Try this visualization exercise. Imagine going through your day with large coffee-maker filters over your ears. Imagine that in each conversation you experience, the other person's words travel through the filters covering your ears before actually entering your ears and reaching your brain.
But this isn’t an exercise. It happens every time you engage in a conversation with another human being, although for the most part, it is unconscious. The point here is to become aware of the (unconscious) listening filters each of us develops early in life and carries with us into adulthood.
I'm bad: For example, if you grew up with a highly critical parent or caregiver, you may have created a self-image filter that now translates as: "I'm bad. I've done something wrong”. This then becomes a listening filter that taints many of the communications you hear, because you’re unconsciously listening out for the other person to make a critical judgment of you.
So, for example, if your boss, a colleague or your partner says to you “I’m feeling upset right now,” you immediately look at yourself and begin to search for what you've done or not done to cause this person to be upset with you rather tha just accepting what they said and taking it in objectively without any self-accusation.
I need to fix you: Another habit that you may have picked up in childhood is the "listening to fix" filter. When this filter is active, you might respond to your boss' or partner’s comment by saying, “Why don’t you sit down and relax for a few minutes," because you feel you need to prescribe to, or "fix" someone.
I need to judge you: If you've grown up with the 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 yourself to others, you might respond with “You think you’re upset, let me tell you about how upset I am!". This grows out of a 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", but we’re not "hearing." When our filters are engaged, we miss what is being said and when we miss the meaning, the energy underneath the words and the emotional content of the message, we’re likely to react unconsciously rather than respond meaningfully.
The trouble is that when we simply react, we tend to distort the message and its meaning, and direct our conversation and attention to the distortion rather than to what was actually said. And that leaves us unable to connect with another's actual words and experience and unable to respond in a conscious, creative, or supportive way.
Learning to listen
As in all change, awareness is the first step. So 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 your boss, or vice-versa.
The moment you become aware that you’re listening through a filter during a conversation, your awareness expands beyond them. It’s like consciously removing the things that are covering your ears. Suddenly you can hear what other people are actually saying and you start to engage with another on a higher level with real connectivity. So, for example, you might even start to hear someone at work as a real persona 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 a conversation to evolve in more constructive ways.
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 real "hearing" for the first time.
Identifying your filters
Consider the following filters. Do you use one or more of them in your conversations? If 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..."Some questions for self-reflection
- 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 anyone 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?
- 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..."