Message Filters, Or: Not Getting It

Roy Rapoport
Jun 19, 2018 · 4 min read

Once, a long time ago, I went on a date. I liked this person. We met for dinner at around 8pm; at 10:30pm they suggested we let the restaurant officially close so we walked together, chatting, for another two hours. The bugs were coming out by that point so we sat in my car talking until about 3:30am when we said our goodbyes and I mentioned hoping to see them again, and thought that from their perspective it was … an OK date. But maybe I’d get a second shot at making a good impression on the second date.

Some time later, they pointed out that only an idiot would think that someone who subjects themselves to a 7.5 hour date is doing so despite the date not going well.

This is true. I am an idiot. But I’m a somewhat selective idiot, in terms of my ability to process inbound signals. I tend to filter out positive signals, and significantly amplify negative ones. I’ve pretty much never been surprised by bad news at work, mostly because I keep expecting it. My boss could tell me today that I’m doing a great job, but if later this week they said “can we talk for a few moments?” I’m going to assume Something Bad[tm].

So Inbound Good (IG): Weak. Inbound Bad (IB): Very strong.

On the flip side, I used to not always be great at managing outbound messaging. I had to learn the hard way that sitting someone down with my resting unsmiling face and starting a conversation with “I’ve received some feedback from your customers” doesn’t work well if the rest of that sentence is “that you’re amazing and your support of Project X has been invaluable.” I’ve gotten somewhat better at this over time, I think — I think these days I’m pretty good at adequately conveying both Outbound Good (OG) and Outbound Bad (OB) messaging. I’ve certainly got the evidence that, for example, I convey bad news in a way people effectively hear.

So to recap, here’s where I stand on inbound/outbound message filtering (understating the message) or amplification (overstating the message):

Costs, Benefits

There are some benefits to my filters/amplifiers for inbound messaging. You probably won’t have to tell me I’m not doing something well more than once, and I’ll take it pretty seriously. I’ll quite often discover the ways in which I’m failing without feedback. I’m unlikely to get particularly cocky.

There are also costs to this. Putting aside the anxiety of living in a world where I tend to assume I’m one step away from some sort of failure (I’ve had decades of getting used to living with this), being under-sensitive to positive messages actually shifts some meaningful work to people who want to give such messages to me. It’s literally a form of being irresponsible for my ability to communicate with people.

But wait, there’s more

This gets interesting when we start thinking about how people with their own unique approach to messaging. If my job, for example, is to effectively communicate with everyone, imagine if I work with this person:

Chances are that if I’m delivering positive feedback, I’m going to have to hit them on the head pretty hard to make sure they hear it. At the same time, I need to be extra-sensitive about delivering negative feedback, because even “you’re doing great, here’s something you can do to get better” is likely to be interpreted as “I suck.”

It also means that if that person is delivering me feedback, I need to know that I’m likely going to be oversensitive to negative feedback from them, and struggle to hear the positive feedback.

Imagine I need to deliver some constructive feedback to Bob, however, whose filters/amplifiers look like this:

My neutral outbound-bad approach is less likely to be successful here, because Bob’s not going to notice that message. I need to consciously amp up the message and probably actually ask Bob what he heard in order to make sure the message came across.

So basically …

Being thoughtful about our own message sensitivities can help us be responsible for actually hearing the messages people around us are trying to give us. Being thoughtful about how we deliver messages to others in the context of their own filters and amplifiers can help us be successful communicating outward.

Roy Rapoport

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