We all have filters, ways of perceiving the world that are unique and unconscious. The human brain has evolved to be as energy-efficient as possible and one of the ways to cut energy expenses is to create shortcuts for commonly occurring patterns. The classic example of this is driving. When you first started driving you had to think about everything, a simple drive around the block could be mentally exhausting.
Then a couple of years later and you can make your 30 minute commute through traffic and not have any recollection of how you got to work. Once your brain recognizes the pattern it goes into autopilot and saves its energy resources for new problems. This works great, except when it doesn’t.
Where these cost saving initiatives can go awry is in our interpersonal relationships. Our magnificent brain will look for patterns in your situation and will respond in the pre programmed way to any that it recognizes. This sounds good until you realize that just because your brain recognizes a pattern doesn’t mean the best way to respond is the way you have before. Let’s say you had an overbearing parent that made you afraid of authority figures. Your brain will recognize the authority pattern in others like your boss at work and you will find yourself shutting down in fear for no reason. Most of us are so lost in our emotional lives that we will blame the boss for being mean but it is really just our pre programmed response to authority. Your boss might very well be a jerk but maybe your brain is making it worse than it is.
The other side of this is that everyone else’s brain is doing the same thing. So if you have ever had the experience of having a conversation with somebody and you felt like they were not reacting to what you said but to something else entirely, that is what is happening. Somehow what you said has created a pattern in their brain and they are automatically reacting to the pattern. It can be very frustrating and confusing to everyone involved. It is not hard for most of us to think back to an interaction with someone and realize that the entire conversation was just two people responding in these preprogrammed ways to each other and no real communication actually happened.
So what can we do to not be a servant to these filters? First thing is to recognize that they exist and that they are affecting your everyday life. We probably all recognize this concept on a larger scale, for instance the way your childhood environment influences your way of looking at the world. But these mental filters and shortcuts are not just involved in the big picture stuff, they influence every conversation and every action. I know this sounds dramatic but it’s true. Most of your filters are very useful and productive and that is why they evolved. Your awareness of them does not change the effectiveness. Yet the few that may be an issue because they cause you to lash out or shut down when it is not called for could use more of your attention. Simply by being aware of them allows you to step back and observe what they are doing, and if need be to change the program. With a little effort and a willingness to ask others for some understanding we can start to change our relationships by being present and not responding as we always have.
I think we can all agree that while we are communicating with others we would prefer them to be present and not responding in a preset manner. So why would we do that to them? This is a huge topic and it lays at the base of a lot of the communication issues we see in couples. All I am asking at this point is to take a look at the way you respond to others and ask yourself, is this the appropriate response at this time? Would you respond this way if this was your first time meeting this person or this was your first time in this situation? If not, then, what filter is responding for you and should you keep it? That presence alone will start to improve how you communicate and it will also help you be more accepting and forgiving to the filters of others.
Look for more to come on this deep topic of communication, skills and how we put them into action.