At some point, we have all suffered the lack of effective communication.

“I don’t know why he would think like that. I already explained it very clearly to him.”

“If she still doesn’t get it, it’s her problem. I said the words very clearly to her. I said it 2 or 3 times.”

“I can’t understand why he got so worked up. I didn’t say anything rude.”

No matter what your version of miscommunication is like, one thing is certain – what we say isn’t necessarily what is received. It doesn’t work like a radio transmission, where input = output. But why is effective communication sometimes so complex? As a life coach, I’ve supported my clients with their communication and relationship conflicts, and grappled with the conditions that affect the effectiveness of our communication. I’ll attempt to describe some of them in this article.

Filters Are Biological

We are not just listening with our ears.

We are also listening with our filters.

Filters are like lenses on a pair of glasses; looked through blue-tinted lenses and everything will look blue.

“But I don’t have filters”, you might say, “I make sure to listen objectively!”

Yes, but filters are a part of how we operate. It’s extremely hard to separate your filters from yourself because, in a way, your filters are what makes you you.

Think about your character? Your tastes, your preferences, your beliefs and your values… your life experiences; your proud memories and your hurts. Do you have such things? If so, you have filters. Even a judge, who is supposed to make objective decisions, is doing so based on their own understanding and experience of the world!

It would not be unreasonable to say that our filters are how we perceive and make sense of the world. For example, in a discussion or reflection, you might think:

B works, C doesn’t work. So I think B is the way out.

But why would you think B works? Because of YOUR experiences. You have filtered out C based on your experiences. Is there a possibility that someone else with different experiences would have filtered out B instead?

Yes, we actively filter when we are making decisions. Our filters are also at work passively, when we take in information from the world. This happens naturally for us, as we mature. If we didn’t learn to filter, we would be overwhelmed by what our five basic senses pick up. This is why my 2 year-old tends to get distracted by everything in her environment, but some the same stuff captivating her is invisible to me. It’s how I can be efficient, and be focused on what I choose to do. Filtering is feature of a healthy, functioning brain. It’s biological!

For Effective Communication, Examine How You Understand

Hearing is not the same as understanding. You hear the sounds words that come from the speaker. But to truly understand, you need to make meaning of what you heard, and not to mention, what you saw as well. So in a way, a good listener is doing A LOT of filtering, for the sake of understanding the speaker. We filter the language and sometimes individual words. We also filter the speaker’s meaning and intentions. We filter their tone of voice. Their body language. Understanding happens as a result of filtering – when we decide what is being conveyed and what is not… what to accept and what to ignore.

argument miscommunication effective communication workplace conflict relationship colleagues interpersonal frictionTherefore, don’t be shocked, disappointed or offended the next time you discover that there was a ‘miscommunication’ in your conversations. No matter how eloquent you are, don’t fall under the illusion that you are conveying 100% of your message. And no matter how good of a listener you think you are, don’t assume that you are receiving a 100% pure version of the speaker’s message. The message is being encoded when sent, and has to be decoded when received. Thus, our conversations are more like interpretations.

Accepting the fact that we can only take in a filtered version of our conversations encourages us to further notice how easily our perception can be influenced. For instance, do you notice that the very place you are in affects your conversation?

Get a Coach for Better Communication

I recently donned the hat of a communication coach for one of my clients, who was experiencing lots of difficulty communicating with his spouse, despite claiming to be an extremely clear communicator. He would state his intentions plainly, and structure his content logically. But his spouse would respond in (what he describes as) a defensive manner, and the conversation will quickly devolve into an argument, or she would withdraw and clam up. Lacking effective communication, it led to even more unhappiness. This was highly frustrating and demoralizing for him. He had dissected their interactions in his mind countless times but saw nothing that he could have done differently. It was driving him crazy.

It was wise of him to seek me out; it is precisely in this sort of situation where the aid of an effective communication coach can make a huge difference. After we unpacked his experiences, he realized that he had been approaching his spouse for discussions at times and in places where it was difficult for her to respond productively. For instance, he had approached her at the end of a long day, after she had spent all her energy taking care of the family. On a number of occasions, he had even tried to initiate discussions with her in the car… WHILE SHE WAS DRIVING!

Moods Are Filters Too

Can you describe the filters at work in these instances? For me, I would name them as moods. At the end of a long day of taking care of the family, what mood do you think his spouse might have been in? Lethargy? Frustration? Impatience?

And how might being in a moving car affect the dynamics of the conversation? Especially when there is less eye-contact between speaker and listener? And lastly, the most important consideration – what mood do you think the spouse might be in, while trying to navigate traffic?

Effective Communication Happens When We Can See How We See

Anaïs Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”. Imagine how my client’s messages were being filtered by his spouse, in those situations.

On one hand, my client was amazed that I could guide him into this new awareness. And on the other hand, he was incredulous that he was unable to see such ‘seemingly simple’ factors in the first place. I suggested that he shouldn’t be so shocked; there is a reason why we call them blindspots. And this is why effective communication coaching can be so powerful – it can save us from the unnecessary pain and wasted time spent being stuck in our own limited awareness.

Coaching for effective communication can help us to see the filters through which we receive messages. When communication works well, it can be near invisible – we aren’t conscious about it. But when it breaks down, it can create much frustration and heartache. In my work as a life coach in Singapore, this is one of the common purposes my clients seek me for. They decided they have had enough of going round and round in circles for the communication problems with family, loved ones and colleagues. And in most cases, they start to see a way out when I help them to make visible the filters that are present in their conversations.

Now, when you think about your own experiences of ineffective communication, what filters do you think were influencing it? Even as you ponder this question, do you assume I’m referring to how YOU contributed to ineffective communication, or about the ineffective communication you have witnessed in others? Read the first sentence in this paragraph again and just notice… why did you filter it this way?