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!
‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
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.
‘The more I think about what it means to experience something, the less I understand it.’ Mark, a psychotherapist, was sharing his reflections towards the end of a course on supervision and consultation. We had met week after week for a year, a group of counsellors in which I was the only community worker, spending time to see what emerged between us, then to reflect on its potential meaning and significance for our practice.
It felt excruciating at times, looking to each other, ourselves or the wooden floor, sometimes in desperation, for any glimpse of inspiration and insight. On one occasion, Mark was sharing some complex theory from psychoanalysis when I blurted out angrily, ‘I can’t see why we’re spending so much time on this, wasting our time on abstractions!’ Mark responded calmly and thoughtfully, ‘This isn’t the first time you’ve been here, is it?’
His insight detonated within me and I felt speechless. I had previously spent 3 years in theological college where I had felt very similar frustrations. It drove me crazy studying God, faith, spirituality as a theoretical topic, often focusing on questions that had very little practical value as far as I could see. Mark’s observation drew my attention to how I had imported that experience into the current situation, amplifying my feeling of frustration in the present moment.
In psychodynamic theory, this phenomenon is known as transference, the transferring of assumptions and feelings associated with previous experiences into a new experience, thereby distorting our experience of the current moment, the current relationship, the current situation. It’s as if we experience each new experience through the filter formed by previous experiences, which makes it hard if not impossible to see things as they ‘really are’.
I’m interested in how our experiences are also influenced by other factors, e.g. expectations. My friends rave about a film being shown in the cinema, my expectations are heightened, I go to see it and feel disappointed. My colleagues complain about a leader’s qualities and behaviour at work and I find myself bemused – I’m impressed by the same leader because she or he is so much better than others I’ve experienced previously.
How we experience something, someone is far from fixed. Our experience is influenced by so many factors, past experiences, future hopes, what we believe the implications are, what significant others value. It’s influenced by how we are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally, whether or not we got out of the right side of the proverbial bed, whether the sun is shining or it’s raining, who we are with at the time. The experience question? It's complicated stuff.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.