Imaginary Situations


My wife and I are traveling late one night and stop off of an Interstate exit at a gasoline station.  In a car parked at another gas pump is a woman having a very heated conversation on her cell phone. As we passed near her car, we heard her yell at the cell phone, “What we have here is an imaginary situation and I’m just trying to keep it real!”

There are many things this could mean but we didn’t hang around to hear more of this strangely public-private argument.  However, I often think of this woman when I hear people that have clear and strong mental filters.  “Imaginary situations.”  Hmmmm.

Mental filters are common and easily seen in others if you pay attention.   By “mental filter” I’m referring to the way we all accept some information while ignoring or dismissing other information.  This has a huge impact on how we communicate.  It is one of the classic cognitive distortions that influence our behaviour.

The damage to effective communication is when these mental filters are excessive.

For example, statistics say that people are more likely to be struck by lightening than win a big payout in a lottery.  Yet, there are plenty of people that run outside in a thunderstorm on their way to buy lottery tickets each year.  Selective thinking with a mental filter in place.

I have to remind myself frequently to check my mental filters.  They can prevent me from having proper empathy with others and that, in turn, can limit my understanding.

Just because someone is not understanding my explanation or view of the world, does not mean they are the one with the problem.  Maybe I am too filtered or maybe they are.  Or both, creating a double distortion of reality.  However, I try to focus energy on what is fact, what is opinion, what is important and what is not important.  Mental filters can often put the focus on the wrong things, so this is my exercise to keep the filtering minimal.

I would like to mention that pointing out the facts of a situation is rarely effective in communicating with someone that has strong mental filters.  If they already have a very distorted view of the world, their filters have long been in place to block your newly presented facts.  However, noticing that they have this strong cognitive distortion can help you understand and avoid wasted frustration.

Mental filtering is inherent in all of us.  We see ourselves and others based on our experiences and perspective.  Understanding this and consciously keeping this in mind as we communicate and interact with others can improve our communication effectiveness and lower our frustration.



About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.