The key to improving our human interactions

Understanding how we filter information leads to better communication – Part of my job is to help my clients understand people. Why it is people react and behave the way they do? How is it that two people receiving the same information can filter the information, and interpret things differently? Having a basic understanding of how individuals filter, and ultimately react to information, is a great foundation to create more meaningful interactions. I’m going to outline firstly the basic preferences people have for filtering information, and secondly how to apply this understanding to change your communication style to meet them, leading to more positive human interactions.

Primary interest filters — the 5 preferences

Before we explore these filters I’d like you to do a quick exercise that will provide insight on how you filter information. Think of your last holiday, or about your favourite holiday and write down two or three paragraphs about it. We will look at your answer in a minute.

In his book The Science of Advanced Behavioral Modeling Wyatt Woodsmall lists over two hundred filters/ ways that we filter sensory information we receive from the world in and out. Let’s explore the primary interest filter, which exists around five variables; People, Places, Things, Information and Activities.

People generally fall into one of these 5 preferences for filtering information. To illustrate with an example, let’s analyse the 5 different response you could get when asking the question “how was your holiday?”

  1. People preference: Who they were with or who they met would be important to these people. Eg “We met this lovely couple” or “The people there are just so nice”; “there were lots of other families”
  2. Place preference: The location is of importance to these people. How near or far it is from other places of interest, the convenience, the layout and the atmosphere of the place. They will describe the resort, the restaurants they may have visited etc. Eg “The view was just amazing”, “the restaurant was right on the beach”
  3. Things preference: Things are of most importance to these people – what they bought, the food, the ambience. Eg:“Oh it was fantastic”. Wait here a moment, and they’d run off and they’ll find all the stuff that they had bought while away on holidays. They’ll tell you about the stuff that they bought duty free, about the stuff that they bought in the village markets. They tell you about their bargains, how much it was.
  4. Information preference: Some people have a preference for information. They may talk about the history of the holiday destination, some facts about the main industry operating there; Eg “Did you know that they’ve been putting people on that island since 1742 and the first boat to go there actually had the same name as the governor who….”
  5. Activity preference: Some people have a preference for activity; what was going on and how they could get involved. When asked the question they’ll tell you about the activities they did; or the lack of activities; “I lay on a banana lounge. I was served pinna coladas. I read my book. I did nothing”. They’re still talking about activities, even if it’s the lack of them.

So how do we actually find out what filtering preference people have?

Going back to your answer, underline in colour every time you see a preference referred to.

For example, if you talk about the people you met, perhaps relatives, underline that in pink. If you mentioned a place, perhaps you talked about the view or you mentioned a place by name, Sydney, Los Angeles or London, underline that in green. If you mentioned things, perhaps you talked about what it is that you have bought or what you’d found, underline that in blue. If you hear yourself talking about information, dates, times, places, underline that in black. If you talked about activities, what you did or did not do, underline that in red. As you do this, see if you can spot a preference. It’s important to keep in mind that preferences can be influenced by context. For example, you saw a preference for information in this particular context, being a holiday context. This does not necessarily mean that that is your preference for ever and ever, in all contexts. It just means for that particular holiday, that’s what you noticed.

In order to get a better idea of someone’s preference, we really need to look at patterns rather than one off examples, to identify preferences in a variety of different contexts. An insightful question to ask to determine someone’s preference is what their/ your ideal career is. If you naturally have a people preference, you may be drawn to careers like counselling, service, sales. People who have a preference for place would choose a career where the place they work is significant. We did some work once for the Sydney Opera House and there were many people working there who enjoyed the kudos associated with working at the Opera House. People with a preference for things may work where there are lots of gadgets; a mechanic or perhaps in I.T. where they have access to the latest technology. People with a preference for information might like to work in I.T., but from an information gathering perspective, or in research, a role where they gather information and draw conclusions . If you have a preference for activity, you might like to work in a job with movement such as building, landscape gardening, or even corporate jobs that involve a variety of tasks.

Another way to identify preferences is to ask yourself, if you had three free days where everything at work was up to date and you did not have to go to work, “what would you do?” You did not have to do anything, you could do whatever it is you choose to do. What would you choose to do? A people person might spend a day with their friends. A place person might go to a specific place. A things person might play with gadgets. An information person might read a book. An activity person may do nothing or everything. Again, insight to a preference is provided from the response to such a question.

Asking these kinds of questions and analysing responses in different contexts, will show a general pattern to help you better understand an individual’s filtering preference.

How can we avoid conflict and ensure we get the best out of a team of people with completing preferences?

Not surprisingly, when people with different filtering preferences are thrown into to work as a team, issues can arise from the competing priorities at play. You have some people focused on getting the information right before starting, some focused most on working as a team and others focused on doing certain activities at a certain time. This can ultimately lead to a downward spiral of conflict.

We need to recognize the language that other people use, recognize our own preferences and to be able to stylise what it is that we’re trying to say in the other person’s language. When we do this, it increases the likelihood that they understand us. Once we have a better idea of an individual’s preference, we can use this knowledge in a number of different ways to;

  • Soar with our strength 
  • Increase our own versatility 
  • Speak the other person’s language and therefore increase our capacity to persuade and influence 
  • Coach others 

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Soar with your strengths. The corporate world goes to great lengths to improve our weaknesses, often called ‘development opportunities’. While improving weaknesses is admirable, there are also some drawbacks; having teams of people or individuals focusing on things they don’t like, aren’t good at and don’t have a preference for, can be problematic and counterintuitive. We are all are happiest when we’re doing what we love, when we’re soaring with our strengths. Once you have identified your preference, how can you shift the focus of your role or weave your preference into your job without neglecting other aspects of you role. Jot down what you think your preference is and a brief description of your role at work. Then try and put the two together and identify how your role would change if you could make your preference, or primary filter, the central component of your role. Likewise, how can you apply this to other people in your team to get the best out of them.

Increasing your versatility. In his book Textbook of Wisdom; Edward de Bono, the Godfather of lateral thinking, highlights how the average person ‘reacts’ to situations, and wise people ‘respond’ to them. The distinction being a response is much more considered. The wise person considers all of the things that may have caused the situation and then generates a list of possible responses to the situation. They then consider the consequences of each of those responses before deciding the most fitting response. Such an approach does not come naturally, but is instead a learned skill, developed over time with a lot of practice. Use the 5 preferences (people, place, things, information and activity) to consider all responses. I like to think of it in terms of putting on my preference hat; to consider my response. If I am in a conversation at a BBQ, would I be better off wearing my ‘people’ hat or wearing my ‘information hat’, for example.

Speak the other person’s language and therefore increase our capacity to Persuade and Influence. We build rapport with others when we like each other. Have you noticed how people in deep rapport seem to have the same posture – to stand and/or sit in a similar fashion? Sometimes they even dress the same, speak similarly – or even have the same type of laugh. This is not an accident, people achieve rapport when the differences between them are minimised.

This means understanding each others’ values, matching physiology / posture / voice tone……………and language style – for example: Do they prefer to talk about people, places, things, information or activities When strong influence and liking patterns are at work, rapport is being built at a deep unconscious level. Therefore, to access states of “being liked”, or to effect useful outcomes in business, we can employ the skills of building unconscious rapport, with conscious intent. The other person or persons will not notice – they will simply feel more at ease with you, more quickly, especially if you are very “unlike” them in the first place. It is important to note that the person does not have to like you or be a friend to have rapport – particularly in a professional context.

One of the areas that we can match and mirror is language. We can listen to the other person’s preference and the language that they use and structure our message based around their preference. Assume we want to persuade someone to support a disaster recovery project and that person’s preference was people, we would structure the message around how the disaster recovery project will reduce people’s stress, make people’s jobs easier, etc.. If we can catch what it is that we want people to do in their preference, they are more likely to support our cause.

If the person’s preference was information, we could talk about the disaster recovery in terms of the information that could be lost if we do not consider this disaster recovery project and the implications of losing that information.

Coach Others. Empower others in your team by teaching them about the concepts of primary filters and the importance of identifying them in ourselves and others. Set up a situation in which they can explore their own preferences and whether they are helping or hindering them. Allow them to see how other people they work with have different preferences to them, and provide them with the practical communication tools they can use to move towards better interactions with one another.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for understanding how our minds work to interpret the world around us. By exploring our individual filtering preferences and appreciating we are all beautifully different from each other, we just might be able to find a way to all work constructively together and be the very best versions of ourselves.

I’d love to talk to you about how to explore these interaction techniques in greater detail within your team. Feel free to get in touch to learn more about my workshops and programs that get great results for teams at all levels.

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