Let’s sit down for a cup of coffee together. Now think about how that coffee was made. Coffee grounds were put into a filter, water was heated up and poured over the grounds, it was able to pick up some of the properties of the coffee and out comes your delicious and piping hot cup of joe. Now you may be asking yourself, why are we having a discussion about the process of brewing coffee? That is because sometimes in relationships and communication, we hear our partner say something to us but as it passes through our memories, thoughts, feelings and mood it may become filtered to sound differently that it was intended. Likewise, when we communicate with others our words pass through their filters and may also be interpreted differently than we intended. We may speak out of love and concern, it passes through the filter of memories and feelings, is heated up and may come out confused, hurt or misunderstood. As we explore the way in which we communicate with our partners and those around us, let’s think about it through the coffee filter analogy.
Have you ever said or been on the receiving end of comments like “that is not what I meant”, “you know I would never say that” or “how did you get that from what I said?” These are examples of times when our “filtering” became problematic. You or your partner said something that was not intended to be inciting of negative feelings yet once filtered through memories, thoughts and feelings, it became the start of an argument. Dividing household responsibilities, figuring out finances, even talking about your day at work are all opportunities where our communication filter can become a barrier if not understood. Your “coffee grounds” or what is inside of your filter can have an impact on what you see, hear and interpret within communication and consequently can influence whether the conversation is productive or frustrating. The holidays are a prime example of a potential filter difference between you and your partner. If you have negative memories of family holidays, you may be more prone to be reactive, defensive or upset about planning holiday trips whereas your partner may have positive holiday memories and therefore is less likely to understand defensiveness around holiday planning, events and traditions.
So now that we have described how our thoughts, feelings and past experiences can filter our communication, what should we do about it? First, self-awareness is key. Our past is not necessarily bad or something to be ashamed of but rather something that we need to understand in order to be less reactive to potential triggers. Understanding our past helps us incorporate it into the present rather than store it away only to be surprised by it when we have an unexpected reaction. Check in with yourself on how you feel at the time, what past memories or experiences may be reflected in your reaction and what internal and external factors may be involved. Likewise, work to recognize what may be going on with other person as well. If a conversation starts to feel misunderstood or as if it is going off track, consider that your partner or friend may be filtering your words differently than you intended. Rather than becoming angry or defensive, this can be an opportunity to talk through what is happening if you find yourself in a “how did we get here” moment in your conversation. Statements like “I apologize if I said something hurtful, let me try to rephrase what I was saying”, “I love you, I did not mean to hurt you”, “I didn’t anticipate this reaction, can we talk about what is happening”, “I would like to take a break and talk about this after dinner” or “can you help me understand what I said that was upsetting?” are all ways to begin exploring how you and your partner are experiencing and interpreting the conversation differently. These types of questions may not feel comfortable for your communication style and that is absolutely fine, but work to find a few, calm statements or questions that you can use when you feel a conversation derailing that may help bring it back to something productive.
Now that you are beginning to recognize that some of your ineffective conversations may have been due to past experiences and unknown filters, what is the next step so that your “communication coffee filter” is less of a barrier in your relationship.
- Explore your own reactions and better understand your own filter. As you increase your own self-awareness, you provide opportunity for processing and working through past feelings that you may not realize are negatively impacting your relationships.
- If a conversation begins to derail, ask yourself what you are reacting to and reflect what your partner may be experiencing. This reflection provides opportunity for growth individually and as a couple. Sharing those feelings with your partner can potentially bring you closer together and improve your understanding of one another. You may find yourself having those repetitive arguments less often because the filters that provoke them are better understood and therefore less aggravating.
- Talk openly, when possible, about how you are interpreting something in order to allow for increased understanding. This practice can improve long term communication as you become more comfortable communicating your feelings and needs while also learning about the feelings and needs of your partner.
- Recognize that sometimes you need to take a break before things escalate. It is okay to ask for a break, walk away and find time later to come back to the conversation.
- If you are having trouble exploring this on your own or with your partner, this may be a time to seek support from a counselor. If you feel like extra support could help in processing your own filter, feel free to contact Northstar Counseling Center to get started as early as this week!
Our filters are a part of who we are, but we can be in control of them. Check in with yourself this week to see how your own thoughts, feelings and memories may be impacting your interpretation of the world around you. This just may be the difference between quick anger and a productive conversation two people. You can do it!