We all come to each communication exchange with our own ‘filter’ through which we see the world, the person we are communicating with, and the situation or topic we are communicating about. These filters mean that we don’t always start with the same perspective as the person we are communicating with.
Our individual perceptions are the ‘filter’ through which we communicate with others.
These filters can be visual, as in the famous example in Figure 2. What do you see when you look at the picture? A young woman or an old crone? Both perspectives are possible, and both are valid.
Figure 3 reveals the two perspectives. Both of the perspectives represented in the young and old woman are valid – they are simply two different ways of seeing the same thing. We cannot decide that one does not exist just because we don’t see it. We have to recognize that there is more than one way to perceive the picture, just like there is usually more than one way to see any situation we encounter.
The different perspectives we experience can be with language as well. How many times have you received an email that seemed to have a certain ‘tone to it,’ and that perception of tone colored the way that you might have responded?
The same words can have very different meanings depending on how we interpret them.
Here’s another example. What is the meaning of the following phrase?
A woman without her man is nothing
Sounds pretty bad at first glance, doesn’t it? Look again. If you add punctuation or change the word emphasis, how does the meaning change?
A woman without her man is nothing
The words were the same in both cases. But the meaning has now changed completely. So although we think our meaning may be clear when we use specific words in a certain order, we can’t always be certain that the other person will read or hear them in that way.
Other Factors Affecting Our Perspective
There are a multitude of other factors that can affect our perspective, thereby affecting how we communicate with another person. Some of these factors come from our past experiences, our prejudices, our feelings, and our environment. Some of these will be discussed in greater detail in later chapters.
Imagine that you are in a meeting where you will be discussing changes in your personnel policies atwork. What will you be bringing to that conversation? You might have examples of other company’s personnel policies. You might have examples from your own time in the company that demonstrate why you feel that certain changes might need to be made. Or you might come to the table empty-handed, with just a pad of paper and a pen in order to take notes.
What influences you to do any of these things? Your past experience. You would bring outside information because you have learned in the past that comparing situations can be helpful in decision making. You bring examples of your own experience because you have learned in the past that examples can be powerful ways to make your case. Or you come to the table empty-handed because in the past you have felt that your input wasn’t valued or you have no past experience in this topic and so you are a ‘clean slate’ information wise.
In every one of these situations, your communication is being affected by your past experience. You enter a situation, a meeting, or a conversation, with certain expectations of what will happen in that scenario, and you behave accordingly.
Of course, sometimes you want your past experience to influence your future communications. For example, when your team responded positively to the sales tactics you put in place, those same or similar tactics can certainly be successful again.
when our negative past experiences stifle our communication or alter our full potential for communicating that we need to be aware. Further examples of how your past experience could influence your communication are given in Figure 4. Note that not all of them are negative – our past experiences can reaffirm our communication as well.
We all have prejudices. They occur when we take our past experiences with a person and assume that the same type of experience will happen with all people who are similar to the first. Prejudices are partly due to culture and partly due to personal preference or experience. Not all prejudices involve a negative characteristic either; for example, you could consider all of one group to be smart.
The problem with prejudices is when they start to influence how or to whom we communicate. To get an idea of how this could be happening in your workplace, consider how you might complete the phrases below. If you can’t think of a way to complete it from your own experience, complete each phrase with a stereotype that you might have heard in the past:
• Women in the workplace are….
• Young people in the workplace are…
• Seniors in the workplace are…
• Working mothers in the workplace are…
• Supervisors at work are…
• The lowest job level workers are…
• Blacks, whites, or (fill in a race) in the workplace are…
• Homosexuals in the workplace are….
• Christians, Muslims, or (fill in a religion) in the workplace are…
• Disabled people in the workplace are…
Prejudices occur when we take an isolated experience with one ‘type’ of person and then act as if all encounters in the future with people of the same ‘type’ or with the same characteristics will result in the same experience
When we categorize people like this, we eliminate their individuality. If you are communicating to a person through a perceived prejudice or stereotype, at the very least you are greatly limiting the chances of your communication being successful or producing the desired result. At the most, you are alienating or insulting someone with whom you are trying to build a working relationship.
Your goal should be to see each person as an individual that is separate from any preconceived notions you might have about them. It takes practice, but wouldn’t you like to be seen and communicated with as an individual and not as a sum of different labels that can be placed on you?
For this area of influence, there are actually two ways in which your feelings can influence your communication with another person. The first simply refers to the way that you feel on a given day; if you feel well, you’ll communicate in one way and if you feel ill you’ll communicate in another. Since your well being fluctuates, it makes sense that the way you communicate will change somewhat with how well you are feeling. If you find yourself experiencing difficulty in communicating due to an illness or other physical stressor, recognizing and acknowledging it, when appropriate, can be very helpful when others might interpret the change in your communication as having something to do with them.
The second aspect related to feelings refers to how you feel about a specific person. When you genuinely like someone, the way you communicate is going to show it. Unfortunately, the same can be said for when you don’t like someone. However, as you continue learning about effective communication skills in the following chapters, you will find some tools to help you be as effective as possible in communicating, even when it’s with someone that you dislike.
The last area of influence on your communication is your environment. All of us communicate differently in different environments. This is simple enough to observe in everyday life. Do you speak to your colleagues the same way that you do to your friends? Do you talk to strangers with more or less formality than people you know well? Do you talk to your subordinates the same way when your own boss is there as you do when she is not there? As you go through your workday, notice how where you are, what is going on and who else is present may be impacting the way that you communicate.
Recognizing how the environment might be affecting others you communicate with is a skill that can come in handy for you, particularly when you perceive that the environment is having a negative impact on your ability to communicate effectively with someone. This skill will help you to perceive why someone might be communicating in the way that they are. It will also give you a factor that you can alter in order to make the person more comfortable or to establish a level of formality that you feel is important in a particular situation.