“Oh, I’m sure they know what I mean…it just goes without saying!”
How many times has that assumption led to disaster?
Maybe you ask a colleague for help on a project, and what you need is so obvious to you that you’re sure it’s crystal clear for them, too.
But a few days later, when the colleague comes back with a solution that’s completely out of left field, you realize: “Wow…we were having two totally different conversations!”
The world is riddled with misunderstandings and miscommunications, and most of them can be attributed to that sneaky little assumption: “I’m sure they know what I mean!”
We’re all guilty of this. We dramatically overestimate how well we communicate with others, and we expect them to magically read our inner thoughts and feelings.
“Your words and behaviors are always subject to interpretation,” explains Heidi Grant Halvorson in her recent Harvard Business Review article, A Second Chance to Make the Right Impression. “No one is truly an open book.”
But wait. We know that our co-workers, bosses, and spouses aren’t actually psychic…so why do we consistently treat them as if they were?
You can blame it on two little tricks the brain plays on us: cognitive biases known as the transparency illusion and signal amplification bias.
If you want to be an effective communicator, you’ve got to understand these biases, and then adjust for them. Otherwise, you risk leaving people scratching their heads and scrambling to decipher what you really meant to say!
Mental Bias #1: The Illusion of Transparency
Because of the illusion of transparency, we overestimate how well other people can pick up on our inner feelings and emotions.
We’re highly attuned to our own mental states, so our feelings are excruciatingly obvious to us…except that they’re usually imperceptible to others!
As Halvorson explains:
Your ‘I’m kind of hurt by what you just said’ face probably looks a lot like your “I’m not at all hurt by what you just said” face. And the majority of times that you’ve thought, ‘I made my intentions clear’ or ‘They know what I meant,’ you didn’t and they don’t.”
Mental Bias #2: Signal Amplification Bias
Signal amplification bias causes us to overestimate how well we’ve communicated our thoughts to others.
As Halvorson explains on her Psychology Today blog, “We routinely fail to realize how little we are actually communicating. In other words, we think we’ve said a lot more than we actually have.”
OK, but shouldn’t people who know you really, really well (like your spouse!) just be able to read between the lines?
Not necessarily so, says Halvorson: “Ironically, the risk of miscommunication is greater with your spouse than it is with a stranger. When it comes to friends, family members, and romantic partners, we assume our thoughts and behaviors are especially transparent, when they are far from it.”
“The next time you catch yourself thinking, ‘I didn’t expressly say that to him, but it should be obvious…’ stop. Nothing is ever obvious unless you make it obvious by spelling it out.”