An ability to listen activelyCommunication meaningfully with othersListens openly without judgementNon-judgemental and engaging attitude

Turning off automatic filters

As US secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said,

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter categories that tend to be the difficult ones.”

It’s rather easy to deal with something when we are aware of it. But what about the things that “we don’t know we don’t know”? What about filters that were installed in our brains while we were not aware of it, that are at this moment influencing our ability to listen?

This article aims to shed some light on what these filters might be, and what we can do to reduce or eliminate them altogether in case they are hindering our ability to “listen completely without filters or judgement”.

Why did I choose this tool?

Learning how to manage my own filters has greatly improved not only my work as a trainer but also my quality of life, communication and relationships. This quote from Carl Jung has proven very true,

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

How does this apply to being a trainer?

Listening without filters (or rather without letting the filters be automatic) is challenging even in one-on-one scenarios, and much more so while being a trainer and working with a group of people who can think so differently from us. And yet, you know how essential it is particularly if you have experienced being in a training and having a “dialogue” with the trainer, in the session or out of the session, and the responses from the trainer were strange, unrelated, irrelevant or carried the conversation in a completely different direction then what you intended. Do you remember how frustrating that was? In that frustration you can find the motivation to be a trainer who really knows how to “completely listen without filters or judgement”. The point of this article is not that you will become void of filters, but rather that you can be aware of them, notice them in action and most of all, decide when to leave them “on” and when to “turn them off”.

Main content:

Throughout our lives we have developed a set of filters which we use to navigate through life, to make decisions, to decide who/what we like and what we don’t, and so on. Some examples of these filters are:

  • This is good / That is bad
  • This should happen / That should not happen
  • This is right / That is wrong
  • How can this happen?
  • What’s the problem? How can I solve it?
  • Whose fault is this?

These filters aren’t bad, necessarily. In fact, they were developed to serve us, otherwise we wouldn’t have them in the first place.

How were these filters developed?

When we were around 2 – 2.5 years old, we started inheriting language and along with it, the opinions of that particular culture from the surroundings where we were brought up. Then we started to have our own experiences, and began to evaluate those experiences, in order to keep the “good” things happening to us and to stop the “bad” things from happening again.

As we grew even older, we started to solidify beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us. The influences of our parents and caretakers, combined with our own experiences, start to shape our opinions and ideas. By the time we are 18 we have some pretty solid beliefs and opinions about everything that affects us.

In some cases, we may experience hardship, difficulties or even traumas that can lead to the solidifying of our beliefs and opinions or the formation of brand new, even opposite ones. What we believe about the things that happen to us can matter even more then what actually happens, because it is those beliefs that will play a crucial role in shaping our future, a future which will be patterned after those beliefs.

So what does all of this have to do with listening?

Most of the time when we think we are listening to someone, the information that we are receiving is actually being automatically distorted by everything mentioned above (beliefs, opinions, worldviews). And there are times when this serves us.

For instance, take the filter of “this is right, that is wrong”. It can be very useful if we see that someone is mistreating a child, and we can take action to make sure that the child will be ok because we recognize that what is happening at that moment shouldn’t be happening.

However, the same filter that helped you to protect a child from harm can have a detrimental impact when, let’s say, someone is telling you their life story. There is no point then to dissect what about their life story is good and what is bad, and it can cause them to feel judged and not at ease to speak with you freely on the matter.

Or take one of the other filters, “what is the problem? And how can I solve it?” This filter can be incredibly useful when you actually need to solve a problem and find a solution, for example when you’re trying to figure out why your computer doesn’t work, or when you are trying to find out what is making your child sick and how you can make them feel better.

However, imagine that you come home from a long day and are sharing with your partner how things went, and after every comment they are saying “I know what the problem is here, you are doing this wrong/they are doing that wrong. Here is the solution!” To which you’ll probably say, “Why can’t you just listen to me and stop trying to fix it?”

In short, there are multiple ways that each and every one of these filters can be useful. But there are also multiple ways in which they can prevent you from really listening, and that can prevent real communication.

So what’s the solution?

Yes in case you’re wondering I have a problem/solution filter and I’ve spent a long time honing when to have it on and when to turn it off. It’s on at the moment 😊.

The solution comes in 3 steps:

Awareness – Before anything else you need to be aware of what active filters you have. If possible, find out why you have them, and be aware of them at the moment when they show up.

Questioning – In general, you can ask yourself if your filter is helping or hindering. Is it helping you to make progress in your life, or is it holding you back? Is it helping or hindering your communication with others? At the specific moment when it comes up, you can ask yourself if this is the right moment for it, if it’s helpful in that particular context, and especially if you should hold off on that filter before you fully listen to and understand what that person is trying to say.

Deciding – This could be deciding to hold off, on making a judgement, deciding not to make a judgement at all or deciding to make an immediate judgement because immediate action needs to be taken. It doesn’t matter what decision you make, the important thing is that you are making the decision and not being governed by your “automatic mind”, and that you are considering all important factors in the situation.

What is the automatic mind then?

Good question!

Neuroscientists sometimes say that we have one brain, but two minds: a mind that makes conscious choices, based on self-reflection and awareness; and a mind that makes automatic responses based on instinct and habit.

Each of these “minds” are supported by different neural circuits—different systems of the brain in command of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. Stress selectively inhibits the circuitry of self-awareness and self-control, and activates the circuitry of habit and impulse. Neuroscientists describe it like flicking a switch: stress hormones turn off the reflection mode and turn on the reflex mode.

This explanation is important for 3 reasons.

  1. You need to be patient with yourself when you want to change how your mind has been behaving for a good portion of your life. It doesn’t happen overnight, and if you find yourself falling into the same patterns and filters, that’s a good thing! Because you are now aware of what’s happening, as opposed to these filters being something “you don’t know that you don’t know”.
  2. Your general state of mind needs to be calm and peaceful in order to be able to implement this. We think and behave very differently under stress then when we are relaxed and happy, so do whatever you need to do to be in a good state of mind most of the time, as this in itself will improve your listening and communication.
  3. Ideally you will make the above steps of awareness, self-questioning and then decision making a habit, so that even when you feel stressed this will still be your automatic reaction. If you form this habit during the times when everything is good and calm, it will benefit you even when it’s turbulent or you’re having a heated argument, for instance.

Reflection questions:

Which of these filters do I recognize in myself?

  • This is good / That is bad
  • This should happen / That should not happen
  • This is right / That is wrong
  • How can this happen?
  • What’s the problem? How can I solve it?
  • Whose fault is this?

Is there a different filter not mentioned above that I realize I have?

How did I develop this filter?

In what ways is it helping me/has helped me in the past?

In what ways could it be hindering me/has hindered me in the past?

Which of the filters do I want to eliminate completely?

Which of the filters do I want to reduce?

When do these filters usually show up? (It’s ok not to know the answer to this one, it’s a question you can keep asking yourself and it will help you recognize when it does show up)

How will this make me a better listener?

What other positive impact will it have on my work and life?


How to apply it in everyday life:

Tell someone you are close to that you want to practice “completely listening, no filters or judgements”.

Ask them to tell you about something that’s important to them, and practice just purely listening to them without interrupting, judging, evaluating or filtering what they are saying.

When they are finished (and yes let them take as long as they want and to tell you when they’re done expressing everything they want to express) ask the following questions to them (and to yourself).

Did you manage to “completely listen without filters or judgements”?

Were there any moments that were difficult to hold yourself back from saying something based on filters or judgements?

Were there any moments that were difficult to hold yourself back from thinking something based on filters or judgements?

How did they (the person expressing itself) feel being listened to in such a way? Does it happen often?

How is this type of listening similar to how you are listening in your everyday life?

How is this type of listening different to how you are listening in your everyday life?

What did you learn about yourself from this exercise?

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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Kiran, R. (n.d.). Already Always Listening. Retrieved February 24, 2019McGonigal, K. (2011, December 23). Managing Two Minds: The Conscious Vs. Automatic - Mindful. Mindful. Retrieved February 24, 2019There Are Known Knowns - Wikipedia. (2019, February 24). . Wikipedia. Retrieved February 24, 20192017, April 16). THE FAST FRONTAL LOBE FIX - Fixing Your Brain’s Filter To Overcome Anxiety, Indecision, "Stuckness" | The Game Changer. Russia Today International. Retrieved March 12, 2019

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