Every second our senses send millions and millions of bits of information to our brains for processing. Our eyes capture more information than the highest resolution digital camera. Our ears hear more detail than can be produced by the most expensive 24-bit recordings. Every hair on our arms feels the slightest breeze etc.
Obviously this is far more information than we can bring into conscious awareness, so our brains have a set of filters which keep out the vast majority of this information and only lets a tiny amount through to our conscious minds.
What gets through our filters depends on several factors.
- There may be a lot of “noise” – other information competing for our attention.
- Sometimes that “noise” is internal “noise” – we are preoccupied with thinking about something else not related to the immediate situation and environment.
- Our values determine what is important to us. Information which ranks high in relation to our values will get more of our attention. For example if money ranks higher in our values than politics, then we will read the newspapers paying more attention to the financial aspects than the political ones. Or a parent might yell out to her kids “Shut the fly screen”. The kids hear only the important words “Ice Cream”.
- We tend to filter out information which does not conform to our expectations – our mental picture of the situation that we have even before new information comes in.
This last filter – our expectations – is the most important factor determining what we hear, when listening, and what we see, when trying to understand a situation.
All of us have complex mental models of the world we live in which we can draw on even when our five senses are not giving us fresh information. If we close our eyes, we can still “see” in our mind’s eye the environment around us. In fact our mind’s eye can see further than our physical eyes. We can picture what lies behind that wall, or picture ourselves in a room we only visited once last year and have never seen since.
Even more extraordinary, we can make a phone call to someone we have never met before, and as we talk to them we draw a mental picture of what they look like and the room they are sitting in. This picture will be drawn from all our past experiences and beliefs. The person might sound mature and authoritative, so we create a picture drawn from mature authoritative people we have seen. We have an image of what kind of clothes they are wearing, whether they are in a spacious office on the 10th floor or in a cubby hole in the basement. Or they might have a voice that sounds sexually attractive to us, so we start to draw a picture of them as a person who not only sounds but looks attractive.
Now – here is some news which may come as a surprise. That imaginary world we have just described is where we live most of the time. Whether we are having a conversation with a person who is in the same room or whether we are talking on the phone to them on another continent, how we “see” that person draws more on the mental picture we have of them than on the evidence of our eyes. And a large part of what we hear will depend on our expectations of the kinds of things they say.
If we expect the person in front of us to be critical, then we will hear them being critical and filter out anything they say which is appreciative. If we expect them to disappoint us, then we will all through our filters only that which disappoints.
A lot of miscommunication comes because of this. If we expect the other person to agree with us, then we might leave a conversation thinking that we are both in agreement when, in fact, the other person disagrees and has a different perspective.
Or we might anticipate that they will have certain objections, and respond to what we think the objections are without listening to what the objections really are.
For example, Rajendra wants to change suppliers to use a company which he thinks offers better value. He anticipates that his colleague Zhanna will object because of the good relationship that has developed with the existing suppliers who are prepared to fulfil orders at short notice and co-operate in other ways to make things run smoothly. So Rajendra prepares a lengthy argument about how the new company will be just as helpful because they are anxious to please and develop a lasting relationship. Because he is so focussed on this argument, he does not take in Zhanna’s main objection, which is that the new company does not have the technical expertise that will be needed as new products are developed. So Rajendra can’t understand why Zhanna still objects to the proposed change. Both Rajendra and Zhanna leave the meeting feeling that they have not been heard and believing that the other person is difficult to work with.
Once you have got your head around the idea that we go around projecting our imaginary world onto others and the world outside, wait for the next bombshell: We also project this imaginary world onto ourselves. Our knowledge and understanding of ourselves is largely a fantasy, and may be far from the truth.
Overcoming the limitations of these filters is not something that can be done overnight. It is a gradual process of making the gaps in the filters bigger. Another name for this might be developing “Awareness” or “Consciousness”. The first step is becoming aware that we have these filters and trying to pay more attention to the evidence of our senses. Spending regular times in silent meditation can be a powerful tool, helping focus the mind.
We will never fully overcome our mental filters, but we can do a lot to improve our communication skills through practicing self-awareness, active listening, and having the humility to recognise that our understanding may be wrong. These are some of the keys to successful workplace conflict resolution.
Helping individuals and teams get into flow