4 Communication Filters

Unrealized Communication Filters Break Down Understanding

Tony and Crystal were sitting in our living room. They were struggling with communication and misunderstandings. Each of the them were hurt by what they thought their partner was saying.

We asked Tony to repeat back what he heard Crystal say.

Crystal said, “I want some more me time.”

Tony replied, “I hear you saying that you don’t want to spend time with me.”

That was a big red flag. This was very revealing to us. Tony was hearing Crystal’s comments through a filter of rejection. When she wanted to spend some time alone, he interpreted it as a rejection of him. His feelings were very real, but I think he was misinterpreting what she really intended. It opened up a dialog about a deep emotional trigger that was happening fairly frequently.

When we teach about filters, it helps couples to be more aware of how they interpret their spouse. Where do filters come from?

1. Expectations

This is a big one for my wife, Michelle, and I. We frequently have to recognize our differing expectations. One of use has an expectation about something that is often not communicated to the other person.

For example, I am often thinking about what I want to accomplish on Saturdays. I may have an expectation about getting some chores done around the house.

Michelle will come in and say, “I am going to visit my family on Saturday.”

I hear, “Michelle just committed me to driving two hours to see her family and I’m not going to be able to do my work.”

There are two expectations: my expectations of what how I am going to spend my Saturday and my expectations of what she’s asking me to do.

When this happens, I react poorly. I react by saying, “How dare you commit me to…”

It took us a while in our relationship to learn to set up expectations. She honestly wants to see her family, but she doesn’t expect me to go with her. I’m welcome to go if I want, but I’m not required. She also got better at planning things a little further in advance.

Aligning expectations helps us both.

2. Values and Beliefs

We all have a number of values and beliefs that drive our reactions. Some of these can be very positive and some of them can be based on insecurities.

I recently saw a post on Facebook that said, “This should make you angry.” My belief is that I can’t tell someone to feel a certain way. That is a boundary violation. When I saw this post, it irritated me.

My beliefs filtered the way that I interpreted that message. I think the person was just looking for a catchy title, but it certainly rubbed me the wrong way. I would rather that they say, “I am angry about this…”

Our values and beliefs influence how we interpret each other.

3. Mood

Our mood can change the way that interpret things. When we are stressed, we tend to hear things that aren’t really being said.

Addiction treatment uses an acronym to describe when we are more susceptible to poor behaviors: HALT. Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired. When we are feeling weak in any of those areas, we are more likely to misinterpret what our partner says or does.

Being aware of our own mood helps us. Our mood will influence how we interpret things.

4. Past Experiences

This is a broad category. Our past experiences with family and others influence how we interpret a message.

One night, in the early years of our marriage, I said to Michelle, “Are you going to do the dishes?” I meant it as a very simple query. I was just wondering if she wanted me to do the dishes.

Michelle heard, “The kitchen is a mess. You are a rotten housekeeper. You’re not what I wanted in a wife.”

Michelle blew up. She got angry.

This comment touched on an insecurity that Michelle had – that she wasn’t doing what was expected of her. It combined expectations, beliefs, mood and her past experiences.

I was at a loss. I only wanted to know if she wanted me to do the dishes.

We were able to talk through how filters twisted the message into something that was unintended. It taught us that we often misinterpret each other.

The message spoken does not always equal the message heard.

Our online material teaches couples how to recognize their own filters. Helping a couple to recognize their filters can help them to understand how to speak with one another to promote understanding.

Tips for Mentors:

  • Encourage couples to validate – Too often, the message spoken does not equal the message heard. Often times, it’s not. It gets twisted around by our filters. We encourage couples to validate their understanding with each other, even if they disagree.
  • Check in with the spouse – Sometimes, as a mentor, I hear what sounds like a criticism of their spouse. I turn to their partner and ask, “How do you react to that statement?” Sometimes, they don’t take it as a criticism. The important part is how the couple hears each other.
  • Identify common filters – I told you the experience with Tony and Crystal. When Tony recognized that he is often hearing things through a filter of rejection. When he understood that that was an emotional trigger, he was better able to listen more closely to Crystal. He would ask her if she meant that as a criticism of him. He learned that wasn’t her intent. The two of them were better able to understand each other’s perspectives.