the content of communication (truth and reality) and are only interested in the context (keeping power and control and upsetting others).
Here’s some other examples of how toxic personalities often value context over content:
- When a narcissist has a stable “supply” – usually a group of people around them who constantly reinforce their view of themselves – they’ll happily accept any nonsense that is fed to them as long as it keeps this scenario intact – their ego remains propped up.
- A narcissist is happy to live in a false reality, their own little “bubble”, forever as long as they keep getting attention and admiration from others (think fake celebrities and narcissistic attention seekers on social media). Reality or truth is not important.
- Narcissists and sociopaths will often triangulate and play others off against you by charming and manipulating them, particularly in a work environment. See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for more on this. However, most of the time they don’t even like the onlookers they co-opt into their politics and mind games, even if they seem very friendly with them. Again they just care about the context of how they are hurting and isolating a specific scapegoat or target.
- You can make up a completely false story about something, but the narcissist will not question it as long as it is a) making them look awesome or b) making other people look stupid or inferior in comparison to them. Again it’s the context that matters to them – how they are seen.
- When in conflict with narcissists, do not try to use reason, facts or logic, because they don’t care about this. All they care about is the context – they are hurting and provoking reactions from others. The truth of situations – what really happened or what was said – is irrelevant.
- In more general terms, it’s how the interpersonal interaction between you and them feeds them (either through admiration/grandiosity or provocation/upsetting) that matters, not what’s actually being done or said.
- “The point is there is no point. The point is chaos, cause chaos”. Richard Grannon/Gary Klein.
- “Any and all communication is an opportunity for abuse”. Richard Grannon
Paying close attention to words, and the words behind the words, can reveal people who are covertly toxic in their communication
Some Examples of “Context vs Content” in Toxic Communication
The general principle of the difference between context and content is hopefully reasonably clear, but let’s flesh it out with some more specific examples applied to toxic patterns of communication quite common with Cluster B disordered individuals.
Example #1 – You grow more and more exasperated in a communication with a toxic personality, as you try to use reason and explain why your point is correct, how you have all the facts, how they are confused and misguided. The more you try to redress the balance and set the record straight with facts, reason and logic, what actually happened, the more they gas-light, invalidate and mock you, denying you your reality that you know very clearly to be true. Your exasperation and irritation grows and the cycle just keeps escalating.
Here’s a brilliant quote from Richard Grannon which sums of this dynamic (people who’ve been in relationships with toxic people will instantly recognize it):
“The more chaos inducing communication and the more chaos inducing behavior we get from (the toxic person), the more we push the pedal down on reason, rationality and information.
We’re like “No no no, just let me explain to you, let me just give you the right data, let me just give you the right information”, with this fallacious nation behind it, that if they just understood more, they would stop (the toxic behavior).
They understand perfectly. They understand the situation perfectly, believe me”
And then another brilliant quote from him on how toxic people use the context/content split in interactions to exploit people’s earnestness and sincerity and use it against them:
“The narcissist/sociopath reaches out with a provocative communication, with the intent of upsetting or hurting you…..The victim gets their adrenaline spiked….they become angry or anxious or depressed….The victim feels instantly, neurotically compelled to redress the balance…and they reply way too instinctively, way too quickly, with way too much emotion….trying to use reason where there is none….
….(The victim feels): ‘I have to drop everything and answer straight away and send through a 500 word essay about what they just said was wrong, and it was wrong, and they shouldn’t and it was unfair, and this is because of this, and also when you say that to a person that means X etc etc.’
And you’re psycho-babbling and philosophizing and you’re pouring out all this stuff. And the narcissist is sat back going “Ha ha ha ha! Got ya!”.
You’ve given them exactly what they want. Because you’re showing them you’re upset. You’re showing them you’re in an emotional state.
Comments – In toxic communication and toxic relationships, you’re chasing content and they’re chasing context. You can see clearly from the examples how if one person is interested in content (truth, facts, what actually happened, logic, reason, fairness, sincerity), whilst the other has no interest in any of these things and just cares about context (placing the under person under their control by provoking and upsetting them), then the dynamic is usually going to be toxic.
Example #2 – Triangulation and Cheating – Very commonly, the disordered person will flirt or outright cheat with others and wave it in the target’s face to upset them and provoke feelings of jealousy, insecurity or inadequacy. Much of the time though, they aren’t even really interested in the other person, but are just triangulating on purpose to provoke a reaction.
Comments – Again, the context (hurting you and getting a rise out of you) is often more important than the content (whether they actually like the other person or not). There may be some exceptions but not many. With Cluster B’s you’ll often find the relationship with the new person quickly breaks down exactly as it did with you, and that because of their broken, disordered personality, they stumble from one disastrous relationship to the next as they keep getting found out.
Example #3 – Covert verbal abuse and mind games also feature a toxic context/content dynamic. The sneakier narcissists and sociopaths will get digs in at people, but more covertly than overtly. They constantly engage in conversations where they ostensibly say one thing but mean another, which includes the classical tactic of using conversations which are ostensibly about someone or something else, but are actually taking a shot at you.
(“Ah John was late to work the other day; he’s really selfish. I really hate selfish people”). At first you may take this at face value, but then you check and realize John wasn’t late for work the other day at all, nor any other day. You start to see this pattern more and more from the same person, where the content (truth/reality of what they’re saying) doesn’t square up, but they’re constantly using conversations about other people/things to take a dig at you, implying negative things about you (you’re selfish/rude/arrogant or any other slight).
Comments – Again with these interactions, they not interested in the content of situations. The content of the other situation or other person they are talking about is most often not even true, or twisted out of shape. They’re only interested in the context of getting a dig in at someone but concealing it in a conversation that’s actually supposed to be about someone else. The context (mind games/covert digs) is more important than the content (actual facts, truth or validity of any comparisons).
Example #4 – You are being unfairly treated unfairly by a sociopathic or narcissistic boss, perhaps blamed for a situation that wasn’t of your doing, or on the wrong end of a malicious smear campaign. You grow more exasperated, trying to pour yourself out to them to explain how you are doing your best, how what others have told them is NOT the whole story. Instead of listening to you and taking on board what you are saying, they grow colder and continue to gas-light, dismiss, mock and invalidate you.
Comments – They’re not interested in the content of the situation (who’s right or wrong, fairness, finding the truth of the situation); they’re only interested in the context (them dominating you and staying in control, forcing you to submit to their authority and interpretation, no matter how cruelly and unfairly they are treating you). Do not engage with people who do this, regardless of their hierarchical authority over you.
Example #5 – A toxic manager or co-worker uses subtle tactics to ostracize you from a group and make you feel isolated, alone and unsupported. Another form of triangulation. They’ll force fake rapport and warmth with other workers, pretend to be having great fun with them, whilst always ignoring you and excluding you from any group interactions or banter. They’ll also quickly shoot you down if you do try and join the group fun. A common tactic among sociopathic managers especially; see our article on the sociopath-empath-apath tried for a good conceptual framework of how they pull this off.
Comments – Again, the crucial point here with disordered people is that the context of the situation (isolating and ostracizing you, making you feel alone and excluded) is more important than the content (whether they even like the people they are co-opting into their childish mind games). Oftentimes, they don’t even like these other people (they often despise them and see them as “useful idiots”), but they’re still happy to use them in the games they are playing to isolate and target one scapegoat in particular by pretending to be friendly and warm. The fact that so many apathetic bystanders are so easily taken in by this act and can’t see this is what the sociopath/narcissist is doing also contributes to this dynamic, and is a disappointing truth we have to face up to.
Turning This Dynamic Back on Toxic Communicators
Here are some ways to reverse the context/content dynamic with toxic people:
1. Awareness – Just being aware of the difference between context and content in communication, and spotting when the dynamic is moving in a toxic direction, can be a huge first step in defending yourself. It provides a conceptual framework through which we can understand and identify toxic communication.
It also means we don’t waste our energy trying to use reason, facts, logic and sincerity (content) with toxic personality disordered people who have no interest in these things, and are instead only interested in the context of power and provoking reactions in interactions. As soon as we see that facts and content are not important to the other person, we disengage from the conversation. Simple! We also don’t waste our honesty and sincerity on people who’ll simply exploit this for their own ends. We smarten up and become more street-wise in our interactions with toxic people.
“When communicating with the insincere, you must forego all sincerity”
2. Verify Facts – This is a crucial tactic when you’re dealing with toxic people who you suspect are using the covert digs/mind games tactic we covered in Example #2 above, where they are taking shots at you through conversations that are ostensibly about someone or something else. If you have that knawing feeling that this is what is going on, but aren’t quite sure, then there’s an easy way to find out – check whether what they are saying about others things or events or people is true.
If you’re repeatedly finding that it isn’t – that they’re twisting or making up things about other events or people just to get a shot in at you psychologically by comparison – then you know what kind of person you are dealing with, and you can raise your guard up accordingly. You’re dealing with someone for whom context (mind games, power, provoking reactions, chipping away at you psychologically) is more important then content. Send this verbal nonsense right back to to them – see the next bit just below.
Opinions will differ on this. Some people will think that it’s pointless doing to them what they’ve done to you; a waste of your energy. I personally know how satisfying it can be to use a narcissist’s tactics back on them and send negative energy straight back where it came from. It’s also a sure-fire way of irritating them when you use their own abusive tactics against them. However, it is also true that long term we need to simply get away from these people.
3. Send Toxic behavior right back to them – Once you have an understanding of the context/content dynamics, it can be very satisfying and empowering to send negative energy and communication right back where it belongs.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Narcissist will often drop subtle hints or facial expressions that you’re boring them to provoke a reaction. Flip the script and do the same to them – imply with body language, hints and facial expressions that they’re boring you. Drum the table, blow through your lips, look around at other people instead of them.
- If they take subtle digs at you, take subtle digs right back at them.
- If they denigrate you with dismissive meta-communication (words behind words, tone of voice), then send disrespectful meta-communication right back.
- If they gas-light you, then gas-light them right back.
- If they take shots at you through conversations supposedly about other people, but they’re really taking a dig at you (a common subtle abuse tactic), then do the same right back to them. More on this in the next point.
- When doing this, always bring it back to two main principles of the narcissist – denial and projection. Subtly always imply these two things are always at play with them (because they are with a sociopath/narc!).
- Work in the above points about subtly implying they are dull, boring, uninteresting and unexceptional.
- See also this excellent guide on taking revenge on a narc, which runs through clever return shots like these you can take to annoy them, but also pushes you towards the ultimately better long term goal of getting rid of them and just living well (see last few sections below).
- All in all, you’re making it clear that you are aware of what their weak points are, and that you can immediately push their buttons in response to them trying to push your buttons. The narcissistic personality is actually very fragile and broken, so you may find some of them backing off (not all).
In general, you’re sending the message to bullies/jerks: “if you’re gonna use the context/content split to take subtle “digs” at me, then I can do the exact same thing back to you“, and do exactly that – use their own toxic dynamics back on them.
4. Handling covert/subtle digs – This is one aspect of the list just above – more subtle and indirect abuse where conversations apparently about other things or people are used to take shots at you. It’s very toxic and insidious, but understanding the context/content split allows you to take back control:
If they use a conversation about someone/something else to get a dig in at you, do exactly the same to them. The content (facts/truth) is not important; twist whatever you need to get a shot in that clearly demonstrates that you know how toxic/manipulative/narcissistic they are. Use books/films/documentaries/conversations/events/people or whatever else as material. Twist what you need to to get a shot back in; if truth isn’t important to them, then don’t consider it important to you either. Just send their negative energy and verbal nonsense right back where it belongs. You’re dropping the sincerity and becoming more streetwise with toxic people.
Example – “Ah I watched a documentary last night on some businessman that got convicted for fraud. What an entitled, narcissist pr**k. But these people always self destruct in the end; I’ve seen enough of them in my time to know; they bring themselves down in the end cos they’re in love with their own fantasy of themselves and can’t see their own blind spots”
Truth – You never watched any documentary on any businessman, or the facts are twisted or exaggerated, but you’re using context over content (just like they do) to send negative energy right back to them and let them know that you know exactly who and what they are. Stop thinking you have to be so honest and factual with these people, because they don’t care about any of that. Turn their own dynamics against them.