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George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Let’s unpick what goes on in our brains to cause this problem, so that you will understand why perfect communication is so difficult and how to communicate effectively.

How we see things

Everyone has their own ‘map of the world’ – how they see things.  People often mistake their map for ‘the truth’, but I want to show you that we each have our own version of ‘truth’. This fundamentally affects how we communicate effectively.

Bits of data reach us through our senses and enter the brain through the brain stem.  The RAS (Reticular Activating System) at the base of brain acts as a filter, only allowing in data that we want to pay attention to. 

How do the filters work?

We’re receiving so much information all the time that we couldn’t possibly process it all, so the brain filters out information we consider irrelevant.  Examples of filters are: values & beliefs, past experiences and decisions, memories, language, needs and drivers, attitudes … These are all programmes in our brain and therefore what we pay attention to. There are also ‘in the moment’ filters such as time (in a rush?), energy (low energy tends to block out more information), space (is the room hot? This will grab your attention).

We create our own representation or ‘map of the world’ from what we do let in.  This is one reason why eye witnesses contradict each other – each person notices only what is relevant to them.

The filters can be well embedded, such as childhood learning.   When I was a child, my mother always said, “Little girls should be seen and not heard!” I realized later, how that had shaped my behaviour and I was rarely the first person to speak up, for example in meetings at work.  I wonder how much that affected my career?

How the brain processes information and affects whether we communicate effectively

Are you aware of your filters? 

Everything you have experienced so far can inform your filters … education, family background, past decisions and memories, even our range of words is a filter.  

If you want to be a better communicator, an open mind is essential. This is how you can manage your filters. When you are aware of your filters, you can override them and stay open and curious to understand the communication as the sender intends it.  “I didn’t mean it like that!”  is a good example of our filters in action.

If you want to communicate effectively, start with an open mind to seek to understand the other person without judging.

How does the brain interpret the information?

The next step in the process of understanding is what happens with the information the filters let through. The brain is fundamentally lazy and seeks to use the least energy possible.  This means it uses the easiest, most familiar path and often uses short-cuts in thinking.  As a result, we tend to:

  • Generalise rather than be specific. E.g. if the speaker is talking about a difficulty in getting to sleep and you have the same experience, your brain may say, “Everyone’s got that haven’t they? That’s normal.”
  • We delete details. E.g. “This is getting worse.” (worse than what?)  or we stop listening when we think we know the situation.
  • We distort meanings. E.g. I see you frown, and I think, “You’re not liking this.”  (that’s mind-reading, how would I know?), or we finish other people’s sentences.

These three lazy habits mean that we often understand the message very differently from what was intended. 

Our ‘Map of the World’

The last step in the process is that, from the interpretation that is allowed through we:

  1. create an internal representation of the meaning (our map of the world)
  2. this affects our state of mind (attitude and feelings)
  3. and our physiology or body language   

Our behaviour, or what we say and do is a result of all this internal processing.

Communication is both verbal and non-verbal, and body language and tone are an important part of the message.  Research shows that we take a large part of the meaning of a message from the tone of voice and body language of the speaker.  Just the text has multiple possible meanings, so we take our cue from the tone of voice and emphasis and the facial expressions and gestures of the speaker.

This explains why written communications, such as email and text, are so often misinterpreted.  For important messages it is better to speak, if possible. If not possible, take care to write how you feel about the situation in your email, so the reader has a clue on how to interpret the message.

Influencing our ‘Map’  

The ‘map’ your brain generates influences your state of mind, which shows up in your body language.  E.g. You have to make a presentation and your ‘map’ is that you hate being in the spotlight and are lousy at speaking in public.  Your state of mind will be fear of making a fool of yourself and this will show up in shaking hands, a dry throat and no eye contact with the audience.

The good news is that the influences go both ways, so if you control your body language, the brain responds to those signals and your state of mind reflects the body language, which influences how you see things – or your ‘map’. 

When you adopt a confident posture and breathe in a relaxed way, this sends signals to your brain that there is no threat and you are in control.  Your state of mind will be confident and relaxed, and you will see the presentation in a positive light of an opportunity to influence others. 

Additionally, the listener reads your body language and when you project confidence, they will respond to you accordingly. This further boosts your confidence.

So how to communicate effectively?

Now we have broken down the process that goes on in your mind/body, you have the choice to intervene at any stage. 

You can control your body language and through this your state of mind and how you see things.  You can become aware of lazy thinking and challenge your generalisations, deletions and distortions. You can explore your filters and change any unhelpful ones or remind yourself to keep an open mind and not rush to judgement. 

Being aware of these internal processes and choosing your responses, will help you to become a better communicator.

To discuss this and other leadership topics contact Amanda


  • Amanda Bouch says:

    When you appreciate the complicated processes going on in the brain, it’s no wonder we each have our own version of the truth. The challenge is to get some alignment and agreement on ‘the reality’.

  • Shreya says:

    I like the part about filters, and how we only use information that is relevant to us, this tip is useful for feedback givers

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