The Empathy Filter: Making the Conscious Choice to Take Another Perspective

Written by Michele Dial, LPC


Do you ever find yourself listening to a story from a friend or colleague, hearing their emotional experience of anger, frustration, indignation, excitement, hope, etc., and wondering how in the world they are arriving at the conclusions they’ve reached? Can you picture yourself thinking, “Wow, that was really cool of her” just as your friend is saying, “Can you believe how rude she was?” Or maybe you’re not the third party hearing this story from a friend – maybe you’re living it. There are times when we attempt to say or do something supportive, and it somehow gets translated as hurtful or unkind in some way. And we can find ourselves floored by the negative reaction we get instead of the validation and appreciation we anticipated. So what went wrong?


Unfortunately, objective reality is at best elusive in relationship and communication. That’s because everything we hear, see, and feel is filtered through our entire lifetime of experiences. Oftentimes, this concept is referred to as “jaded” when the reaction is negative, and “rose-colored glasses” if the assumption is positive. If we learned early in life that people can be unreliable and that we must be able to take care of ourselves, we may find it hard to believe that a friend or partner will be there for us in time of need. Therefore, we may resist relying on others for support. If we have experienced infidelity or other betrayals of trust, we may view people through a lens of suspicion and doubt, which makes vulnerability and connection difficult.


The “You-Don’t-Care-About-Me” Filter

AKA “You’re the bad guy.” This filter indicates a negative view of other, or the person with whom you’re communicating. You may believe this person is self-serving and insensitive to your feelings, or that they are trying to hurt you. In romantic relationships, you may start to believe that your partner doesn’t love you or want you anymore, and therefore you can’t rely on them. You start to wonder, “Will you be there for me?” When we lose our capacity to trust and have faith in a close relationship, our connection deteriorate.


What’s wrong with this picture?

When we start to see another person as the enemy that we must defend against, the walls go up and we are not able to connect and align. Instead, we broaden the gap between us inch by inch until we face a chasm so wide, we can barely see the other person, let alone share comfort and support. When our filter changes from friend to foe, we lose the ability to give someone we care about the benefit of the doubt.


The “Nothing-I-Do-Is-Good-Enough” Filter

AKA “I’m the bad guy.” This filter reflects a negative view of self. At times, a person’s feedback for us can feel like a criticism of our value as an individual. You may start to believe that you are not able to meet the needs and expectations of a partner, family member or friend. Internalizing another person’s negative emotions as a reflection on you, can lead to feelings of inadequacy or falling short, a slippery slope into shame and a sense of unworthiness.


What’s wrong with this picture?

If you’re value is based only on the opinions and feelings of others, it’s nearly impossible to gauge your worth because there are as many varied views as there are people in the world. Your value is intrinsic. It’s a part of your core character. When you base your view of yourself and your worth on your core character, you can start to filter out unhealthy feedback that doesn’t fit and understand that another person’s emotional experience is about their internal hurt, not about your value as a person.


But what if there doesn’t have to be a “bad guy?” Enter the Empathy Filter.


The “Empathy” Filter

AKA “There is no bad guy.” This filter allows us to view a situation from another person’s perspective. It doesn’t negate or devalue our own feelings and experience. Nor does it automatically equal agreeing with their position or beliefs. But the empathy filter does allow us to see the path they took to arrive at that belief. A wise person once told me that everything makes sense in context. If we allow ourselves to step into the context or background of another person’s reality, we will likely be better able to understand where they’re coming from, and what experiences are impacting their perceptions. This understanding can often lead to a softer view of another person, and the ability to respond more gently. It conveys the message that we are in this together and we have each other’s back, even when we disagree.


At the root of most of our interactions, we all want to feel heard and understood. In a literal sense, the root of any plant is below the surface, and what we see above ground is often quite different. The same can be true of humans. Using the Empathy Filter to truly hear and understand another person, to look beyond what we see on the surface, can draw them closer to us rather than pushing them away.


Maybe it’s time to change your filter.