What Filter Are You Using?©

Whether you have good vision or poor vision and whether you are required to wear prescription eyewear or not, I imagine that each of you has at one time had an eye examination. You know the drill … you look through a piece of equipment and the doctor adjusts the lenses in order to determine when you can see better or worse. The examination often also includes a test where different color filters are used to check for color blindness and to see how the different colors impact your vision. The essence of this process is that as the lenses and filters are changed, it impacts what you see and how well you see it. In other words, it impacts your visual experience.

Why am I talking about eye examinations? Because each of you essentially does the same thing in communication, especially when the communication or situation is energized, challenging or off course. You apply individualized filters in the communication process and these filters have a dramatic impact on how you “hear” or experience the other person, and these filters often drive your judgments about the communication, the situation and the person (almost always unconsciously). However, when you are more aware of the ways that you are using filters in your communication, you can choose to either not use them, be more aware of them or even shift your filter to one that better serves you, the relationship, the communication and your desired objectives.

Let us take a look at what I mean by these filters and how they get in the way of healthy and effective communication. I was working with a coaching client on team communication issues (Pam), including the ways that she reacted or responded to other people on her team. In the hope of better understanding the “extra” sources and drivers of the reactions, I asked Pam to list the names of five team members with whom she regularly communicates. I then asked Pam to give me a brief description (not more than a couple of words) to describe the best and worst aspects of each person. While traditional communication training often focuses on the “positive,” I have found that the identification and acknowledgement of the “negative” aspects in our relationships is critical to making adjustments and improvements because it is the so-called “negative” aspects that are most likely getting in the way. This is particularly true when evaluating yourself in terms of the ways that you communicate (or fail to communicate) with other people.

Pam came up with the following list of filters:

Name                           Positive                                                Negative

Tom                             Thorough                                             Irresponsible

Kris                              Open Minded                                      Over Analyzing

Len                              Honors Commitments                     Sticks His Nose in Things

Terry                         Perceptive on Details                       Never Good Enough

Kathy                         Understands Business                      Self-Righteous

These were Pam’s primary filters that she had (and used) for each of her team members.

I then asked Pam this additional question:

When you are frustrated, angry or otherwise energized with each of them,

which filter are you experiencing them through?

Pam quickly acknowledged that when the communication was not working or when she had “negative” reactions to a team member, she was certainly “hearing” or experiencing them through the “negative” filter.  However, Pam was quick to suggest that the use of the “negative” filter was because in that moment they [the other people] were communicating or acting consistent with that filter. In other words, Pam was suggesting that the other person was dictating which filter she used in the communication. Then I shifted gears with Pam and told her that she was wrong – while the other people may have acted or communicated in ways that are consistent with the filter, Pam as the other participant in the communication chooses the filter.

I then played out this example with Pam. I asked her to imagine that she was interacting with Tom and that Tom was engaging in behavior or communication that Pam would consider to be irresponsible. I then asked Pam what would happen to her experience of Tom if she was aware in the moment and chose to experience Tom and the communication through the filter of Tom as someone who is thorough? While this can be a difficult concept to immediately grasp, Pam immediately got it and said that if she communicated with Tom and saw him as someone that was thorough (a positive trait in Pam’s mind), then it would markedly improve the communication even if Tom was acting in ways that might be deemed to be irresponsible. In other words, Pam (and you) can choose how you experience someone else and that choice is yours to make. It is not the automatic outcome of how the other person chooses to communicate or interact with you. You choose the filters and thus you have the ability to determine the communication experience. You may not control the other person, but you “own” the choice of filter.

I recently shared this concept with a friend who struggles with communication with her business partner, and we went through the exact same exercise regarding her partner. She identified what she perceived as the worst of her business partner (controlling) and the best of her business partner (giving). When I shared with her about the role of filters in communication and that these filters are her choice, she was at first hesitant but she seemed open to thinking differently about the communication and her partner. She was also and clearly committed to improving the working relationship with her partner. The next day my friend sent me the following email:

“Jeff, I believe you changed my life yesterday and I truly mean that. I am going to start listening to conversations with a different filter.  It really makes a lot of difference.”

Indeed, they are your filters and you have the unique ability and opportunity to choose which filters you will use to listen to, communicate with and “hear” other people, in business, in relationships and in every aspect of your life.

If you want to immediately improve your communication and experience with every person in your business, on your team and in your life, then identify your opposing filters for each person and consciously choose which filter you will “listen” and experience with in the future. You will see immediate and positive improvements in all of your communications and relationships, even if the other person does not change. That is the beauty of owning and choosing your filters on purpose.


  1. Kathy R says:

    Very good article, Jeff, I wil try using this advice in my arena.

  2. A great, straight-forward strategy, Jeff. Thanks!

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