What Howls in the Middle of the Night?: Our Perceptual Filters

Posted by on Apr 18, 2013 in Blog, Communication, Motivation | 1 comment

What Howls in the Middle of the Night?: Our Perceptual Filters

I remember a cool summer night in my hometown on the North Shore of Lake Superior. My brother and sister and our families were visiting my parents, and were sharing old memories until well past midnight when we heard a very strange noise. It was so strange, in fact, that we were all startled out of our easy conversation. I remember feeling alarmed, and then one-by-one we retired for the evening. After everyone turned in, I even locked the door–something we never did in our small, sleepy town.

Ships docking in Silver Bay

Was it a ship?

The next morning, while enjoying my mother’s pancakes, we recalled the mysterious sound. Each of us had a different explanation. To me the eerie noise sounded like teenagers who heard our voices and seized the opportunity to play a prank. The noise was very close to the window, and reminded me of what we used to do to mimic the sounds of a ghost at Halloween. But, who would do that to us in the middle of the night?

But to my mother, the midnight noise was a bird. And my brother heard the sound as a cat in heat. Finally, my father was quite certain the noise was a ship arriving in the Lake Superior harbor.

How could four adults with normal hearing sitting in the same room have such different interpretations? We all heard the same noise–or did we? Several factors affected our interpretation including proximity to the window, whether we were talking, our previous experiences, and also our expectations. Each of these served as a unique filter that fundamentally altered how our senses received the information and our interpretation. We did not all hear exactly the same sound. Ten years later, the story is a source of amusement for us–because it doesn’t matter whether we agree. But what happens when we are deeply invested in a dispute about what is true? Can we accept that a family member, friend, or partner might have a completely different view of reality?

Was it a cat?

Was it a cat?

It does not take much thinking to recognize the answer is often an emphatic, “No!” In some families the Thanksgiving dinner turns into a shouting match as liberal and conservative ideologies clash over, not just opinions, but also pure, hard facts about what is actually true. So then what do we do? How do we work things out when there is a fundamental disagreement about what is real and true?

The first step is to recognize that you are not right. Yes–I said it–you are not right. And neither are they. You are both wearing filters that impact your perception of reality. You really do see the world differently and that is why you disagree.
If your goal is to maintain a healthy relationship with your relational partner, the best approach is to investigate the gap in understanding with interest and curiosity. That’s pretty easy with an unknown sound in the middle of the night, but becomes progressively more difficult as the level of importance and connection with our values deepens.In situations where more is stake, our emotions may run wild as we work to thwart the threat.


Was it a bird?

With practice, we can get better at regulating our states of mind so that responding with interest and curiosity becomes a habit in all but the most challenging situations.

In my next blog, I will explore how we can learn to regulate our states of mind. Stay tuned for Part II of Howling in the Night!

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One Comment

  1. Delightful blog which artfully sneaks in some life lessons.

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