Changing priorities requires re-tuning the set of questions our brain uses to decide what to bring to our conscious attention.
I’m betting there’s something important we’re feeling pretty similarly about right now: I want to be better at having hard conversations, at being an ally, at ensuring the communities I’m part of are safe and enjoyable, and at noticing when a habit or process I’m used to doesn’t actually align with my values.
One of the hardest parts of these changes is that they require me to be aware of things I haven’t always given much conscious attention to. Today I’m going to tell you how I’ve gone about changing that and how you can too.
Then we’re going to look at what might get in your way when you’re making these changes to your filters, and how to overcome those obstacles.
Welcome to Emotional Leadership, the podcast for high achieving leaders. Because healthier emotional lives means stronger leadership, thriving teams and much bigger results.
Good morning, lovely listeners. It is so fantastic to be here with you today. And a huge welcome to everyone who’s joining the Exceptional Leadership community from Coaching for Leaders after listening to the episode that Dave Stachowiak graciously invited me to join him for where we talk about the 7 Leadership Lies – the thought habits that most leaders pick up over time that cause us to stress out, overwork, and generally just not show up at our best at work. They’re such well meaning thoughts and yet, they really really don’t work for us. I’m going to give you a link to that episode in the resources for this one.
So if you’re one of my listeners and you don’t know Dave’s podcast, you can go listen to the two of us have a fantastic conversation. Dave’s also someone I really recommend if you enjoy books and learning more about them and especially if you don’t always have time to read all the Leadership books that you might want to. Dave has a weekly interview, generally with an author of a recent book. I find the ones that he chooses often really valuable and topical for me, and to look back over time and find when I have a challenge, maybe a topic that’s gonna really resonate with me in that moment. He also writes up some really fantastic PDFs of his notes from those books. I think you just need to drop him your email in order to get access to that through his portal. So I’ll put that in the resources. Definitely jump over and check me out on the Coaching for Leaders podcast. And welcome so much to everyone who’s joining us through that.
It has been so much fun to be connecting with you over email and LinkedIn over the last few days. To be sharing the Leadership Lies with you, and to be helping you learn to overcome them. I am really happy to have you here on the podcast with me. And as I said, I just wanted to wish you the warmest welcome.
A second really exciting piece of news for me – I am now officially a Master Coach. My last 10 months have been filled with me and my classmates doing intense work on ourselves and our brains, some of what you’ve heard about here. As well as massive improvements in our leadership and our businesses. And I am so proud to officially be able to represent the Life Coach School as a Master Coach.
One thing I’ve really been working on this year is taking the time to celebrate my wins and really enjoy them and to share them with the people that I care about most. And I’m really excited to share this big milestone with you today.
And now let’s dive into the heart of this episode. Today, I want to talk to you about something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few weeks.
I’ve been noticing at work all the little problems that I didn’t see, where someone else was clearly have a bad experience, and that I maybe wasn’t paying enough attention to. Or something just wasn’t in alignment with my values. I’ve been noticing some places where I just didn’t notice that something was a little bit wrong.
A member of a community that I’m part of who was talking about abusive or violent actions towards other people that I didn’t really notice that way. And as I’ve been talking about it with other folks in that community, other people brushed it over, too. And I’ve been asking myself, “Why?” When I look back, it’s so clear that there were moments in conversation, in writing, with this person that really should have been big red flags, and they weren’t. And I’ve been trying to dig into why didn’t my brain trigger on those.
I’ve also noticed that – we talk about microaggressions – but for me, I feel like I don’t see as many of them around me as I probably should. I think there’s some that I’m missing.
And of course, when we talk about racist policies and identifying them at work and identifying them in our communities, it’s really clear to me that there are things that I don’t think about that way yet. That there are policies and that there are statements that both our government officials make but also maybe people within companies I’ve worked for have made that I want to trigger my brain telling me “Something doesn’t sound right. This doesn’t match your values. This isn’t how you want to see this company running.” Or just, “This policy’s really well meaning, but I think it goes in the wrong direction altogether.” I want those things to pop into my brain more frequently.
Another example that’s come up for me a lot is thinking about where I spend my money. Do I make my decisions based on convenience? Do I look into who owns these businesses and how they operate them? What really do I think about when I decide where I spend money? All of these questions come down to the idea of filters. What information and what questions my brain presents to me in any given moment while I’m thinking about the world around me.
Filters are the questions our brain uses to decide what to bring to our attention and how to bring it to our attention, how to phrase it to us, what actions to suggest next.
So let’s start with why do we have these filters?
Well, there’s so much input in the world around us and our brains can only process a portion of it. And even less of that can become conscious. So these filters basically boil down to a set of rules for what’s important. And what I’ve been noticing is that my rules have some big gaps. And they have gaps both in what it is my brain brings to my attention but also in how it labels that information. For example, I think there’s some gaps for me between what triggers a, “Huh, that seems off” reaction that pops into my brain. But then I continue reading an email or I continue on to the next conversation that I’m having and it falls out of my mind. And what triggers a, “Whoa, you need to escalate and address this right away. This is a problem.” response. There are places I’ve noticed that I respond with, “Huh”, that really need a, “Whoa.” There are lots of microaggressions, for example, that I’m not tuned to notice at all.
But then there’s also things that somebody says that, they feel a little weird. But it’s so awkward to mention it in the moment, isn’t it? Well, that awkward is something I’ve really been working to retrain my brain to make it less afraid of the awkward. Frankly, to make it so it worries less than the awkward might kill me. And that’s really important to me because you know, what’s unlikely to kill me saying something to a coworker that lets them know that that sentence they just said, seems really biased. And it doesn’t feel like it has a place in our team and how we talk to each other.
But you know what happens if I don’t do that? I perpetuate systems that actually are killing other people. And for me, that’s a filter that’s really worth me spending the time to notice, to put in place, to overcome my awkward and my fear around, and even to ask that most important question:
What am I willing to say no to in order to say yes to this?
Because that is one of my very, very favorite questions that I picked up from Michael Bungay Stanier’s The Coaching Habit. If you haven’t read that book, the moment you finish this podcast and you finish the exercise I give you at the end because you downloaded the podcast guide, go grab his book. It is one of my very favorites. I think it is an essential for every leader whether you’re a manager or not.
But back to this question that I love: What are you willing to say no to in order to say yes to this? Because this is fundamentally the crux of why we have some filters well in place and others don’t exist in our brains at all. It’s because there’s only so much conscious thought that our brain can have. There’s only so many things we can bring into conscious attention that we can take the time to address. That can get a, “Woah, escalate and address this.” Throughout the day, there’s only so much time we have and there’s only so much our brain can process. And what’s been happening to date for me, and I assume for most of us, is that these filters have been almost entirely implicit. We don’t think about them as we’re building them. Now, we get these little flashes where we think about them intentionally. We get these flashes when we say, “Ugh, that senior engineer, they’re so much better than I am at this, they always ask the best questions.” And we try to memorize and ask the questions that they ask, right? We ask questions about performance. We ask questions about, well, “What’s your deploy strategy here? And how risky is this roll out?” Right? Those are moments where we were intentionally working to install a new filter in our brain.
But you know what, even in those moments we never did consciously, we never talked about what we were willing to say no to. And so some of the filters that we’d consciously chosen in the past, maybe that were important to us, they started to fall out of use. So we need to be thinking about not just what are the filters we want to have but what are we willing to not filter on and not notice in order to make room for these filters that we’ve decided are important? That our brain hasn’t been prioritizing up until now.
So what’s an example here? Well, what about pop culture references to Star Wars? If you had to choose between every time you go to spend money online, your brain saying, “Hey, let’s pause for a second, check out this brand. See if they’re a brand or company I want to be putting my money, my support into. Who owns it? How do they operate?” If I could choose between that filter and the filter that means that I feel part of the group because I recognize every single Star Wars reference that comes through and I know exactly the right call back to it. Well, logically, when I’m, you know, being the best version of me, I know I’d choose the first one. But which one is in my head? Not that one.
When I’m the best version of me and who I want to be, I am prioritizing thinking intentionally about where I spend my money and making the time to plan ahead for someone’s birthday so I’m not looking for free two day shipping. Or thinking about how I want to celebrate their birthday with them in a way that maybe something different than sending them a book, or sending them something that I purchased somewhere.
So when I think about convenience and the businesses that I support and how I spend my money, there’s all these considerations that come in, right? The simplest one is pausing in the moment and saying, “Hey, do I like this business? Let me check out who they are.”
Another might be planning ahead. Maybe that trigger is birthdays and noticing at least a week and a half out when an important birthday to someone who really matters to me is coming up. We’re not just choosing filters for which situations we want to think about. We’re also thinking a little bit about when and how, and what urgency tags, or what action tags, we want those filters to have. Why might my brain have chosen a pop culture reference filter over a be-a-good-person-in-the-world-and-the-person-you-want-to-be filter? Well, there’s lots of reasons. I think the main one is just that I haven’t been intentionally curating my filters. And my guess is, you haven’t been either. As I said, we do a little bit of it when we come up with a great new idea and we want to always apply it. Or when we see someone else and we want to be just like them. We hope our team members do this when we teach them new frameworks for thinking. In fact, when I talk about what a manager’s core job is, a lot of it is helping our team members and the people around us come up with really great models for how they’re thinking that is helping them refine their filters.
So one reason we might have chosen convenience over thoughtfulness for how we spend money, or to let someone talk about violent actions they thought about committing against somebody else and to let it slide and not say anything. Maybe that comes from not thinking about it, not programming in those filters. But where else might it be coming from, too? Well, one of the things that pops into my mind and we’ve talked about it a little bit a few minutes ago is, how much I want to take the action that this filter is going to prompt me to take. “Do I really want every shopping expedition for a simple piece of kitchen equipment that I need for an upcoming zoom cooking class to take 25 minutes while I go vet every store I might buy it from and every brand they might carry?” Well, yeah, that’s a little bit of work but I really do want to be supporting the businesses in the world that matter to me. And I really don’t want to be funneling money into businesses that I don’t believe in and don’t trust. And frankly, if I wouldn’t support them by putting my name in front of their brand and associating with them as a customer and I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that, do I really want to be giving them my money? No. But do I know enough about most of these businesses to make that decision? Also no.
So I might not want to set this filter up because I might not want to be in a situation where I notice and have to make a conscious decision about spending the time or spending the energy to do that research. Or what about the even more obvious version of this? If I notice it, when a coworker says something that’s not so good, that’s, that’s definitely borderline racist, probably a problem, should bring it to their attention. If I notice it, now, I have this battle in my head between the awkward and the saying something and you can bet that’s uncomfortable. And if you remember the motivational triad, what does our brain run on? It runs on avoid pain – that is not avoiding pain. It runs on seeking pleasure – that is not seeking pleasure. And it runs on expending minimum energy and doing something new or doing something hard – my brain does not categorize that as expending minimum energy.
So, switching out a, let’s call them popcorn filters, right? Switching out a pop culture filter. Switching out something cute and simple. Switching out the one that always makes me see dandelions or mint anytime I pass by those plants outside. (For some reason, I just always notice mint when I walk past it. I grew up with an herb garden. I love looking at mint, I think it’s just a very pretty plant, my brain brings it to my attention.) Switching out something like that which is pleasant or potentially even food seeking with some, you know, good things for our survival, makes the motivational triad very happy. Switching that out with something that’s going to put me in a situation that I imagined might be awkward, that I imagined might be new and different, that might take more work because it’s not part of my automatic habits yet. My brain’s not real happy about doing that. So if I’m not curating my filters and I’m leaving them up to my brain to decide, it’s going to choose the simple, easy one. But that’s not the life that I want to be creating and that’s not who I want to be in it.
So, we’ve looked at two reasons why our brain might be hesitant to choose some of these new filters. We’ve looked at just a lack of curation, not thinking about it intentionally. We’ve looked at our brain telling us that this new filter is bad because it’s harder than what we’ve been doing and there’s something wrong with that that might impact our survival. That might violate that motivational triad of: avoid pain, seek pleasure and expend minimum energy.
And there’s a third. A third is similar to the second but I think it’s important to call it out separately because so many of these examples that I’m giving really both fall into this category. And so many of the things that we’d think about being willing to replace, they threaten this category. So this is social belonging.
When you mention to somebody else that something they just said might have been racist, or expressing that level of violence towards somebody else that does not meet our community standards in this group. When you say something like that, you risk no longer being part of that group. And whether or not that’s a real risk, our brains find that concept so threatening that even just the tiniest hint of maybe not fully belonging is enough to really send our brains down a path of fear and try to steer us as far as they can from doing anything like that. So that’s the way in which your new filter might put you in a place where your brain worries that you may not belong anymore.
But what about the flip side of that? I think this, like, 3B is that our brain doesn’t want to give up filters that it thinks help us belong. So those popcorn pop culture filters that I keep kind of jokingly referring to, I think this is where that gets really important. When we’re talking about what are you willing to say no to, what filter are you willing to drop in order to make space for one that really matters to you? Well, your brain might not be so happy about dropping that filter because your friends might really like Star Wars, or Real Housewives, or Indie music, or who knows. And letting go of that filter, your brain might think that that would put you at potential social harm. That it might make you no longer a strong enough part of the group. That you might be pushed out or considered less valuable or less interesting. And our brain, still, no matter where we are in the world, no matter how food secure we are, no matter how financially secure we are, no matter how housing secure we are, our brain is pretty constantly worried about no longer belonging. And when we consider dropping some of these potentially frivolous sounding filters, well, a lot of those frivolous sounding filters help us feel like we belong. And so even if we know our friends will still love us, if we didn’t, for example, immediately notice every single reference to our 17th favorite television series, we still worry that it might be a problem and maybe a little too risky.
So I want to walk you through a quick exercise to help you think about one of your filters that you want to add.
Now notice that number I used. I said 1. I think it’s really valuable to try to notice these one or two at a time to put some time and energy into understanding what we really want that filter to be into thinking about it and installing it really effectively in place so it’s doing its job and we’re actually getting what we want out of it. And that means not going through and tearing up everything in our brain and judging it and seeing what’s frivolous and judging ourselves and beating up on ourselves. It means noticing the things that matter most and putting intentional work into helping our brain create really great patterns around those specific things.
So let’s give it a try.
I’m going to start with: What is the filter that you want to create?
Describe the trigger really specifically. For example, it might be I’m thinking about purchasing something. But we could probably make that more specific. What about, I’m opening a new tab on my web browser because I’m looking for somewhere to purchase something, right? And we might even want to set up separate ones for something like sewing supplies or clothes, or the sorts of things we go buying an item versus ordering dinner or choosing a restaurant.
Another example would be somebody brags about considering harming somebody else and holding back, maybe that’s a trigger. So for you, what’s the trigger for your filter? What will you notice inside your own brain or in the world around you that you want your brain to bring to your attention a lot more loudly when it happens?
If you don’t have an immediate example, think about this instead. What’s something recently where you said, “Oh, I really should have noticed that.” that’s embarrassing, or that’s disappointing, or you judge yourself, or beat up on yourself?
Alright, now that you have the trigger for your filter, what are some examples of how you want to respond to this situation?
What’s the thought you want to have when this filter triggers?
What is it that you want your brain to bring to your attention?
I suggest this include something about what you want to do next. So it might be, “Hey, that’s a big problem. It’s not okay with me when people speak about violence casually like that, that makes me worry that they might be acting that way. I should say something about it to them.”
So this is less about the kind of sentence that we talked about when we’re thinking about the thought when we’re working in the Self Coaching Model and a lot more about, what is it in one or more sentences, one or more thoughts, that we want our brain to label this filter with? When this filter is triggered, what do we want it to tell us is happening? So what’s the thought you want to have when your filter triggers?
Now this next question I think is especially important: Is this a trigger you know how to recognize?
It might be one you understand well and just haven’t been prioritizing. For example, I know how to Google a clothing brand and look for controversy surrounding them. I just haven’t made it a priority to check my brands well enough before I buy from them. But it also may be one that’s not been triggering up till now because you don’t really know how to recognize it. If this is the case, what action are you going to take in the next week in order to create those heuristics so that you know exactly what specifics to trigger this filter on? What action are you going to take in the next week to create those heuristics?
A quick recommendation: If the filter that you’re looking to understand better what those heuristics are and how you’d notice it is around racism or other topics related to race, I really want to recommend you read Ijeoma Uluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race. She describes so vividly examples of various anecdotes from her life and the people that she knows around exactly what so many of these topics that we talk about being microaggressions, that we talked about being also examples of overt racism. She describes them so clearly, it’s really helped me build a much better picture in my head of all of those little things I want to be keeping an ear out for so that I know I’m doing a good job of setting clear standards in the communities that I’m part of, and that I’m speaking up when I hear someone say something that I don’t consider acceptable.
Finally, what’s one current filter you’re willing to let go in order to have space for your new filter?
All right! I am so excited to have had this chance to share this idea of filters and how to create new ones with you to help you understand how to make sure that your brain notices and brings to your attention the things that you want to be seeing in the world around you and noticing promptly so that you can take the actions that help keep your community safe. And that help you build the kinds of organizations that you want to be part of. And that help you show up in the world around you the way you want to show up.
Make sure as always that you go right to the show notes. Click that link at the bottom and download this episode’s podcast guide. I’ve got the exercise we just went through all typed out for you and I’ve got all of the other things that I talked about written out so that you can look back at it at any time. Make sure you grab that.
Have an amazing week. Make sure you’re taking the time to curate your filters and I’ll see you next week!
If you loved this episode and want to dive deeper into improving your own emotional health so you can feel better and have bigger results at work, you have to join me for a one-on-one call. We’ll talk about where you are, where you want to be, and create a solid plan to get from here to there. Just visit go.exceptional.vision/call. See you there!