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Try this visualization exercise. Imagine going through your day – at work, at home or at play – with large coffee-maker filters over your ears. Imagine that in each interaction and conversation you experience, the other person’s words travel through the filters covering your ears before actually entering your ears and moving into your mind/brain.

How filters work

In reality, this is was happens every time you engage in a conversation with another human being, although for the most part, it’s unconscious. The point here is to become aware of the (unconscious) listening filters each of us has developed early in life and now carries with us into our adult life.

I’m bad.

For example, if you grew up with a highly critical parent or primary caregiver, you may have created a self-image or belief (filter) that now translates as: “I’m bad. I’ve done something wrong” which then becomes a listening filter that “taints” many of the communications you hear – listening for, expecting to hear, a critical judgment of you.

So, for example, if your boss, a colleague or a spouse or partner says to you “I’m feeling upset right now,” you immediately point an accusing finger at yourself and begin to search for what you’ve done or not done to cause this person to feel upset with you – as opposed to just “hearing” what the other person said (that they are upset) and taking it in objectively without any self-judgment or self-accusation.

I need to fix you.

Another belief or self-image filter that you may have taken on in childhood and brought into your adult life is the “listening to fix” filter that tutors your conversations. When this filter is active, you might respond to your boss’ or spouse’s comment by saying, “Why don’t you sit down and relax for a few minutes,” i.e., the need to prescribe to, or “fix” someone.

I need to judge you.

If you’ve grown up with a self-image or belief that you have to be a “judge” of others’ actions, your listening filter might lead you to respond, for example, with “You’ve had such an easy morning, what do you have to be upset about?’

Look what just happened to me!

If you have been raised as one who constantly compares your self to others, you might respond with “You think you’re upset, let me tell you about how upset I am!”, a response that also indicates your need to “hijack” another’s experience and make it your own; the conversation then morphs into a conversation that is “all about me.”

Other popular filters include: listening for approval, listening to control (or avoid being controlled), listening to minimize, listening to prove or disprove something.

Listening but not hearing

When we listen through a filter, we are “listening”, not “hearing.” When our filters are engaged, we miss what is being said and when we miss the meaning, the energy underneath the words, the emotional content of the message, we most often “react” unconsciously (rather than “respond” meaningfully and consciously). When reacting, we often distort the message and the meaning, and direct our conversation and attention to the distortion.

When reacting, we’re unable to connect with another’s actual words and experience, or to respond in conscious, creative, supportive, and compassionate ways.

The antidote

As in all change, awareness is the first step. So, in this listening context, the first step toward becoming free of your listening filters is to become aware of them. Most of us have a few primary listening filters and several secondary ones. It may also be that you engage specific listening filters with certain people or in certain situations. For example, you might listen to “fix” with your spouse or partner, and listen “for approval” with you boss, or vice-versa.

The moment you become aware that you’re listening through a filter during a conversation, your awareness expands beyond the filter. It’s like consciously removing the filters that cover your ears. You can then “hear” what other people are actually saying. As you “hear” what other people are saying, you can better relate to their experience and engage with another on a higher level of true and real connectivity. Perhaps, at work, for example, you might even “hear” another as a “person” rather than a “function.”

As your awareness expands beyond your listening filters, you can also make new communication choices. For example, you might respond to “I’m feeling upset right now with: “I hear that you’re feeling upset. How are you experiencing that right now?” or “What’s that like for you?” or “Can you say more about that?” These kinds of filter-free communications can meet the other person’s experience and open the door for the conversation to evolve in new ways ( along with your own evolvement as a “human of be-ing”).

So, be gentle with yourself and give yourself plenty of time to uncover your unique assortment of listening filters. Often as one disappears, another is revealed. Make it a game to notice your filters, love yourself for having them and see how many other ways you can invent to shift out of them. If you’re like me, when you do this, you may experience true and real “hearing” for the first time.

Some questions for self-reflection:

Consider the following filters and be curious if you use one or more of them in your conversations: (when you do, there is no way you can be truly and sincerely “present” with the other person):

“advising”: “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t?”
“one-upping”: “That’s nothing; let me tell you what I did…” (also “hijacking”)
“educating”: “This could work out very well for you if you…”
“consoling”: “Don’t blame yourself; you did the best you could…”
“story-telling”: “That reminds me of the time…” (also hijacking”)
“shutting down”: “Don’t worry about it; cheer up!”
“sympathizing”: “Oh, poor you….”
“interrogating”: “Well, why did you…”
“explaining”: “What I would have done is…” (also “hijacking”)
“correcting”: “That’s not what happened…”
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  • Would your closest friends say you’re a good listener?
  • Can you think of a recent conversation where your filters were engaged? What was that like?
  • Do you know someone who listens to you without filters? What is that like?
  • Can you remember some of your earliest filters growing up?
  • Did your parents or primary caregivers listen to you with filters? Which ones?

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(c) 2014, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful.
Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is – maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com
You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.

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