Apr 25, 2024 4 min read

Filters in Communication

Five common filters we use in communication.

When we communicate, there are several layers of invisible filters that can muddle the message. Knowing the most common communication filters we use can help avoid the traps of miscommunication and make sure our message gets across.

Why we use filters

One key aspect of leadership is that your words and actions get interpreted and amplified throughout the organization. People copy leaders, both in words and actions.

Everything you say and do gets dissected in a myriad of ways. And also misinterpreted. That's why it's doubly important to understand how your communication comes across.

One reason for the wide variation in interpretations is the filters we use when talking and listening. In Process Consultation, Edgar Schein outlines 5 common filters we use that influences and changes both how we transmit and receive messages.

Why do we use filters? Schein puts it this way:

...each of us has a unique personal history that in effect creates a set of filters for how we com­municate to others and how we hear and perceive them. In any given face-to-face encounter both the sender and the receiver automatically and unconsciously use those filters in selecting what they will send and what they will receive. ...

...all of us select what we say, how we say it, and when we say it in terms of a complex set of decision rules that we have learned over a lifetime and that re­flect our unique history.

5 common communication filters

The five communication filters that Schein identifies are:

  1. Your self-image
  2. Your image of the other person
  3. Your definition of the situation
  4. Your motives and attitudes
  5. Your expectations

Let's look at each of these in detail.

Filter #1: Your self-image

Both the sender and receiver have a self-concept, accompanied by feelings of self-worth or self-esteem. Their self-image and the value they attribute to themselves in specific situations dictates their communication style.

For example, seeing yourself as an expert with high self-confidence in a given area often leads to:

  • Increased likelihood of you initiating communication.
  • Preference for an assertive and authoritative communication style, instead of being hesitant.
  • Reduced tendency to listen to others discussing the same topic.
  • Greater likelihood of becoming defensive when contradicted, rooted in the belief of being an expert.

Conversely, when you're uncertain about your status within a group:

  • There's a tendency to remain silent.
  • More likely to pose genuine questions to gather information.
  • Likely to avoid actions that could potentially offend others, especially when the relative status of others is unknown.

Filter #2: Your image of the other person

Both the sender and receiver form images and concepts of others involved in the situation, assigning certain values to everyone. These perceptions and the value attributed to others influence communication style.

For example, perceiving others as less expert or of lower status often leads to:

  • Speaking condescendingly.
  • Frequent interruptions if we think they're mistaken.
  • Less attention to their unique viewpoints and more focus on whether they understand or agree with us.

Conversely, perceiving others as more expert or of higher status results in:

  • Less frequent contributions to the conversation.
  • Increased attentiveness to enhance our status within the group. This paradoxically distracts from effective listening by shifting focus from the task to interpersonal dynamics.

Terms like "arrogance" or "humility" that emerge from our interactions with others, reflect these self-perceptions and our perceptions of others.

Filter #3: Your definition of the situation

Both sender and receiver possess their unique interpretation of the situation in which they are communicating, including:

  • The setting or "stage."
  • Assigned roles within the context.
  • The overall "nature of the play," or purpose of the interaction.

Examples of different scenarios:

  • A problem-solving meeting.
  • An informal discussion or brainstorming.
  • A session primarily for the manager to share ideas.

Often, the exact nature of the interaction remains unspoken until someone asks: "What are we here for?" or "What is our task?".

Our communication style is significantly influenced by how we perceive the situation. Defining the situation involves more than just identifying goals or tasks; it also means:

  • Understanding our role and the roles of others.
  • Recognizing the duration, boundaries, and norms of everyone involved.

Communication issues often arise from differing perceptions of the situation, which may not be identified or addressed early on. Establishing a common understanding upfront is an essential leadership action.

Filter #4: Your motives and intent

Both speakers and listeners navigate the communication process through another set of filters shaped by their:

  • Needs and motives.
  • Intentions.
  • Attitudes toward others.

How we communicate varies depending on underlying motives:

    • If the goal is to sell a proposal or influence others, the communication approach will be strategic and persuasive.
    • If the need is to satisfy curiosity or gather information, the approach will be more inquisitive and open-ended.

Listening habits also vary based on intent:

    • When trying to influence, there is a heightened focus on detecting agreement or disagreement.
    • When gathering information, the focus shifts to understanding new ideas.

We communicate to "get things done". But it also serves other functions, including:

    • Meeting personal needs.
    • Self-expression.
    • Collective sense-making.
    • Influencing others.

We're constantly adapting our methods to suit these various purposes.

Filter #5: Your expectations

Expectations, both of oneself and others, act as psychological filters in communication, influenced by:

    • Actual experiences.
    • Preconceptions and stereotypes.

Expectations shape communication strategies:

    • Expecting an audience to struggle with comprehension may lead to the use of simpler language.
    • Anticipating a receptive audience prompts a more relaxed communication style.
    • Facing a potentially critical audience necessitates careful and precise articulation.

As a listener, expectations influence our interpretation:

    • Expecting high intelligence in a speaker might lead to over-analyzing their message.
    • Assuming a speaker is inarticulate or unintelligent can result in missing valuable points.
    • Anticipating disagreement may cause misinterpretation of statements as hostile.
    • Expecting agreement may lead to overlooking actual disagreements.

Given this entire suite of filters we deploy, no wonder clear communication is a premium! Schein's collection of filters is a good sanity checklist for getting better at this key skill.

Further reading

Leaders have to be particularly aware of these 5 filters, especially when they're coming from a position of authority and expertise. Your communication sets the context for the actions of your team, and each of these filters influences how you get interpreted.

Below are some additional pieces that go into different aspects of leadership communication:


  1. Process Consultation Revisited by Edgar Schein
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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