Communication. It’s something we all do, and generally do well. It’s like breathing. So why is it communication can break down so easily? What causes us to lose our inbuilt ability to engage with others? Well, strangely, it’s all to do with our sunglasses…

When talking about effective communication skills most of us know what we need to do to communicate effectively: start with the big picture, use active listening, demonstrate empathy, and ask the right questions – so why is it all too easy to miscommunicate?

Firstly, most of us are excellent communicators – when we have time, no stress, a great culture, or environment to be in, and are around people that we like and get on well with. If only it could be like that all the time. But it isn’t, and that’s actually a great thing – because if it were like that all the time, we’d have no diversity, no original thought or creativity and less opportunities to learn and develop.

To be excellent communicators then, we need to embrace the differences. If we can learn how to communicate well when we are under pressure, stressed and working with people who aren’t like us – then we can achieve really great things. So how do we do that? Well, strangely, it’s all to do with our sunglasses – otherwise known as our filters – and how we see the world around us. And it’s these filters that are often the main cause of miscommunication.

Think of your filters like a giant pair of sunglasses that literally colour your view of the world. We all have a unique pair. So where do these sunglasses – our filters – come from?

In Dolly Chugh’s TED Talk, ‘How to let go of being a “good” person — and become a better person’, she references the Nobel Prize winning research on Bounded Rationality and how every moment we have around 11 million bits of information coming in at us. Now we couldn’t possibly process all of that so our brain filters out huge swathes of it, via our sunglasses, leaving us with around 40 bits per moment instead. A paltry amount in comparison. Our sunglasses filter out what we don’t need or don’t like (Deletion), changes things to fit our view or to aid creativity (Distortion) and stops us from having to revisit everything we already know, did or saw in the moments before (Generalisation). With so much filtering going on one has to wonder how we manage to communicate effectively with each other at all. So how do our sunglasses know what to filter for in the first place? It’s all to do with our upbringing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the core filters that affects the way we communicate is our childhood. This is where we learn what to like or dislike, how to socialise with others, and what to be wary or fearful of. We then build on these initial filters throughout of lives. Our school years are of particular importance. For example, having worked with many people over the years who are nervous or scared of presenting – all too often this will come from a childhood event where they had to present – say a school play – they forgot their lines or made a mistake and then either felt embarrassed or had everyone laugh at them. This would be bad enough if it happened to us as an adult, but as a child this is often the first time we’ve experienced an event like this and our brain, wanting to help us avoid that discomfort again in the future, will build us a defence mechanism, a limiting belief like- “I hate presenting,” or “I’m not good enough,” so that we don’t put ourselves out there again and avoid that discomfort. These beliefs then become part of our filters, colouring our view of presenting.

Beyond our school years, we continue to build our model of the world – the way we see life through our sunglasses – with any impactful life and work events. But the most significant, and often deeply unconscious, filters that truly give us our unique perspective on the world, are the culture and society we grow up in and our personal values and beliefs. Together, all these filters create our unique view of people and things and directly impacts how we communicate with others.

When communication is easy with someone, it’s like you’re both wearing similar sunglasses. You understand each other, you may have shared values and beliefs, and you can easily see each other’s points of view. But sometimes we have to communicate with people who have very different sunglasses from us. They have a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, which can lead to conflict or clashes in personality, hindering good communication and win/win outcomes. It helps explain why you could literally have two people next to each other receiving a message and one of them really likes and buys into it and the other is resistant and against it. We all have a different pair of sunglasses.

So maybe the next time you’re communicating with somebody and it isn’t going as well as you would like, take a step back and imagine what it’s like to see the world through their sunglasses. Get curious: ask questions, really seek to understand their perspective, actively listen and see what you can learn. In doing so, we not only become more flexible communicators, but we also broaden our sometimes myopic view of the world and build and maintain long-lasting, fruitful relationships.

Jules MacMillan has been a Coach & Trainer in the field of People Development since 2003 and is Managing Director of Cascade Learning Ltd. For more information please visit


Dolly Chugh (2018), How to let go of being a “good” person — and become a better person, TED@BCG Toronto