Contextual Intelligence as a path to greater wisdom

Contextual intelligence is about expanding our understanding of – and capacity to address – the contexts shaping the situations we face. It’s also about how context influences our ability to actually do that. Ideally we’d be in contexts, conversations, societies that help us transcend our individual and shared assumptions and blind spots so that we can more clearly see the Big Picture we’re immersed in. To the extent we can do that, we’ll be wise and co-intelligent. There are things we can do to increase that capacity – but even just knowing that such an intelligence exists helps us pay attention to what’s important.

Contextual intelligence is our capacity to understand and function creatively within larger and changing contexts surrounding a situation. Contextual intelligence is also the capacity of particular contexts to enhance the life within them so that its activities and outcomes are more intelligent than otherwise.

This concept helps us realize that we and the contexts we inhabit can promote expansion and flexibility of our perspectives about life, and our ability to apply them to what’s actually happening. When we understand contextual intelligence we become more alert to the ways and situations that enhance that capacity.

To the extent a person or group sustains narrow perspective about what’s going on and what it means – even in changing contexts – that person or group lacks contextual intelligence. And to the extent a context suppresses people’s capacity to interact appropriately and flexibly with each other and with the realities around them, that context lacks contextual intelligence. So we can say that a context that generates stupidity is itself stupid.


When I first heard about contextual intelligence (thanks to Peggy Holman), I considered how it fit within my main co-intelligence framework, the six manifestations of co-intelligence: namely, collective intelligence, multi-modal intelligence, collaborative intelligence, universal intelligence, resonant intelligence, and wisdom. In the late 1990s I had added resonant intelligence to what was then the five manifestations, and I wondered if contextual intelligence constituted a seventh.

Since co-intelligence is intelligence of, by, for, and about the Whole and the wholeness of life – and since context is fundamental to the idea of the whole and wholeness – I seriously considered this major addition to my model. But I finally realized that wisdom – seeing beyond immediate appearances and acting with greater understanding to affirm the life and development of all involved – embraces contextual intelligence. I saw that contextual intelligence is, in fact, a bridge capacity that takes us from focusing very narrowly on a situation into progressively greater wisdom about how to think and feel about it and, ultimately, how to address it in ways that are both successful and life-serving.

But the dynamics and varieties of contextual intelligence are fascinating and vital enough in their own right to warrant careful examination. I hope this essay furthers that exploration.


I have often half-joked that the ultimate wisdom in the universe is “There’s more to it than that!” – in other words, that there is more going on than whatever we experience, think, know, assert, etc. The big/whole story of what’s happening goes on forever and is infinitely detailed, nuanced, and interconnected. Everything is connected to everything else and is therefore context for everything else. Realizing we can’t know everything, we can however be humble about what we do know, curious about what we don’t know, and awed and appreciative about what we’ll never know. Those are major qualities associated with contextual intelligence.

That said, some things are more relevant to what’s going on here and now than other things – and being intelligent requires that we focus on what’s most relevant. That’s where mixing wholeness and intelligence – the fundamental components of co-intelligence – becomes tricky. Wholeness urges us to take more into account, while intelligence urges us to focus, ignoring everything that isn’t “relevant”. If we try to fathom everything this IS relevant, we soon realize that we’ll never succeed at it: The task is endless and attempting it runs the risk of drifting off into irrelevance and “la-la land”.

On the other hand, if we’re wise, we know that any relevant factors we overlook will likely come back to haunt us – so we are “on the lookout” for both relevance and for all signs that we may be missing something important. We use all our capacities (multi-modal intelligence) and everyone involved in the situation (collective intelligence) and even higher powers (universal intelligence) to help us sense the fullness of what we need to attend to. We may practice “relevance-plus” – including in our efforts everything we can think of that is relevant (paying particular attention to transcending our own blind spots) while adding some people or ideas that seem more random, just to “stir the pot”.


Everything that shapes and gives meaning to a situation we find ourselves in can be considered its context. This includes factors like physical, natural, social, and psychological realities and dynamics. It includes histories and cultures, resources and constraints, energies and stuckness, assumptions and expectations, needs and interests, longings and fears, and much more – both in the situation and in ourselves and the others involved. The more we understand these things and the roles they play in the situation – including our own cognitive filters, stories, and limitations – the more we will be able to deal with the realities of life in successful and life-serving ways.

To the extent we are aware of context, we know that whatever happens next will be shaped by what already exists and what has existed earlier – affluence, disruption, trauma, loving and abusive families, wars and alliances, meltdowns and miracles – everything from rain to supernovas. So we try to understand both past and present contexts. We also attend to designing future-oriented contexts that are both well grounded in existing reality AND able to influence what happens next, helping things develop in desirable directions. We ask good questions, we design life-serving systems, we promote good relationships, we welcome critique and inquiry.

So contextual intelligence entails the kind of knowledge and alertness that helps us transcend our personal and cultural filters to access “what’s really going on” in its own terms, to sense and creatively work with what’s shaping the situation, and to engage in initiatives that are more about designing and creating life-serving contexts than about forcing or managing specific outcomes.


I see three dimensions to contextual intelligence:

1. AS AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, contextual intelligence is an aspect of multi-modal intelligence that shows up noticeably in “street smarts”, leadership, design skills, relationships, and more, helping us be flexible in applying our knowledge in ways that are appropriate to what’s actually happening.

2. AS AN ASPECT OF COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE, contextual intelligence manifests both in a system’s ways of handling information – the breadth and depth of its gathering, sharing and use of information – and in its creative engagement of diverse people and perspectives to access and understand the big picture.

3. AS A QUALITY OF CONTEXTS THEMSELVES, as they shape what happens within them in more or less intelligent ways. Personal psychology and development (related to 1 above) and institutional dynamics and culture (related to 2 above) provide contexts that enhance the ability of the individuals and groups involved to understand and respond appropriately – and ultimately wisely – to what’s actually going on. For example, a pleasant safe environment for conversation can play an enormous role in whether and how intelligence manifests among people as they interact. From a social design perspective, I consider it useful to think of such contexts as passing on their contextual intelligence to the lives in and around them.


Part of the importance of context is its relationship to webs of causality. Factors present in the context of a person, group, activity, event, etc., make all the difference in the world regarding what happens there. And because all contexts, seen fully, are complex, we could easily speak of “many contexts” in which many “causes” shape a situation and many “effects” radiate out from it into the larger world (playing causal roles elsewhere as they go). This web of causes and effects – which add up to the situation’s causal context – profoundly impact the “appropriateness”, “ultimate success”, “wholesomeness”, or “survival value” of anything we do regarding that situation.

Given that I see wisdom as largely an extension of intelligence to cover more of the “big picture”, it is clear that the exercise of contextual intelligence is a primary driver for expanding wisdom. This is an extremely potent concept (and capacity!), as we witness the disastrous consequences of our failures to exercise contextual intelligence in (especially) explosive situations where cultural-historic or bio-ecological contexts are primary causes and/or effects. For ready examples, simply think of Middle East conflicts, of terrorism, of climate disruption, of antibiotic resistance, and of peak oil. Every one of these has multiple interacting causes in the past and present, and generates multiple interacting effects in the past, present, and future. With adequate contextual intelligence – especially at a collective level – we would not find ourselves in such profound crises on all these fronts (and more!).


Contextual intelligence is not my own idea. The term has become a topic of discussion within business, psychological, and intelligence circles for over ten years. My contribution has been to expand its frame to reflect my co-intelligence perspective – particularly to open up the inquiry about what constitutes “context” and to highlight the power of contexts and systems to both embody and promote intelligence.

Most of the existing conversation on contextual intelligence has focused on individual and organization capacity. Here are some examples:

Contextual intelligence is “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed.”
Tarun Khanna in the Harvard Business Review

“Contextual Intelligence is as important as IQ, Emotional Intelligence and other aspects of intelligence that help us develop our whole selves.”
Lorne Rubis

“Contextual intelligence is the ability to understand the macro-level factors that are at play during a given period of time” such as “six contextual factors that shaped business during the last century and continue to shape it in our present century: government regulation, labor, globalization, technology, demography, and social mores.”
“What Great American Leaders Teach Us”
an interview with Tony Mayo, executive director of the Harvard Business School Leadership Initiative
[Notice that environmental and social disruption is not on his list, a sign that the sense of “context” here needs to expand. – Tom]

“Context consists of all the external, internal, and interpersonal factors that contribute to the uniqueness of each situation and circumstance. Intelligence is the ability to transform data into useful information, information into knowledge, and then most importantly, assimilate that knowledge into practice.”

“Contextual intelligence involves the ability to recognize and diagnose the plethora of contextual factors inherent in an event or circumstance then intentionally and intuitively adjust behavior in order to exert influence in that context.”
Matthew R. Kutz
“Contextual Intelligence: An Emerging Competency for Global Leaders”

Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg suggests that contextual intelligence deals with the mental activity involved in attaining a good fit with one’s context through adapting to, shaping, or selecting one’s environments.

“Context Intelligence is the ability to combine structured and unstructured data to generate actionable insights and for better-informed decision-making.”


Practices recommended by Khanna, Rubis, and others for developing contextual intelligence include:

Scientific Humility: In his Harvard Business Review article quoted above, Khanna suggests being humble enough to “accept up front that you know less than you think you do” and “to create hypotheses about what will work, to document and test assumptions, and to experiment in order to learn… what does or doesn’t work”. He advocates resisting “the impulse to rely on simple explanations for complex phenomena” because so often “in reality a constellation of intersecting issues must be addressed”.

Contextual Studies: Read fiction and nonfiction that make us think about and feel into the bigger picture of diverse human situations. Study human sciences such as sociology, cultural anthropology, history, and psychology; natural sciences such as ecology, evolution and earth sciences; systems sciences such as chaos, complexity, cybernetics, and living systems sciences; and cross-disciplinary fields to become more generally conversant with the range and types of contexts that may influence situations in our life, work, and society. If we dig into alternative views in these ways, they can expand our perspective to step beyond common limiting filters.

Getting Connected: Listen to, befriend, hire, collaborate with and otherwise engage with people who are fluent in more than one culture or context to enhance our individual, group or organizational contextual intelligence. Ongoing interactions with people who can bridge differences provide us with companionship and role models in our efforts to do this ourselves.

General Immersive Experience: We can train our general sense of inclusivity by intentionally exposing ourselves to unfamiliar contexts where we can notice challenges to our filters and can sense what different kinds of responses and engagements may be appropriate in different situations. We can exercise our empathy and flexibility outside our comfort zone, even if we don’t know what specific situations we will meet in the future. Lorne Rubis suggests “Get out of your insular world so you can appreciate context more. Ideally you can travel the world, but if not, the local Moroccan restaurant, a smudge ceremony, walking in the Gay Pride parade, playing a game of wheel chair basketball, etc, etc, can teach you lot about context. It won’t happen if you aren’t intentional about developing your contextual intelligence.”

Specific Immersive Experience: When we know we’re going to be engaged in a context that is strange to us, we can immerse ourselves in that unfamiliar cultural, institutional, or experiential world and, with the guidance of people already familiar with it, develop our sensibilities for that context. Khanna notes, “This is particularly important when Western managers start to operate outside North America and Europe. What some scholars have called WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies may differ from the rest on a number of measures, including beliefs about fairness, a tendency to cooperate, the use of both inductive and moral reasoning, and concepts of self.”

All these practices can increase our ability to notice and apply patterns in unfamiliar situations that we’ve seen in previous contexts, a capacity technically known as “making accurate analogic inferences”. This capacity contributes to a form of intuitive wisdom obviously invaluable for contextual intelligence specifically and for co-intelligence more generally.


Note that although these practices are framed here for individual development, they are equally valid for group and organizational trainings and culture and for supportive community and national cultures and institutions and in political and social systems.

An example of this last is citizen deliberative councils that convene diverse ordinary citizens – whose perspectives may be quite unfamiliar to each other – to come up with collective insights into public issues. Their own diversity and the diversity of their briefings – written and videoed material and testimony from diverse experts – combined with facilitation to help them hear and respect each other – challenge and support them in stepping outside their mental and emotional habits into broader understandings of the issue they’re examining and the contexts that sustain it and could transform it.

An example from economics is the internalization of social and environmental costs into the monetary price of products – thereby making damaging products more expensive than harmless or beneficial ones. This one change could profoundly changes the context within which economic interactions – buying, selling, producing and investing – take place. The economic system itself would then manifest more contextual intelligence (and thus wisdom) than our current economic arrangements.

At a smaller level, in the group process realm, if we design conferences to include significant amounts of light, nature, breaks, welcoming invitations, powerfully evocative questions, etc., we can stimulate greater creativity and flow of information among the participants, thereby increasing the collective intelligence of the gathering (which has been shaped by the contextual intelligence of the conference’s design).

So contextual intelligence is a major factor in intelligence that takes wholeness, interconnectedness and co-creativity seriously, which calls forth the wisdom and resources of the whole to enhance the well-being and wholeness of the whole. In other words, contextual intelligence is a major factor in co-intelligence. So now I invite us all to recognize this wisdom-generating capacity as worthy of our further attention and development.


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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