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  • Dr. Teresa Edwards, LMFT

Understanding Cognitive Filters in Communication

We all have a good understanding of the role of an air filter or a coffee filter. But what are cognitive filters and how do they affect our communication? Similar to an air filter, or a coffee filter, a cognitive filter alters what passes through it so that the final product is different than the original. But, instead of air or coffee, what passes through a cognitive filter is information.

communication cognitive filters


Cognitive filters, a primary cause of misunderstandings, are anything that affect our interpretation of a situation and keep us from "hearing", or correctly understanding, the message that a person is trying to convey. These include things such as our emotional states, beliefs, expectations, past experiences, and personal communication style.

Here's an example of how filters may work... You've had a hard day at work and your feeling irritated. You're spouse says something meant to be neutral, such as, "We're out of bread." But you hear, "YOU ate all of the bread and didn't get more." In this scenario, there is at least one filter messing with interpretation. It's so much easier to negatively interpret a message from someone when you're in a bad mood or tired.


We all have filters and they continuously influence what we choose to say and what we hear. The best way to stop filters from wreaking havoc on communication is to acknowledge your own cognitive filters as you become aware of them and recognize how they may be affecting your communication in the moment.

You can do this by reflecting what you've heard back to the speaker. This can look like, "Are you upset that I ate the bread and didn't get more?" This gives the speaker a chance to clarify what they really meant. If you don't question the impact of filters on your communication, you are likely to react to a message that's not even being sent. This can cause a string of misunderstandings and reactions that likely won't end well.

Understanding and counteracting filters are good ways to improve communication and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings that could cause arguments.

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