How our Listening Filters Create our Reality and Limit Us

One of my most vivid memories from my childhood is when my grandmother mistook me for my father. I first thought she had gone crazy, but I was relieved when it was diagnosed as cataract in her eyes. Within a few days and after a small surgery, I was back to being her grandson. That was an easy fix — I thought at that time.

I had no idea that many years later, I was to discover a kind of cataract — in my vision and listening. The cataract which I am talking about are our listening filters. As I shared briefly in my article about Listening, these filters helps each one of us create our own perceived reality which helps us in making every decision — big or small — of our lives. However, unless we know the various listening filters at play, we don’t see our reality as a perception but as the absolute truth.

Whenever we see or hear something, we select what to pay attention and what to ignore, often subconsciously, based on a certain set of filters. A simple example could be someone speaking our name. Even if we are in a crowded room, we will instantaneously pay attention if someone utters our name, even if they are behind or far away from us. Our filters make us give more attention to our name than any other word.

Similarly, other listening filters make us pay more attention to certain things and ignore others. They can make one of us cry and another laugh on hearing the same story. They allow us to make sense of the situation in front of us, which creates the foundation on which we base our decisions.

listening filters color our world

What color does your world look like?

What are these Listening Filters?

1. Parents
Our parents are our first contact with humanity. As we grow up, our parents influence us the most. As we try to understand the world around us, our parents tell us stories to make it easier for us to navigate it. Everything that we consider as our most basic self – our religion, language, values, our political affiliations — are shaped by our parents more than anyone else.

Subconsciously we learn to listen to the outside world through them. Depending on what our parents think, and how they act, we learn to make our own choices, and judge other’s choices. We either end up see the world as they do, or rebelling against them and view the world contrary to how they see it.

2. Values and Beliefs
We filter everything we see and listen through our values (how we define right & wrong), and political, religious and other strong beliefs. For example – If a person has suffered racial discrimination in the past, he is likely to filter all future interactions with suspicion and caution.

If we hear what is in tune with our values and beliefs, we feel relaxed, joyful, and get an ego boost which can easily be seen in our body language. When we hear or see something contrary to our beliefs, we are surprised and might even feel pain and shock. We feel our muscles tightening, which can develop into stress, frustration and anger. Again, this is visible in our body language.

3. Culture – Language, Society, Religion
We behave in the world according to the religion we follow (or not), the languages we speak and are spoken around us, and the norms of the society we live in. Whether we are direct or vague in our communication, whether we are disciplined in our daily dealings or not, whether it is polite to accept a gift or not, and other subtle things in our daily life — are shaped by the culture of the land we live in.

4. Intentions, Expectations and Mood
We enter every conversation with an expectation of the outcome. For example – my expectations are very different when I talk to my colleague at work compared to when I run into him over the weekend. Similarly, my expectations differ when my wife calls me up at our usual time and when she calls up unexpectedly during the middle of the day. What we listen in these different circumstances is shaped by what we expect to happen.

Our listening is also shaped (or filtered) by our mood. At the end of a long day when we are tired, if we don’t get our expected response in a meeting, we might easily get frustrated and angry. But if we get the same response at the beginning of a day when we are fresh and energetic, we might respond in a totally different manner. The difference in both these cases is our mood impacting our listening.

5. Personal Prejudices
We all have certain personal prejudices, which can be racial, economical or something even more subtle – like the way one dresses. We listen and treat people differently based on these prejudices, most often on a subconscious level. An example is considering one colleague more ambitious than another based on how they are dressed. Another example is how we listen when we are approached by a homeless person on a street. Do we trust them when they approach us for money, or think about whether they are just going to use the money to get drunk?

We all have such personal prejudices formed over the years which live in our subconscious and give us a filtered view of the world around us. We are likely to ignore anything that opposes these prejudices, and very likely to agree and bond with anyone who shares the same prejudice as us. For instance, if we have a personal dislike for a person, we are likely to be dismissive about his ideas. On the contrary, when we interact with people we admire, we might behave over-optimistically in situations which warrant more caution.

We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are

We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are

Does everyone have the same filters?
Absolutely not. Just like our fingerprints, each one of us has unique listening filters. Based on our past, we all filter how we experience the present and make meaning of what we see and hear. Furthermore, our listening filters are changing (or evolving) daily based on new people we meet, successes and failures we have, and prejudices we form.

Our listening filters give each one of us a unique view of the world around us. These filters are almost like glasses through which we view the world. We put on our black glasses, and then complain the world around us is black. Not only that, we argue and fight with others wearing red glasses that the world is black and not red. Sounds silly, isn’t it! Yet we all do it.

What can we do about them?
Every decision we make, whether it is trivial or a life changing one, depends on how we assess the situation. Our listening filters help us create this assessment, which in turn limits the options in front of us. If two people act differently in the same situation, the difference is in their assessment of it. Reality is the shaky foundation on which we all rest our decisions.

As you read this article, and understand it through your own filters, don’t be led to believe that there is something wrong with having them. Instead, they are very useful in giving us a set of options in each situation which help us navigate through life. However, we are normally blind to the fact that these filters give us our perspective of life in each moment. If more aware, we are likely to understand how others see things differently.

Knowing that others may see the same situation differently can help us stay humble in challenging times. Being aware that our listening filters limit our available options can give us a big picture view and bring a smile on our face in stressful situations. In doing so, we don’t have to throw away our coloured glasses through which we view the world, we just have to be aware of them. And perhaps, try different ones for a while.

Making an attempt to sincerely view a situation from the other person’s point of view is what Real Listening is all about. If we can do so, we will make our conversations a bit more constructive, our days a bit more fun, and our relationships a bit more meaningful.

The Two Kinds of Choices and Decisions

Life throws us many choices at different times. When we pass school, we have a choice of college. After college, we have a choice of jobs. And so on. How we take decisions based on these choices decide what future results we will reap, and the consequences we might have to bear. All choices can be broadly classified into two types, one with multiple options and one without such privilege.

Let me explain further. Decisions like choosing a college or a job, or buying new shoes are the ones where we have multiple choices. We might choose between two or more colleges, and then based on some reasons and criteria, we decide on one. In such choices, we actually use our rational minds, measure the pros and cons of each option, and then choose the one which suits us better. For example – when I had to buy my bike, I took a look at Bullet, Thunderbird, Machismo and the Bajaj Avenger. Then, based on criteria like money, reason of buying, my ability to handle the bike, I decided which one to buy and went ahead and bought the Royal Enfield Thunderbird.

But life presents us with another kind of a choice too. The one where there is only one option. Yes, you read it right. Only one option. And we have to choose it, whether we like it or not, whether our reasons or criteria are met or not. There is no other way. If we choose it, we can be happy for what life has given us, be glad for it and look ahead into the future. If we don’t accept it, we can keep fighting with ourselves or with life, but there is no way out as there is no other option.

Now if I have confused you, that was not my intention. Let me explain by giving an example. Some of us are born in rich households, some of us in poor. When we are born, life says “Here are your parents, choose them!!”. It doesn’t present you options of what kind of parents you want, so that you can choose between a few of them. There is only one option, whether you like it or not. Now it is up to us to accept it or not, but that doesn’t change anything?

You might say that this is not a choice. It is something fixed which we can’t change, and I can’t put it under choices. You might even say that a choice is only when we have multiple options. My take is that even here there are two options, to accept it or not to do so. However this acceptance doesn’t change anything as we can’t change what life has chosen for us. The only thing our acceptance changes is how we move ahead in the future.

The most difficult choices are those when there is only one option for us

The most difficult choices are those when there is only one option for us


Let me give one more example. My mom is a cancer patient. I didn’t want her to have cancer. Nobody would. But life threw this at me, “Your mother has cancer. Choose!“. That shook me, and I couldn’t accept it at all. How can this happen to me? How can this happen to my mother? I blamed one and all, got angry and frustrated, and just couldn’t believe what all was happening? I believewe all have been in such situations where we don’t know what hit us. And we don’t know how to react. Why? Because there is no other option!!

Yes, no other option. Life has chosen this option for us, and presented us with a choice to accept it or not. But the option (cancer and our parents) is ours to keep. We can do nothing to change that. We can give reasons, fight or blame whomever we want, but we can’t choose another option as there is none. The only option we have is to accept it or not. And we must choose, even in this case. Let me explain why?

When I could not choose the fact that my mother has cancer, I was angry, frustrated, sad and dejected at the same time. This doesn’t change the reality a bit, but it impacted me, my surroundings and the people around me. All this frustration might have been coming out of my want to have a good life and caring for my mother, but it ended up doing the opposite. By being resentful, I only made things worse. For myself, and for others around me.

It took me a long time to finally choose this. And when I did, there were no questions like why or how to answer. There was complete freedom. Now I am able to spend quality time with my mother (knowing that it might be scarce), and also am able to find the best possible treatment option for her. But all that was not possible until I had completely chosen it. There was a new found peace, and all the things which mattered to me, my health, joy in life and giving my best to my mother, all automatically fell into place.

It might be difficult to grasp as a concept, but it is a fact. Sometimes life will take away a loved one, sometimes you will suddenly meet an accident and suffer heavy injuries, and the best we can do at that time is to happily choose them with faith

That doesn’t mean that I would want myself to get injured, or want a loved one to die, but at the same time, it is only wise to realize when life has made a choice for us. There is only one way we can move ahead in life and that is by choosing such choices. Or else we will be stuck in life while time moves on, and this causes friction. And this friction shows up as anger, sadness, blame and resentment. Choose it and you will be free and start moving ahead with peace and freedom.