On Being One… And Of The Illusion Of Communication

Illusion of communication

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business recently tested whether, in general, we are as good communicators as we tend to think we are. Their research, published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology[1], provided some startling results. In essence, most of us think we’re much better at communicating than we actually are. Even those of us who deem ourselves as “good” communicators are, in actuality, poor communicators. It turns out that we’re even worse communicators when it comes to communicating with people we know well!

The researchers paired people who knew each other well and again with people who didn’t know each other. Results showed that neither group understood each other any better. In fact, people who knew each other well tended to overestimate their ability to communicate. According to researcher Nicholas Epley, that’s because “Our problem in communicating with friends is that we have an illusion of insight [which] appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding.”

As I am fond of saying: “What I say is often not what you hear.” That’s because we all listen through our filters and we are busy listening so that we can reply with our own thoughts. This is exacerbated when we communicate, or attempt to, with people we know well make we make assumptions about what they understand, something we don’t do with people we don’t know. Of course, the tendency to overestimate how well we communicate leads us to overestimate how well we’re understood. This tendency is so well known among psychologist that they named it “Closeness-communication bias.”

closeness-communication bias

To communicate effectively, it is important not to assume what the person who’s listening  knows. Or, as study lead Kenneth Savitsky stated: “’What I know is different from what you know’ is essential for effective communication.” We fail to communicate effectively because we “get rushed and preoccupied, and [] stop taking the perspective of the other person.”

This tendency is also exacerbated by differences in gender. Men and women have evolved to communicate very differently (see, On Being One… And Of The Genetic Evolution Of Men-Women Communication, Part 1). Man evolved as a hunter-gatherer without much need for the spoken word. Hence, for example, men view silence as a reward. Women evolved as nest protectors, caring for the dwellings, the young ones and gathering berries, fruits, etc. Time was spent among the young, the elderly and other women. Verbal communication was very important and silence was a form of punishment. Yet, it takes a man an average of 9 minutes of silence from his partner to being to think there could be a problem. During that time, the woman has been seething “knowing” that the man is being punished and “couldn’t care less.”

So how are we to communicate so we are understood?

Well, beyond the usual “cliché” that you have two ears and one mouth so use them in the same proportion, and to listen like you want to hear, there are few things to keep in mind.

Listen without interruption. Ooooh, that’s a hard one as we want to put our 2 cents in. But when you’re listening in order to express your thoughts, you’re not listening at all. This can quickly become a frustrating exercise in communication as each person interrupts to other to express their own thoughts. After all, we all want to be heard.

Listen so others will talk. Communication is a two-way street. So, picking up on the same theme as above, we all want to be heard and that includes the person you are speaking with (not “to”). Give him/her the opportunity to express their thoughts, to speak their minds. Try not to have the last word in a conversation… or at least, not all the time.

Remember that listening involves more than hearing. Actually, most of our communication is non-verbal. Scientist believe that some 70-80% of our communication is actually done through body language; 10-20% through voice tonality; and the rest are the words. So, when you listen, pay attention to the other person’s, don’t just strive to hear the words.

Remember that what is not being said may also be important. This really requires intent listening skills for you are now paying attention to what is not being said. What is the message that is not being conveyed? But you can’t hear what is not being said, if you’re focusing on how you will respond.

Stop multi-tasking. The efficiency of multi-tasking is a myth. Experiment after experiment has proved time and again that, while women are more efficient at multi-tasking than men, neither gender is very good at it. Our brains simply don’t have the capacity to process that much information simultaneously. So, when you’re speaking with (not “to”) someone stop whatever else you’re doing and whatever other distractions could be interrupting you (e.g., close the door and sit next to the person so you can focus; don’t speak on the phone and type an email at the same time; etc.)

Connect emotionally. Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Effective communication requires emotional connection. That requires you to be vulnerable… a very difficult task for most men who don’t understand that vulnerability requires strength.

Remember that you can agree to disagree.  Intelligent people can disagree on how they view events, facts, etc. Intelligent people understand and accept the fact that everyone is entitled to their opinions and beliefs and can agree to disagree.

Remember that you can both be right. Because your reality is what you chose to believe, you can both be right in your opinion. This is a difficult concept to accept. But, once you do, communication and life become much, much easier.

Don’t assume you understood. We go through life making assumptions. For example, we assume that drivers will stop at a red light, or that other drivers are paying attention (i.e., not multi-tasking), etc. Sometimes when these assumptions prove to be erroneous, the results can be catastrophic. Communication is no different. Don’t assume you understood what was said. Ask a question if you’re not sure. Better, reframe what the other person said.

So, let me hear from you. How do you communicate effectively? Is it different, and if so how, when you’re speaking with your friends, significant other, co-workers, parents, in-laws, etc.? What great/terrible communication experiences can you share?


With love,





[1] The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangers, Savitsky, K., Boaz, K., Epley, N., Carter, T., Swanson, A. – Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 47, Issue 1, Jan. 2011, p. 269-273.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s