I was co-facilitating a coach training workshop for leaders last week. Sun was streaming in through the windows and I was thinking about how to illustrate the concept of psychological filters and distortions. At that very second, I looked up and saw this perfect image. A real Plato’s Cave moment. Pointing to the window blind, I asked participants to imagine what the window frame is like behind it, based purely on what they could see. ‘Curved, bent, twisted, grey?’
In my experience as a psychological coach, this can be a most important and valuable insight. We continuously filter experiences so that what we perceive and what meaning we attribute to it is influenced as much by what is happening within us as anything that is taking place externally to us in the room. I’ll introduce four types of filter or influence in these notes below, along with a brief explanation for each: projection, transference, culture and emotion.
You may have heard the expression, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ This idea of projection is a simple and complex one. Watts illustrates it like this: imagine a projector on your shoulder, projecting an image onto a person standing in front of you. What you see is a combination of what they actually look like with an overlay of aspects of the projected image. This distorts what we perceive so that we partly relate to the person as they are, and partly as we are.
The principle here is that we subconsciously project aspects of ourselves onto those we encounter. At a functional level, it helps us to identify and empathise with people. It’s as if we recognise something of ourselves in them. However, we also project aspects of ourselves onto others that we don’t acknowledge or recognise in ourselves. Perhaps I’m not aware of how compassionate I am but see it in others around me. Perhaps what I find annoying in others is a denied aspect of me too.
Our perceptions are also influenced by our past. It’s as if we filter all new experiences through what we have experienced previously and what conscious (rational) or subconscious (intuitive) conclusions we have drawn from it. Human Givens therapists talk about this as pattern matching. If we encounter someone or something that reminds us of a previous person or event, it may re-trigger that previous experience so that we experience the new event along with the past.
I see this happen a lot in coaching conversations. Clients may react to experiences in the present as if they are unknowingly re-living similar experiences from the past and transferring something of those experiences onto how they are interpreting the present. This kind of resonance can create an amplifying effect, causing the person to overreact to a person or issue in the here and now. Surfacing the pattern, the transference, can be releasing and create a new sense of perspective.
What and how we perceive someone or something in a situation is also influenced by our cultural beliefs and values. It’s as if there is a permeable boundary between ourselves and others so that what we experience is us - but not only us. Cognitive behavioural research shows how what we feel in any given situation is influenced profoundly by what we believe about that situation. In this sense, our culture acts as a filter, influencing what we notice, or not, and what sense we make of it.
Finally, our perceptions are influenced by our physical and emotional state in the moment. If a person is feeling highly stressed, for instance, they may shift into fight/flight/freeze mode which significantly affects their cognitive abilities. He or she may experience a whole range of cognitive distortions that nevertheless appear to them, in that moment, as reality. I’ve written more about this in a short article: Fresh Thinking.
Perhaps the most significant point here is that for most of us most of the time, we are unaware of the filters we hold. We continually create and recreate our perceived realities. When we look at the window blind, we may assume we are looking at the window. We believe that what we perceive is what is. As far as we know, the window frame is curved, bent, twisted and grey – that is, assuming we know or believe there is a separate reality, a window frame, beyond the blind.
As leaders, coaches and facilitators, we can grow in awareness of our own filters and their potentially distorting effects. We can learn to notice when we are projecting or transferring onto people and experiences. We can grow in awareness of our cultural beliefs and how they shape what we perceive and what we value. We can grow in awareness of our emotional states – what triggers them and how to handle them in the moment.
We can enable others to grow in awareness too, thereby broadening the range of possibilities, of options, available to them – and to us. I would be interested to hear whether anything I’ve described here resonates with your own experiences. Notice what the photo, my language, my way of presenting ideas evokes in you. How do you feel as you read this? What does it remind you of? What are you noticing and not noticing, including within and about yourself? I look forward to hearing from you!
At some level, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 shook all of us. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the quake caused 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings to collapse or suffer damage. 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and another 1,000,000 were left homeless. It was an urban natural disaster of epic proportions. Traumatic media images showed people struggling to escape and rescue others from the ruins. Relief agencies reported severe logistical problems with providing aid because transport and communications infrastructure had been destroyed.
As hours and days progressed, people started to ask questions. Why had the earthquake been so devastating? Would it have had the same effect in richer countries where buildings are designed and constructed to withstand such impacts? What were the underlying causes? It transpired that Haiti had no government-regulated building codes. Houses were built wherever they could fit, often on steep mountain slopes with insufficient foundations. Limited access to clean water and proper sanitation exacerbated risk of disease in the aftermath of the quake.
This catastrophe illustrated all too painfully a simple predictive equation used by relief agencies throughout the world: hazard + vulnerability = disaster risk. A powerful earthquake (hazard) hits a densely populated urban area with poor housing (vulnerability) and disaster results. A disaster reveals underlying vulnerability to potential and actual hazards. The global financial crisis during the same period as the Haiti earthquake revealed serious flaws in the global banking system, exposing economic vulnerability at local, national and international levels.
Against this backdrop, talk of building resilience, an ability to cope or even thrive in the face of considerable stresses and demands, has understandably become more urgent and commonplace in governmental, non-governmental and commercial institutions. Models of proactive resilience building strategies used in the relief and development sector include disaster risk reduction (identifying and addressing underlying causes) and disaster management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). They have operational parallels in other sectors too.
A friend put it this way. A man lives under a cliff and a rock is about to fall on him. If you can, address whatever is causing the rock to become unstable. If you can’t, do what you can to remove or shore up the rock to prevent it falling. If you can’t, encourage and enable the man to move away from the cliff face. If you can’t, provide him with a helmet and body armour to protect him when the rock falls. If you can’t, have a medical emergency team on hand to increase his chances of survival when it does happen. Once you have done all that, prepare the man for rehabilitation.
Organisations have responded to the resilience challenge in a whole host of ways including continuous environmental scanning, diversifying fundraising or investment portfolios, ensuring clearer brand differentiation, exploring new global markets, forging strategic alliances, investing in innovation, improving customer experience and retention, introducing flexible employment policies and practices, investing in talent management and engagement, ensuring transparent ethical practice. All these tactics aim to reduce and mitigate external and internal risks.
This parallels similar developments in counselling and coaching arenas where the agenda has shifted from reactive or remedial stress or crisis management to a more proactive and developmental focus. People professionals from disciplines ranging from therapy to human resources recognise that people and people systems (e.g. families, teams, communities, organisations) are facing unprecedented challenges and need to learn and develop fresh insights, skills, relationships and resources to face them effectively and prevail.
In the UK, cognitive behavioural psychology-based approaches have become increasingly popular, helping people to think differently in order to reduce anxiety and stress and to see opportunities in the midst of all kinds of potentially bewildering challenges and changes. The principle works something like this. If I can learn to perceive a situation differently, to see it through fresh eyes, I will feel differently about it and respond or behave differently towards it. This approach can achieve dramatic and quick results and achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.
Other approaches based on psychotherapy, person-centred or human givens psychology expose and heal internal trauma or emotional struggle. If I can heal the historical pain that experiences may trigger or tap into, I can face new experiences afresh and with greater personal resilience. Psychological coaching has grown in popularity alongside traditional business or performance coaching, reflecting a recognition that how well a person deals with a situation depends as much on the person’s awareness and resilience as on the demands of the situation itself.
Recent psychological innovations include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which is concerned less with challenging and changing thoughts about situations than its cognitive behavioural counterpart and more with learning mindfulness. The principle involves growing in awareness, noticing and observing one’s experience rather than struggling with or trying to change it, and learning to rest in a deeper sense of transcendent self. It reframes and embraces pain and difficulty as part of the ebb and flow of life rather than as a dysfunctional problem to be challenged, resisted or resolved.
There are parallels in Buddhism and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought. The latter view human experience in the context of a theology of God. The Bible portrays God as actively involved in the world and invokes trust in him as a way of approaching and dealing with experience, e.g. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t rely on your own understanding…’ (Proverbs 3:5); ‘I [God] will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). The Qur‘an, similarly: ‘Nothing can befall us except that which God has ordained…the faithful should put their trust in him.’ (Sura 9:51).
Judeo-Christian theology points far beyond simple rational assent and commitment to an alternative metaphysical social construct and lifestyle. It invites an openness to a spiritual dimension, a willingness to enter into a Supernatural relationship, an ability to draw on a transcendent experience that can result in inner strength, peace and growth in the face of adversity. It also advocates attitudes and behavioural qualities that build resilience at interpersonal and macro-systemic levels, e.g. love, integrity, equality, faithfulness, forgiveness, peace, celebration and hope.
These and similar qualities were found to be highly significant in enabling people and communities to survive during and recover following some of humanity’s worst recent disasters including the Nazi Holocaust, the Asia Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake. In light of this, Western psychosocial approaches and interventions aimed at providing post-traumatic support, based largely on secular assumptions and methodologies, are beginning to revisit the spirituality question. There may in fact be more to faith, spiritual reality and experience than a traditional secular functional outlook has presupposed.
This kind of phenomenology enables us to confront crisis and disaster at deep human-existential levels. A crisis challenges our assumptions, reveals our vulnerabilities, evokes our defences, shifts our perspectives, tests our resilience. In Western societies, our culture, wealth and technology have enabled us to insulate ourselves from some of life’s more difficult trials. Since resilience is built through facing challenge with support, some psychologists now believe this external protection is, paradoxically, reducing our inner psychological resilience. Is it time to think again?
It’s funny how these things come out of nowhere. One week ago, we received an unexpected bill that threw us into regressive stages of conflict with a major telecommunications company. The cold, belligerent manner we experienced left us dazed, upset and angry.
We felt unheard, misrepresented and unfairly treated. It triggered subconscious memories of similar experiences in the past, from bullies in the school playground to poor customer service elsewhere. It’s what psychotherapists call transference and human givens therapists, pattern matching.
The thing that left us most confused was that the people we spoke with were more concerned with bureaucracy and rules than with customer relationship or retention. In taking this stance, they were inadvertently working against their own company’s as well as our interests.
We will cancel the contract and the company will lose more in on-going revenue than it would have gained from pressing a debatable charge. We tried to explain this but they would not, could not hear. They were entrenched in their views, their predetermined systems and procedures.
After countless phone calls, we spoke with one person, an African man who treated us warmly, listened hard to our story, communicated empathy, took personal responsibility to work for a solution on our behalf. He mediated a resolution, the company dropped the charge and the dispute was ended.
It was a tiring and frustrating experience and I’m trying hard now to listen for the voice of God. What was really going on here? At a human level, it was an encounter with an organisation, an institution, that has lost sight of the customer, that appears more interested in processes than people.
But there are spiritual parallels too. I have this flash back to Jesus’ encounters with the religious authorities. They had become so locked in rules, in regulations intended to safeguard God’s interests as they saw it, that they had inadvertently lost contact with God and with people.
There’s this same risk in any organisation, in any situation, that we construct a fixed gestalt, a fixed expectation of what is and should be that blinds us to alternative perspectives and realities. In the Jesus case, paradoxically, it prevented the religious recognising ‘God with us’.
By contrast, this African man moved towards us, stepped into our shoes, took up our case on our behalf and mediated a positive result. In effect, he mirrored Jesus by his actions, working to restore relationship where it had been damaged. This is the heart of the Christian gospel.
And so as I look back over the week, I feel irritated by the bureaucracy, sad that I sometimes lost sight of the ‘opposition’ as people, relieved that fairness finally prevailed, grateful for friends who helped us laugh in the midst and thankful for the mediator who inspired us to be more like Jesus.
It feels like the climax of an western movie. High noon, haunting music by Ennio Morricone, two figures facing each other in the dusty, deserted street. The tension mounts. The camera zooms in to the eyes, who’s going to blink first?
I’m staring blankly at my annual tax return form. It stares back at me, coldly, unforgivingly, without flinching. I can feel that same tension. I’ve been here before but it doesn’t diminish the feeling of drama, of challenge, of threat.
I feel helpless, alone. Desperately, I call out for help. I dial the ‘help-line’, Iisten to IR information I don’t want and am directed to push number after number on the keypad, only to be cut off. Feelings of painful isolation intensify.
What makes this experience so bad? Why does it evoke such desolation, panic, stress? How is it I can cope with normal demands of life and yet, suddenly, something so small like this can feel overwhelming? What's this all about?
The first challenge is known in psychotherapy as transference. The tax form is like a trigger, evoking memories from my earliest childhood of struggling with maths. That familiar, 'I’m never going to be able to do this’ feeling.
I’m transferring those feelings into this current situation. Every time I’ve faced a maths challenge, every time I’ve felt unable to do it, every time I’ve felt this pain and frustration. It’s all being transferred into the here and now.
At a subconscious level I’m not just dealing with this tax form. I’m dealing with every tax form, every budget at work, every till receipt, every bank statement, every maths test where I’ve struggled. It all gets added together, multiplied.
This creates the next challenge, known in human givens therapy as emotional arousal. When emotions are amplified to a high degree, it switches the brain from ordinary rational thinking to emergency fight, flight or freeze mode.
When I feel this stressed, I quite literally can’t think straight. My heart pounds, my pulse races, I just want to scream, tear up the papers, swear at the IR or run away. I feel cornered, trapped with no escape. The feelings escalate.
This creates the next challenge, known in cognitive behavioural therapy as cognitive distortion. I’m unable to think straight, to keep things in perspective. I speak wild unfounded assumptions to myself and that reinforce the feelings.
‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ ‘I’m never going to understand the form.’ ‘I’m never going to be able to find all the information I need.’ ‘I’m hopeless at maths.’ ‘The IR deliberately makes these forms difficult!’
At this point, I’m not open to reasoning, to rational persuasion. I need to reduce the emotional arousal first in order to allow the brain to flick back into normal rational thinking mode. I need to allow the emotional dust to settle.
So I breathe deeply, go outside into the open space and fresh air, go for a walk, a run, do something physical that distracts me from the tax form. As I do so, I can feel my stress levels lowering, can feel my head gradually clearing.
Now I’m in a better place to challenge my cognitive distortions. ‘I did manage to complete last year's form.’ ‘I can find the information I need because it’s around here somewhere.’ ‘I can do maths when I take it slowly, one step at a time.’
I can also step back, notice what triggered the emotional panic in the first place, the way I’m transferring feelings from the past. It’s a kind of self-help therapy. And now back to the tax form - with a smile. (ok, the last bit's exaggerated!)
I'm curious about how the 'teenagers and stones' incident surfaced into awareness yesterday (see blog: 'A counterintuitive moment'). It happened almost 30 years ago and I've hardly thought about it since. What is it in my current experience that resonates with that one? What am I feeling now that reminds me subconsciously of how I felt then?
It's a process known in human givens therapy as pattern matching, tapping into an emotional memory. There's something about what I'm facing, what I'm experiencing in the here and now, that looks and feels familiar at a preconscious level.
It could be, for instance, a troubling feeling I'm ignoring, suppressing or avoiding. Is God prompting me to pay attention to something? On reflection, I've felt unfairly criticised this week, under proverbial attack. I've felt powerless to defend myself. Therein lies the parallel. I've felt tempted to become defensive, to hold my ground, to fight back.
Is God reminding me of what I learned back then, to draw on that experience as a means to addressing this one? To meet criticism with vulnerability, humility and openness; to reach out and seek relationship, rather than shrink back or fight?
I'm reminded of an encounter I once had with a facilitator in a group. I found the group experience deeply frustrating and challenged the facilitator forcefully. The facilitator, a skilled psychotherapist, responded openly and non-defensively and simply said, "It's not the first time you've been here, is it?"
He was right, the feeling of frustration felt familiar, reminded me of how I had felt in similar situations in the past, and I had imported those feelings into this new situation. This is transference, transferring beliefs, thoughts and feelings from the past into the present. It was a fair challenge, and I'm still learning.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.